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Sir Stuart Rose,
Chairman of Marks & Spencer plc

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I had the enormous pleasure this week of meeting Evan Davies and recording an episode of The Bottom Line for broadcast on BBC Radio Four. In addition to being great fun it was a thought provoking experience, which invited me to reconsider an age old problem – how to talk about queues in the context of customer experience?  


Queues and access to service are the number one areas of complaint fed back by customers about face to face space. And yet the adoption of a few simple rules can make these necessary waits more tolerable and even increase basket size when managed correctly.


It seems to me that the world is split into two unequal halves, those that want to admit that queues exist and those that shy away from talking about it.  On the one hand, we have those that recognise the mathematical certainty of queues and on the other, the “queue deny-ers” ; who, rather than engaging with the issue, pretend they don’t exist.


The relationship between customer experience and proficient queue management is beyond debate. We know that 86% of transactions end up in face to face space and that given that each and every customer arrival is a stochastic (independent) event, that some of us will arrive in a bunch and there will be gaps in between, making it really hard to predict arrival rates and almost impossible to staff accordingly.


In theory, appointment systems can help enormously to bridge the gap between service demand and capacity but the promise is rarely delivered in execution. Unknown variables get in the way of what looks like a scientific process and experience tells us that significant tolerance levels must be built into any system if the solution isn’t to rapidly acquire a reputation for over promising and under delivering. For example, around 20% of customers with pre-booked appointments either turn up in the wrong time slot or not at all.


Apple recently found that their on line booking system for Genius Bar delivered a constant stream of customers with pre-booked appointments into their stores only to find on arrival that they were obliged to join the back of a “first in- first out” single line queue and wait for a long unspecified length of time beyond their appointment. This led to frustration and a not inconsiderable amount of negative tweeting around the brand experience.


More pragmatically, Marks & Spencer train their in store staff to undertake a multiplicity of tasks; when the store is quiet they can engage with restocking displays and administration, when demand peaks they can move to the front line and engage with customers.


The digital world has made customers less tolerant of unplanned and unmanaged waits. It sets our expectations for service at an impossibly high level. There is no use in denying that queues are a reality. If retailers fully engage with the issue through detailed customer journey planning, from digital into face to face space then it’s possible to create solutions which are acceptable to the customer and affordable for the retailer.


On reading this, you will probably feel smug and think to yourself, yep, we do this but when was the last time you walked through your store and looked at your customers faces. Do you see contentment there, or delight? Or do you see frustration, boredom or even anger?


Try it please, it’s highly instructive.