Originally published by Causal Signal on Substack, April 17, 2024.

Designing queues that prioritize customer satisfaction and fairness for reducing abandonment

In our fast-paced modern world, waiting in queues has become an unavoidable part of daily life. Whether we find ourselves standing in line at the local grocery store, holding for a customer service representative, or awaiting our turn in a virtual queue, the experience of waiting can have a profound impact on our satisfaction and behavior.

Recent research has illuminated a captivating phenomenon known as "last place aversion," which sheds light on how our position in a queue, especially being in last place, can shape our experiences and actions.

Rest of the blog post contains the key findings of the paper "Last Place Aversion in Queues" by Ryan W. Buell and practical applications that can assist businesses in enhancing customer satisfaction and optimizing their queuing systems.

Virtual Waiting Rooms

Virtual waiting rooms have emerged as an increasingly popular solution for managing queues in online environments. These digital queuing systems replicate the experience of waiting in line, enabling customers to secure their position and receive updates on their progress without the need to physically stand in a queue.

Virtual waiting rooms are especially beneficial in situations where demand outstrips capacity, such as online ticket sales, product launches, or limited-time promotions.

Virtual waiting rooms ensure a fair and transparent queuing process, guaranteeing that customers are served in the order of their arrival. This first-come, first-served approach resonates with people's inherent sense of fairness, minimizing frustration and perceived inequity. Similarly virtual waiting rooms assist in managing customer expectations by providing real-time information about wait times and queue position.

Also virtual waiting rooms aids businesses in maintaining the stability and performance of their online platforms and be responsive to customers during high-traffic events, where a sudden surge in demand can result in website crashes and lost sales.

Key Takeaways

  1. Last place aversion significantly affects customer experiences and behaviors in queues. Customers in last place report lower satisfaction, perceive longer wait times, and are more likely to switch queues or renege altogether.
  2. The effect of last place aversion is discontinuous, meaning that the difference in experiences and behaviors between last place and second-to-last place is more pronounced than the difference between other adjacent positions.
  3. The impact of last place aversion on satisfaction is substantial. In one study, the decline in satisfaction from being in last place was equivalent to waiting an additional 70 seconds or behind two extra people.
  4. Last place aversion can lead to maladaptive behaviors, such as switching queues when it prolongs wait times or abandoning the queue when the benefits of waiting are most significant.
  5. The inability to make a downward social comparison when in last place contributes to the perception that waiting is less worthwhile, driving reneging behavior.
  6. Queue transparency is a key moderator of the effects of last place aversion. When customers can't see that they're in last place, the behavioral effects are nullified. When they can see they're not in last place, the tendency to renege is greatly diminished.
  7. Last place aversion has system-level consequences. Experimentally eliminating its effects reduced overall abandonment by 43.5% and increased throughput by 12.5% with equivalent arrival and service rates.
Last place aversion significantly affects customer experiences and behaviors in queues, leading to lower satisfaction and increased likelihood of switching or reneging. Experimentally eliminating last place aversion has been shown to reduce abandonment by 43.5% and increase throughput by 12.5%.

Practical Application Insights

  1. Service managers should prioritize the experiences of customers at the back of the queue, especially those in last place. This targeted approach can help improve satisfaction and reduce counterproductive behaviors. Just as a gardener pays extra attention to the plants at the edge of the garden, which are more vulnerable to environmental stressors, focusing on last place customers can yield significant benefits.
  2. Queue design should incorporate elements that obscure a customer's position when they are in last place and emphasize their position when they are not. For example, a call center could highlight the queue ahead of the customer when they are in last place and reveal the growing queue behind them when they are not.
  3. Early interventions targeting last place individuals may be most effective in improving experiences and preventing switching and reneging. Like a runner conserving energy in the early stages of a race, focusing on last place customers at the beginning of their wait can help maintain their patience throughout the queuing process.
  4. When increasing service speed is costly or difficult, allocating resources to enhance the experiences of last place customers can be a viable alternative for improving overall performance. This approach is analogous to how a chef might focus on presentation when the quality of ingredients is limited, making the most of the available resources.
  5. In congested queuing environments, managers should carefully consider the trade-offs of addressing last place aversion. While reducing abandonment may lead to longer queues, the benefits of increased throughput and customer satisfaction may justify the challenges.
  6. The psychological mechanisms underlying last place aversion provide valuable insights for designing effective interventions. By understanding these drivers, managers can develop targeted strategies to mitigate the negative effects of last place aversion.
The principles of last place aversion and the strategies for addressing it can be applied to many settings where people wait or are ranked, such as online queues, customer service chat lines, or even educational and healthcare settings.

Conclusion

In conclusion, the paper "Last Place Aversion in Queues" offers a wealth of insights into the psychological factors influencing customer experiences and behaviors in queues.

By thoroughly understanding the effects of last place aversion and implementing the practical recommendations outlined in the paper, service managers can improve customer satisfaction, reduce abandonment, and increase throughput.

The findings underscore the importance of considering human factors in virtual waiting rooms and provide a roadmap for optimizing queue performance through thoughtful design and management.

Learn how PhotonIQ Virtual Waiting Rooms offers intelligent and fair queues with real-time updates and personalized experiences. See a walkthrough demo that shows a variety of use cases, or chat with an expert.

The power to transform the waiting experience lies not in the length of the queue, but in the depth of our understanding of those who wait.


Photo by Clark Van Der Beken on Unsplash.