Cashier number three please - why queue systems can improve customer service

By: Terry Green

Date: 29 June 2011

Customer waiting time and queues are an arithmetic certainty of service delivery. In the real world, even when you have extra staff available just in case demand builds up, queues will occur. It’s normal for shoppers to arrive in bunches and not in a steady flow.

Well-planned and well-managed queues are a healthy thing. They indicate a vibrant business that is successfully controlling the cost of delivering service to its customers and at the same time managing shoppers’ perceptions of their wait.

Whether there are only two people waiting or 42, the right mathematical methodology has to be used to determine how to serve customers as efficiently as possible and how to allocate service fairly.

You can see the impact of a well-managed queue on the faces of the customers and servers. They are relaxed, unstressed. Waiting customers look around them and take an interest in merchandise. The store receives fewer complaints and suffers lower staff absenteeism. A business without queues is either overmanned or lacking customers – or worse, both.

Every store has a strategic decision to make. Is operating cost more important than customer service? Cutting costs can mean that customers wait longer.  On the other hand, if stores decide that service times are more important to their brand proposition than cost or if they know that because of the nature of their business customers will be less tolerant of waiting times, they will ensure that fewer customers have to wait, but they will also increase the cost of their operation and risk more times when staff are standing idle.

This dilemma can be resolved through lean queue management. By making wait times more acceptable, and by organising service allocation systems they can help to lower costs and reduce waste in the process.

Research by Professor Edward Anderson, “A Note on Managing Waiting Lines,” has shown that queue times are affected by many factors:

  • If all servers are constantly busy, the queue quickly exceeds acceptable levels.
  • The “lumpier” the arrival rate, the longer the queue. So in smaller stores with lighter traffic – where arrival rate is less predictable – the waits are likely to be longer.
  • The more the staff keep their service times consistent, the shorter the wait for customers.
  • There is a limit to the number of servers it makes sense to have in a store, as at some point the cost of an additional server will not be repaid by shorter wait times for customers.

The voice of “cashier number three please”, Terry Green is heard over 30 million times every month in post offices, shops and banks throughout the UK.  His voice and ideas have transformed the way the world queues.

Terry Green - You're NextCompetition results

We asked, what percentage of our lives do we spend waiting? The answer is 17 per cent. Congratulations to Tim Latham and Clare Evans (who got the answer spot on) who both win a copy of Terry Green's book.

What does the * mean?

If a link has a * this means it is an affiliate link. To find out more, see our FAQs.