It's time to make queuing a more positive experience


Recent summers have seen horrendous queues at UK ports and airports, as the beginning of school holidays has collided with heightened security at borders. Yet, whilst these delays made national headlines, the everyday reality of living and working in England (and especially London as I do), is that we're amongst the most crowded places in Europe. (Source: University of Sheffield) In the longer term, businesses need to respond to crowding by planning ways to increase capacity. But this can take years to deliver, especially when infrastructure like widening motorways or building railway tunnels is required. So, in the meantime, all firms should be exploring where and why crowds form within their customer experience and responding with creative changes that acknowledge and reduce the problem.

Where To Start?

Queue at London Eye
Queue at London Eye

Begin in the here and now by exploring and measuring ‘bottlenecks – those points in the customer journey where people get funneled into a small space for a specific task or time period. It’s here where queues form, sometimes orderly (especially in UK and USA) sometimes not (think the 1st ski lift of the day in France!).

There are then two processes to map and understand

  1. What functional procedures are forcing people to this point (a checkout till, a ticket barrier to cross)?
  2. What is the customer need (I need to try this clothing on, I have to check my coat and luggage)?

Once the insight of ‘what's going on’ is in place, there are typically three ways where the customer experience can be improved:

  • Add ‘value’ to the wait– I remember helping a Theatre client deal with the queues that form during the interval of a West End show. Lines for the toilet, lines for the bar, another queue for ice-creams. Then we found that 1 in 7 people at the bar just bought bottles of water. So, we created mobile water-sellers, who sold to those waiting in line to spend a penny. Suddenly queuing for the loo had a multi-tasking benefit! The bar queues got shorter too, everyone was less stressed, and drinks revenue went up 9%.
  • Upgrade the wait to an ‘event’ – most barber shops don’t offer appointments, you just turn up and hope. And the clientele is (almost) exclusively male. It would be easy for barbers to replace the dog-eared magazines with a rack of the latest Men’s glossy titles – cars, gadgets, sport. Always keep two copies of everything, and replace at the first sight of wear. Customers would soon look forward to the ‘luxury’ of a peaceful few minutes to read. Are they taking the kids too? Then add a small ice-cream cabinet to treat them at the end for good behaviour. By ‘bookend-ing’ the task at hand, the wait is absorbed into the overall experience, and frustration fades into the background (see a whole separate blog on bookend-ing here)
  • Disperse the bottleneck – self-service is a great way to reduce queues. The evidence of ATMs and airport self-check-in demonstrates how technology can help. Yet, our work in the transport sector showed us that up to 2 in 3 people still use the ticket window at many train stations as opposed to an adjacent ticket machine. What’s going wrong?
    • Lack of trust – unlike banks and airlines, the rail companies did not use enough staff to help customers use the machines early on. Even though the technology has improved since, the memory of early, bad experiences lives on.
    • Poor siting – my local rail station has installed two new machines outside the station. When it rains, you get wet using it. When it’s sunny, you can’t see the screen. Unsurprisingly, the machines are deserted at all times, even when long queues exist in the ticket hall. By turning the machines through 90° away from the sun, and adding some shelter, these problems would disappear.

It isn’t always possible to remove queues altogether. But a lot more can be done to understand their dynamics, and how they can be adapted, both to improve the customer experience and influence the costs/revenues that result from it.


Does your business have a queuing problem? Send us an outline of the issue, and we'll be in touch with ways to help.

Image credits: Ian Fitz (Dover queues) and toschi - (London Eye)