People Waiting In Line

Reduce wait times at queue lines and keep customers happy during service delays

Long queue lines are a good problem to have: when your business is growing and attracting new customers, the checkout lines are bound to get busier during peak hours. So having queue lines isn’t the problem: it’s slow service times that prevent the queue line from moving efficiently. This can diminish the customer experience and lead to abandonment. Luckily, we've got some actionable tips to help you.

How Customers Perceive Waiting Time

The Journal of Consumer Behaviour published a study on Customer’s perceived value of waiting time for service events. According to the study, the total wait time in any service situation (like a bank or restaurant) can be divided in 3 cycles. In a quick service restaurant (QSR) or coffee shop the three cycles are:

Pre-process: Customer is in line waiting to make an order.

In-Process: Customer is at the counter, gives his order to the employee and pays.

Post-Process: Customer waits for their order to be ready

Surprisingly, the pre-process cycle has the greatest influence on how customers perceive waiting times and service quality. So a customer who has to wait 10 minutes in line before ordering will feel more dissatisfied than a customer who waits 10 minutes for their order to be prepared, even if the total service time for both customers was the same.

Research also shows that a customer’s perception of how long they waited has a much stronger influence on customer satisfaction scores (CSAT) than actual wait times.

The bad news is that people tend to overstate how long they waited since their perception is highly subjective and influenced by factors such as personality, expectations, being in a rush, etc. The good news is that, first, you can influence the way they experience waiting, and second, you can optimize your operations to reduce the frequency of slow service times and long queues.

Influence customers’ perception of waiting time during unexpected service delays

There are several practical things that managers can do to keep customers happy during unexpected service delays, such as being short on staff:

  1. Give customers clear and conservative information that will help them estimate their wait time: This reduces their level of anxiety caused by the uncertainty of the situation.
  2. Under promise, over deliver: The restaurant host can give customers a longer than expected waiting time, say 20 minutes. If customers end up waiting just 10 minutes, they will feel happier since they expected to wait twice as long.
  3. Fill “empty time”: By giving customers something to do while they wait, it can seem like time goes by faster. This is what magazines in waiting rooms are for, but the best option today is to provide free Wi-Fi access to patrons.
  4. Do not give the impression of making the same mistake twice: Apologizing to a customer a second time about additional delays will only make them more upset than if you admit to service delays just once.

Reduce waiting time at queue lines

You can optimize your operations by using data already at your disposal: your surveillance video and transactional data. Here’s how.

Step 1: Know your service level target

Call centres often use an “80/20” service level target, meaning that 80% of calls should be answered in 20 seconds. Service Level Target is: Percentage of X (customers, calls, orders, etc.) should be served/answered/completed within a predefined time threshold.

When determining what your service level target should be, you want to find the right balance between your desire to deliver quality service versus the cost you’re willing to bear to achieve it. For instance, a call centre that adopts the 80/20 rule has determined that it isn’t profitable to hire additional staff in order to answer 100% of calls in 20 seconds. In most cases, it isn’t profitable to operate at full capacity all the time so it’s acceptable to have some service events outside of your target.

TIP: For quick service/fast casual industry benchmarks, a great reference is QSR Magazine’s Drive-Thru Performance Study. It compares performance in several categories, including Speed of Service, Accuracy, Pre-Sell Time, and Customer Service.

Step 2: Performance metrics and Queue Management

Now that you have your service level target, you can begin tracking actual service times using your point-of-sale data and surveillance video.

Below are performance metrics from Solink’s demo system showing Average Order Time, Average Drive-Thru Order Time, and Average Time Between Orders.

Average Order Time
Average Drive Thru Order Time
Average Time Between Orders

Whichever queue management system you decide to use, be sure that it integrates surveillance video since this is the best way to investigate what caused delays in service speeds or why a customer abandoned the checkout line. As an example, on the Solink system we’re able to search for transactions that have an Order Entry Time above our comfort zone to review the video footage of those events:

Queue Management Order Entry Time

Another way to see when queue lines were long is to use motion detection. In the Solink system, you can define regions of interest on the video feed where you want to track motion. Setting up this feature will show you when motion was detected in your region of interest on the video timeline (displayed in orange).

Queue Management Motion2

Step 3: Make changes and compare progress over time

Once you have the data, you can look at your store's performance over a period of time and find any trends or outliers. Investigating these situations will uncover operational bottlenecks or other issues that cause slow service times.

Below is the Average Order Time over a 3 month period. Right away you can see 3 days when service times were abnormally high. You should investigate the transactions with highest order times on these 3 days.

Average Order Time Graph

Here are three ways to reduce waiting times using the data you’ve collected:

Optimize staffing levels: Trends in your sales history and service speed will help you to predict how busy you will be certain days or shifts of the week.

Identify staff training needs: you can achieve better throughput by providing staff training in the areas that are needed most. Identify the employees or stores that have slower service times compared to the rest and investigate the transactions with slowest order time or longest time between order. By watching video, you can notice things like an employee that needs additional training on using the cash register.

Find inefficiencies or bottlenecks: By removing an inefficient step or a bottleneck in the operational process, you can shave seconds, or even minutes, from the average order time. By chance, one of our customers discovered that it took employees a few minutes to restock the milk (a staple for this quick service franchise). The inventory was stored in the back of the restaurant so the manager moved the milk stock closer to the front counter. As a result, employees were able to restock faster and get back to serving customers. You don't have to leave these discoveries to chance if you have the right analytical tools.


Businesses are already collecting data that can help them improve operations and service times. It's just a matter of using the right analytical tools to find the right information, making smart changes, and tracking the success of your hard work.

Learn more about Solink + smart business.

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