The Psychology of Waiting Lines

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  • Topic: Rooms, Queue management, Service system
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  • Published : November 2, 2008
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The Psychology of Waiting Lines
By David H. Maister
In one of a series of memorable advertisements for which it has become justly famous, Federal Express (the overnight package delivery service) noted that: "Waiting is frustrating, demoralizing, agonizing, aggravating, annoying, time consuming and incredibly expensive." (1) The truth of this assertion cannot be denied: there can be few consumers of services in a modern society who have not felt, at one time or another, each of the emotions identified by Federal Express' copywriters. What is more, each of us who can recall such experiences can also attest to the fact that the waiting-line experience in a service facility significantly affects our overall perceptions of the quality of service provided. Once we are being served, our transaction with the service organization may be efficient, courteous and complete: but the bitter taste of how long it took to get attention pollutes the overall judgments that we make about the quality of service The mathematical theory of waiting lines (or queues) has received a great deal of attention from academic researchers and their results and insights have been successfully applied in a variety of settings. (2) However, most of this work is concerned with the objective reality of various 'queue management' techniques: for example, what the effects are upon average waiting times of adding servers, altering 'queue discipline' (the order in which customers are served), speeding up serving times, and so on. What has been relatively neglected, however, is much substantive discussion of the experience of waiting. As Levitt reminds us, "Products are consumed, services are experienced." Accordingly, if managers are to concern themselves with how long their customers or clients wait in line for service (as, indeed, they should), then they must pay attention not only to the readily-measurable, objective, reality of waiting times, but also how those waits are experienced. It is a common experience that a two minute wait can feel like nothing at all, or can feel like 'forever'. We must learn to influence how the customer feels about a given length of waiting time. In this paper, I shall discuss the psychology of waiting lines, examining how waits are experienced and shall attempt to offer specific managerial advice to service organizations about how to improve this aspect of their service encounters. down in separate components, so that practicing managers can begin to think about the available tools they can use to influence the customer's waiting experience. Copyright 2005 David H. Maister Page 1 of 1 The Psychology of Waiting Lines

I also hope to identify testable propositions offering the opportunity for future research. The First and Second Laws of Service. Before we discuss the laws of waiting, it is necessary to consider two general propositions about service encounters and how these are experienced. The first of these is what I have come to call "The First Law of Science is simple, but powerful, and can be stated as a straightforward formula: S = P - E.

In this formulation, 'S' stands for satisfaction, 'P' for perception and 'E' for expectation. If you expect a certain level of service, and perceive the service reviewed to be higher, you are a satisfied client. If you perceive the same level as before, but expected higher, you are disappointed and, consequently, a dissatisfied client. The point, of course, is that both the perception and the expectation are psychological phenomena. They are not the reality. In a benevolent world, both the perception and the expectation will have some connection to reality, but they are not reality. Accordingly, all service managers must pay attention to three things: what was actually done to or for the client, what was perceived by the client, and what the client expected. Fortunately, all three can be managed. Sasser (et al) provide good examples of both managing the...
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