How To Keep Customers Happy, Despite Long Lines And Call Queues

People don’t like waiting, but sometimes that’s inevitable. Here are 5 ways to turn those waits into a better experience.


Here’s one thing that’s not contracting in today’s economy:  queues.

People are waiting longer and more frequently for a variety of services.  Customer service call center hold times, for example, have gone through the roof.  Companies were hit with the perfect storm, as Covid-19 lockdowns funneled more inquiries to call centers, while also constraining the number of employees available to field them.

And although, pre-Covid, people were accustomed to waiting (at least a bit) for 800-line or chat service, they’re now being asked to queue for a whole host of activities.

Social distancing has led businesses to significantly reduce their in-store capacity, leading to long lines of customers who are just trying to get into the store.  People are queuing up for their take-out orders, as many restaurants remain closed for indoor dining.  They’re lining up outside of hairdressers, doctor’s offices and auto repair shops, as customer waiting areas are closed to minimize person-to-person contact.

It can all be quite maddening for customers.  And while it’s probably a bit much to strive for customer delight during the queue experience, there are many things businesses can do to make wait times more palatable and less loyalty-sapping:

1. Set expectations.

It’s a strange but true psychological fact:  Known waits feel shorter (and less unpleasant) than unknown waits.  Simply by establishing a (relatively accurate) wait time expectation, you can make customers feel better about the act of waiting.  For example, post dynamically updated call/chat wait times on your website, so people know what they’re getting into before reaching out for assistance.  Incorporate the same information into 800-line automated greetings.  Use physical signage to set wait time expectations for in-person lines (or just have an employee who’s managing entrance traffic periodically traverse the line, providing wait time estimates to those standing in it).

2. Provide alternatives.

Once people see the length of a line, if they’re not keen on waiting, try to provide alternative resources to satisfy their needs.  That could come in the form of a clear, intuitive eCommerce site (to avoid phone orders entirely, as well as failed website orders that require a channel switch to phone).  Online chat functionality can also be helpful, since it eases capacity constraints by allowing service agents to handle multiple inquiries concurrently.  Even something as simple as a comprehensive, clearly written and well-organized set of FAQ’s can help some customers avoid the lines and get answers to basic inquiries.

3. Offer virtual queuing.

If there’s one thing that can make a long wait more palatable, it’s being able to go about your day while waiting, instead of being glued to a phone, stuck at a computer, or planted in a physical line periodically shuffling forward like some queue-obsessed Zombie.  Virtual queuing technology provides a solution.  It saves people’s places in line and then calls them back, initiates a chat session, or texts them when they reach the front of the queue (be it to speak to a service representative, see the doctor, or enter the grocery store).  One important catch:  Try to structure the virtual queuing platform so it keeps the customer posted on how far they’ve progressed in the line (since that is one clear advantage of a physical queue).

4. Foster “one and done” interactions.

Perhaps the worst way to manage long queues is to make customers experience them twice (or more) in a single interaction.  Few things are more aggravating than waiting in a line for 45 minutes, only to then be told you have to call back or be transferred and wait in another queue.  Addressing a customer’s needs on their first call, their first chat or their first visit is always important – but even more so in current times, given that people are having to endure long waits just to get to that initial interaction.

Give staff the resources they need to fully assist the customers that come before them.  In contact centers, set up internal expert communication lines, so less experienced agents can quickly secure help from colleagues.  Use wireless headsets to provide a similar safety net for retail store employees, so help is just a button press away.  Organize employees into cross-functional service teams, so even if a single individual can’t deliver “one and done” certainty, a small group with complementary expertise could.  And, lastly, build time into employees’ schedules so they can take ownership for resolving difficult issues, even if it requires additional behind-the-scenes work and follow-up with the customer.

All of these techniques can help ensure that, if you’re subjecting your customers to long waits, at least they’ll only have to wait once.

5. Preempt customer inquiries.

Finally, don’t forget that the most effective way to make a customer’s wait more palatable is to obviate the need for the wait in the first place.  So, while the strategies outlined above are important for making the wait experience more bearable, don’t lose sight of opportunities to preempt customer inquiries by making improvements upstream.  More polished customer communications, better website product images/descriptions, more intuitive product assembly/activation procedures – these are all examples of upstream activities that, if properly orchestrated, can help avoid downstream inquiries and elongated queues.

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Queues are a bona fide part of any business’ customer experience.  As such, they deserve to managed as deliberately and intentionally as more obvious points of customer interaction (such as the products you sell, or the services you provide).

For many companies, it’s probably not a reasonable goal to completely eliminate all queues at all times (particularly in light of pandemic-induced changes in consumer behavior).  However, there are definitely tactics that every business can employ to help make queues a tolerable nuisance in the customer experience, rather than a defining characteristic.

Business leaders would be wise to capitalize on these queue management opportunities.  Otherwise, they might find themselves waiting a long time – for their customers to return.

[A version of this article originally appeared on]


Jon Picoult is the founder of customer experience advisory firm Watermark Consulting.  As a consultant and a speaker, he’s worked with the CEOs and executive teams of some of the world’s top brands.  Follow Jon on Twitter or Subscribe to his monthly eNewsletter.


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