The Psychology of Queues: How Customers Perceive Being on Hold

Queues are a fact of life in contact centers. After all, handling every contact at once is about as practical as it would be for a grocery store to check out every customer immediately. But an important difference between a contact center and the lines at a car wash, grocery store, or sports arena is that customers usually can't see how long the queue is and the progress they are making. How do customers perceive and react to different kinds of queues?

First, just a note on terms. Queue comes from the word cue, a term from Old French that means line of waiting people. The term is common in everyday British English (less so in North America, where line is typical) and appears frequently in contact center terminology. (Frustrated customers still tend to say "I'm on hold" rather than the more-precise "I'm in queue."

The figure below represents customer perceptions of queues. The top row of faces in the figure reflects a queue that customers can see. The first face represents how people feel as they enter the queue. As they move forward, the subsequent faces illustrate their progress. The final face reflects the fact that they made it mdash;they are at the front of the line, hearing the sweet words, "How may I help you?"

The second row of faces represents a setting where customers are unaware of the length of the queue they are entering. Ignorance is bliss, and expectations are initially high. But after some waiting, often 15 or 20 seconds, they begin to doubt that they are going to get right through (second face). The third face illustrates the transition from doubt to mild frustration. By now, they have heard the first and maybe second delay announcement and they know they are in a queue. The fourth face represents customers who, from their perspective, have waited too long. Often, the first thing they do when they reach an agent is tell her about the miserable experience they just had. That's a bad situation because it lengthens handling time, which will back up the queue even more and cause even more customers to complain to agents—a down- ward spiral.

And there's another phenomenon that kicks in here. Customers who have waited a long time in queue tend to dig in their heels as they attempt to squeeze all the value out of the interaction that they can: "Um, I'd better go over a few other things while I have you."

Visible Queue

There's a fascinating history of organizations that pioneered ways to make wait times known to customers. Software company WordPerfect (which later became part of Corel) created the first visible queue (or more literally, audible queue) in the mid-1980s. It set up its system to enable live queue jockeys to make announcements of expected hold times to callers. They could also play music and deliver announcements to keep callers entertained and informed while they waited:

"Thank you for calling WordPerfect. If you're calling for assistance with Version 2, there are nine of you in queue, and if you just joined us, it looks like the wait is just over three minutes. If you are calling for Version 3, there are 18 callers in queue. But we've got a few more support reps there this morning, and it looks like your wait will be about two minutes. Now, here's Kenny G from his latest album ..."

WordPerfect discovered that customers who abandon a visible queue do so at the beginning. Those who decide to wait generally do so until they reach an agent.

Many contact center managers keep a diligent eye on how many customers abandon (give up on a call, chat, or other type of contact). But when customers abandon is also an important consideration. If they are abandoning early because they are making an informed choice, that's much different than waiting for what seems like a long time in an invisible queue before abandoning in frustration.

What the queue jockey never said, but what was implicit in the message, was something like:

"Thanks for calling. If you're going to abandon, would you kindly do so now, before you get frustrated, drive up our costs and clog up the queue only to abandon anyway?"

Contact center routing systems that could tell time began to appear in the early 1990s. Today's technologies can analyze real-time variables, make predictions, and announce expected wait times to customers as they arrive. They can give customers the option to hang up and receive a callback when an agent becomes available, without losing their place in queue.

Estimated wait times are a great feature, but there's a catch. These systems provide fairly accurate predictions in reasonably straightforward environments, especially for large agent groups. However, if you are using priority or skills-based routing, the system can outsmart itself. Some customers have found themselves actually moving backward in queue as priority calls arrive and are moved to the front of the queue. This is a challenge that system designers have yet to fully conquer.

Given the choice, customers want to know what's happening, and they want alternatives (e.g., to continue to wait or receive a callback without losing their place in queue). Even more, of course, they want short or no waits. And if there is much of a queue, customers increasingly expect contact centers to announce or display wait times.

Brad Cleveland is a customer experience consultant specializing in contact centers, support desks, and other customer-facing environments. He consults and speaks to a broad range of organizations and associations, and is author/editor of nine books including Contact Center Management on Fast Forward, recipient of an best-selling award ( Cleveland was founding partner of the International Customer Management Institute (ICMI), where he now serves as a senior advisor. His current research is focused on the future of customer experience; his blog can be followed at