Your patrons have expectations when they enter your location. They expect quality products and services, but they also expect that their time at your site will be spent efficiently. They expect fairness. And they hope that you are prepared to deal with them and have the necessary background information to serve them quickly.
Introduction to Customer Flow Management
Customer Flow Management (CFM) is a process which takes into account the entire customer experience, from the time they arrive at your site to the completion of their “transaction” to post-service analysis. Any business which has face-to-face dealings with customers – including retail stores, restaurants, banks and financial service providers, social or government service offices, hospitals and other medical facilities – can increase their level of customer service satisfaction and boost their bottom line by implementing basic CFM practices.
Comprehensive Customer Flow Management plans have proven to be successful. They can increase sales (both in terms of immediate impulse buys and future customer loyalty) by producing happier customers. It will increase your staff productivity (thus decreasing your costs) by efficiently matching staff members to customers. And it gives you management data about your customers and your processes, which can lead to ongoing competitive advantages.
Line Management Psychology Background
Queuing psychology – the study of improving the experience of people waiting in lines – has been researched for over three decades. The landmark paper “The Psychology of Queuing and Social Justice,” by Dr. Richard Larson, was published in 1977. Larson, now the director of the Center for Engineering Systems Fundamentals of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, has concluded that eliminating “empty time” in a line makes waits seem shorter, and that fair play (the concept of “first come, first served”) is the basis for most successful lines.
As a result of queue psychology research, most banks, airlines, and fast food restaurants have changed their line philosophy since the late 1970s. Many had previously featured multiple lines in front of each employee (cashier, agent, teller, etc.), an arrangement in which patrons often ended up making the frustrating choice of a slow line. The “first come, first serve” serpentine line is now commonly accepted as the system which is more customer-friendly.
The Disney theme parks are viewed as a textbook example of effective line management, and the company employs 75 industrial engineers who work on queue management issues for its worldwide parks. Interactive screens entertain patrons in many lines, and signs inform those in line about the estimated length of their wait.
The first step to implementing Customer Flow Management is to assess your current situation. Gather data on:
- the number of customers at your site per hour or per day
- your peak customer times
- the average customer wait time
- the average amount of time it takes to service a customer
- all feedback (both positive and negative) from customers
- any identifiable patterns regarding your staff’s productivity.
Visualize the improvements you want to make and establish your key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure how CFM can align with your targeted goals. Is your top priority to increase sales? To increase customer satisfaction levels? To maximize staff efficiency? Identifying KPIs can help you prioritize which Customer Flow Management techniques you will initially use.
A thorough analysis of your current situation may lead you to conclude that one or more of the following actions will improve your customer flow management:
- You may need to redesign your physical space and move fixtures so that a line management system works logistically given your customer numbers and available space
- You’ll probably need to acquire line management products (or enhance your current supply). The nature of these products will depend on whether you plan to roll out a linear queuing system or a virtual queuing system (both explained below)
- A linear queuing system will employ line management products, such as a portable post and retractable belt system, or a traditional post and rope system. Other related products include signage, merchandising fixtures (to enable customers to make point of purchase sales while they are in line) and possibly audio or video alert systems (to inform patrons of when the next available staff member is ready to serve).
- A virtual queuing system will likely require components such as kiosks, video display units, and accompanying software.
- Set up a system to analyze the data after the roll out of your Customer Flow Management process. Compare the results to your previous process. Build in time and materials for staff training to respond to the plusses and minuses of what your data tells you.
Different Queuing Systems
How do you know whether your location will benefit most from a liner queuing system or a virtual queuing system? Different environments require different queuing systems.
Linear queuing is most frequently used in retail applications. The most common type of linear waiting line is one in which there is a single line and a single cashier or service counter. This is usually the situation in small stores or fast food restaurants. Usually, only minimal line management products are needed in these settings – perhaps a few stanchions (with accompanying retractable belts or ropes) to visually denote the line space.
For busier locations, a more elaborate queuing system is the “Multiple Queue – Multiple Service Points” arrangement. This “first come, first serve” set up is frequently seen at airports and banks. Customers line up in the order in which they arrive, and they are called to the service desk by the next available agent.
Linear queuing is perceived as fair, and wait time is minimized, as one patron is ready to be served as soon as another is finished.
[Note that the linear queuing option which has the most potential negative ramifications is the Multiple Queue – Multiple Service Points” option, which, with the exception of supermarkets and some fast food restaurants, is not favored by most locations. The danger in this case is that customers are forced to choose a line and through no fault of their own, may be stuck in a slow moving line, which they will perceive as a very frustrating experience.]
With virtual queuing, there is no physical line of customers. Instead, customers either check in, or are otherwise identified upon arrival. They then generally receive a ticket and will be called to meet with a service provider at an appropriate time. But they are free to move about a waiting room and do not have to stand and remain focused on how a “line” in front of them is moving. They can fill out forms, read, or carry out personal conversations on their phone. Or, you can direct video or audio messages to them designed to capture their attention while they are waiting.
Virtual queuing is most ideal for hospitals and the offices of other health care providers, as well as financial service providers. If your company wants to identify customers before they reach a staff member (thus enabling prep time), virtual queuing is the solution for you.
Phases of CFM
As mentioned earlier, the Customer Flow Management process encompasses the entire customer experience, not just the time they spend waiting in line. Let’s look at the other phases in which CFM can increase your efficiency.
In some applications, a CFM process can lead you to set up appointments prior to the customer’s arrival on site, which will decrease the customer’s waiting time. Advance customer knowledge will also enable you to provide more appropriate, personalized service, resulting in a more satisfied customer.
Customer Arrives On Site
There are a number of options which can lead you to achieve either faster, or more customer-focused, flow management at this point. When possible, different lines can be designated for different customers. You might be able to match up the most appropriate staff member with a customer based on what you learn about that customer. You could have a special line or waiting area for VIP customers. This phase also becomes your first tracking point – here is where your measurement of the customer’s experience begins.
After the customer’s wait in line is over, and they proceed to the next available staff member, this is another point at which critical data should be gathered. How long did their transaction take? Did they take advantage of point-of-purchase opportunities? CFM can also give management the opportunity for a macro view of all service points to determine open counters, agent efficiency, and other important data.
At this point, customers can provide feedback via surveys. Many customers appreciate the fact that their opinions are being heard, and this information can give you great insight into customers’ perception of your business. This is also the time for data crunching to make future improvements in areas where they are needed.
Customer Flow Management enables you to focus on your customers, and in doing so, provides you with great insight which can help you grow your business. Its tangible immediate effect is the implementation of processes which make your customer lines move faster and provide a positive customer experience. Your expenses can go down, your staff efficiency can increase, and you can generate additional revenue. An important part of the CFM process is the addition (or upgrading) of line management systems at your site. These can range from traditional line management components to sophisticated software and touch-screen set ups. Numerous businesses from banks to theatres to airports to medical facilities have already achieved their quality improvement goals by adopting Customer Flow Management processes.