When queues can be a positive competitive advantage

I have just returned from a week’s holiday (vacation) in New York. No, I’m not going to share with you my holiday snaps, but rather some very interesting insights into customer service. Travelling to and staying in New York was a revelation in terms of customer service and how it can really work. Now when we go on holiday we can often return with glowing reports of superficial benefits which perhaps just look better because we’re in a relaxed frame of mind, but on this trip there really were some positive learning points.

I don’t want to concentrate on every aspect of my trip, but rather on one which we typically “accept” but negatively remember long after the event. That is queues.

What I saw during my trip was how queues can actually be turned into a form of competitive advantage.

The classic queue

My first experience was pre-departure of my flight to New York. We travelled with Aer Lingus via Dublin. At Dublin airport you actually go through US immigration. Yes, it’s just like the United States with American officials and American uniforms.

Courtesy of www.breakingnews.ie
Courtesy of www.breakingnews.ie

The queue took about 5 minutes, the process another 5. On arrival at New York we didn’t see any immigration officials at all. We simply got off the plane, picked up our baggage and were at our hotel an hour later. Yet we frequently hear about the length of queues at US airport immigration. Our experience gave us a very warm feeling towards Aer Lingus even before boarding  knowing that arrival in the US would be hassle free. No queuing. Competitive advantage.

The iconic site queue

Once in New York we saw many of the classic sites. We’ve done the same in many European cities  such as Paris, Rome, Venice and London. Sites good, queues an ordeal.

Let’s take a couple of classic New York sites.

First Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island which have to be reached by boat. At first glance we wondered how we were going to get on any of the ferries – there was a huge volume of people, yet we never queued more than about 15 minutes and could see progress all the time. How were the queues managed? Friendly staff actively moved visitors quickly and efficiently. Ferries arrived every 15 minutes. Despite the volume of people, movement was constant.

Second, the Empire State Building. Again, transport is required – in this case, two lifts (elevators). Again, it was summer, there were a lot of tourists and the queues should have been long. But the queuing system worked extremely well, visitors encouraged to move quickly by an army of polite queue managers. Again movement was constant.

The Broadway queue

Last but by no means least, Broadway! We went to a sell – out performance of Les Miserables and even here queuing was a “pleasure”. Massive interval restroom queues were managed by queue assistants (never seen this before) and everyone made it back well before the second half.  After the performance many of the stars came out to sign autographs, posed for photos. Every member of the audience who stayed on got their photo/autograph – no crush, no disappointment, just some officials in the background ensuring the process worked smoothly.

So what did I learn? Firstly, queues can be a deal breaker. I remember turning away from both the Vatican and the Doges Palace. It just wasn’t worth the long wait.  You can find out how to beat the queues here . But surely this is not the point (of good customer service).

New York attractions have big footfall but also effective queue systems. They recognise bottlenecks and work around them. And there was something else. People in the queues seemed to understand that everything would move more quickly if they were co-operative.

There was no pushing, shoving or annoyance when an official asked people to move more quickly. Educating customers can be a positive benefit for all and people queuing can contribute to the experience.

So what does this all mean for customer service and what can we learn?

  • Think about bottlenecks in your service provision and how solving these can result not only in a more pleasant experience, but one that is so surprising that customers positively enjoy the experience and tell everyone they can.
  • Think about how simple processes can turn difficult situations into easy ones.
  • Ensure that staff roles include easing the bottlenecks – multi tasking can make the process easier for everyone.
  • You can educate customers so that they “perform” more effectively. So in the queuing system, customers knew their place and their role and the outcome.
  • Find the competition’s weak spots in terms of bottlenecks/service delivery and innovate in a way that turns their weak spots (the norm) into your positive delivery (real competitive advantage).

I’d be interested to learn how you have turned bottlenecks into positive experiences.

Market Echoes runs in company strategic marketing workshops which can help you to highlight your service bottlenecks and what you can do about them.


  1. Andrew Severn - 07/07/2014 , 11:03 AM

    Knowing my place and my outcome in the queue is indeed important; no one likes to feel that others may be pushing in front. Perhaps if we all took a positive customer experience approach to both queuing and to managing our queues we’d all do business in a more patient, win-win market place.

    • Julian Rawel - 07/07/2014 , 11:03 AM

      Thanks for your comment – co production can be very beneficial for everyone – customers just need to understand their role in this.

  2. Tim Collins - 07/07/2014 , 11:03 AM

    Queues can certainly build anticipation and I’ve queued for hours and hours to see Springsteen & the E Street Band in many countries over recent years.

    The queues are managed by the fans and it is a great chance to engage with and share stories with people in the queues. Make queuing fun!

    • Julian Rawel - 07/07/2014 , 11:03 AM

      Hi Tim
      Interesting insight. We recently queued for 2 hours to see the Tour de France – all over in seconds! But it was great fun because the queue or wait was really just part of the experience- but that’s the exception.

  3. Nickie Hawton - 07/07/2014 , 11:03 AM

    Very thought-provoking! I’ve occasionally experienced ‘queue-busting’ messages when ringing contact centres in the UK – telling you to make sure that you have the appropriate documentation / information to hand, thus speeding up the process of handling your query (and getting to the next person). Airport security and passport control are obvious candidates for this kind of approach – some are already doing it well, others appallingly badly. The London Olympics – at the O2, for example – did a fantastic job of getting thousands of people through multiple security chacks with the minimum of fuss or delay, making the experience so much more positive for those attending, but without compromising on safety. I’m sure there are lots more places where this kind of approach could really make a difference.

    • Julian Rawel - 07/07/2014 , 11:03 AM

      Thanks for your comment. Interestingly you’ll remember the O2 for a long time and judge other providers favourably or unfavourably against them!

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