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Digital Queue Busting

We’ve all seen how effective queue busters are at reducing lines in supermarkets, but what role can modern-day, well designed digital customer experiences play in addressing the same challenges in our contact centres, improving efficiency and ending those lines for good!

At the risk of giving away my age, many years ago I used to work a part time job in a supermarket. Needless to say, given my apprehension to provide a date, it was in an age before online grocery shopping had even entered its infancy and everyone went about their weekly grocery shop physically within the store.

At around the same time, the queue busting system we’re all so familiar with these days, came into being. The supermarket I worked for, now defunct Safeway had ‘borrowed’ the concept from another UK business Abbey National, a part of Santander, and started rolling it out in its stores.

For those unfamiliar with the concept of queue busting, or at least those with an understandably lesser interest than I, the practice involves diverting available resources, usually people, from their ‘day job’ to become temporary customer service staff, often manning the checkouts or the cash register.

Typically the process starts with a call going out across a tannoy system. Within moments a horde of customer service staff descend on the unopened tills and cash registers, appearing as if by magic from whatever corner of the store they had previously been working, all with a single focus on reducing wait times and slashing the lines of customers who are themselves growing increasingly more impatient with each passing minute.

I had initially thought the concept of queue busting had its roots in American retail. I could imagine the concept having been imported across the pond, a brainchild of the Walmart stable, however in the process of researching this post I unearthed an article from heralding the launch of the queue busting initiative ,which as it so happens, may be a great British innovation after all.

To this day, I still love how this relatively simple solution has become so widely adopted and represents such an immediate and tangible response to addressing the operational needs of the business and improving the experience for the end customer.

Digital as queue buster


Reminiscing about my time working in the supermarket got me thinking about how the digital customer experiences we offer today can better support our customer services team in times of increased need. In effect, how could digital contribute and play the role of a modern-day queue-buster.

Hang on… I hear you say… Isn’t digital customer experience all about fluffy design, making things look nice and making the customer smile?… Yes, absolutely, well, occasionally in the case of fluffy design, however throughout my history of working in digital I’ve always found that creating excellent customer experiences and improving the efficiency of operating processes often work hand in glove.

In fact I’d probably go as far as to say that if the customer experiences your organisation designs and delivers do not have a positive impact on your operation, then you may have missed an opportunity and should perhaps reconsider your approach.

Of course, different to when I worked in the supermarket, today, customers have multiple choices and options for how they may interact with businesses. While this has empowered customers in a way never before possible, when it comes to queue generation, it also means unless we are careful in how we choose to manage all these channels, our queues may not be limited to only one channel.

Take one of my recent clients, Bristol Water, for example. As a water company they have a significant responsibility to their customer base, to provide fresh, clean drinking water and an uninterrupted supply. Of course, sometimes issues arise whereby this isn’t always possible, perhaps whereby essential maintenance needs to be undertaken or in an emergency scenarios, like a burst water main.

Like many companies, when things go south, Bristol Water found its contact centre was always on the front-line for those customers who need support, information and assistance. Inevitably, as volumes of traffic rose, peaks occurred and queues invariably formed, leaving Bristol Water struggling to cope.

However, by planning and architecting their customer experiences in advance, taking into account the customer journey and by using Service Design techniques, over time Bristol Water was able to vastly reduce the number of contacts requiring a direct human interaction, in favour of digitally automated contacts, thus reducing pressure on their contact centre and in so doing having the effect of dividing and conquering the queues before they overwhelmed the operational teams.

Let the queue busting commence.


It’s likely you’ll have encountered a situation like Bristol Water before. Chances are some of the issues faced by their contact centre will be issues you share. But what steps can you take to begin improving the situation. The answer to this question will of course differ enormously depending on the type of organisation you work in and how you are structured operationally, however there are broadly three routes available to you.

  1. Weather the storm
  2. Throw resource at it
  3. Re-architect your processes

1. Weather the storm


In many ways the weather the storm approach is the opposite of queue busting. It assumes the tidal wave is coming and there is little value in trying to stop it. The effort is instead directed on tackling the post-disaster clean up and putting things right after the event.

At first, it’s easy to dismiss this option, but for many smaller organisations this is the reality of their day-to-day customer service, you can’t easily scale and you’re firefighting so much that thinking about preparing in advance is the furthest thing from your mind.

This isn’t always the smaller organisations that struggle. The same is also often the case with rapidly growing teams, where the speed at which customers number are growing is vastly greater than the organisations ability to recruit and train customer service staff. Revolut learned this lesson the hard way.

So, while ‘Weather the storm’ may be an understandable and in some cases viable option, it is almost universally an expensive one. It will not only cost you in lost consumer confidence and trust in your brand but it will also cost you to repair the relationship over the long term.

That being said, if instances of queuing are expected to be limited in number, then bearing the costs of the fallout may still be more attractive than the next option.

2. Throw resource at it.


Let’s be honest, at one time or another we’ve all succumbed to the lure of either throwing more money or more resource at a problem in the hope it will simply go away.

For many larger organisations with either the people to spare or very deep pockets this is actually a highly attractive option and if used in the correct way can also be highly efficient.

If you think about how a modern contact centre is set up, you’ll probably have a core group of people manning the phones. The number will determine your capacity and historic trends will give you an indication of average contact volumes. If you have a well integrated business, you may even have advanced forecasting models that take into account activities that could cause a deviation to the norm, such as a marketing campaign or perhaps national press coverage.

However, even with the most advanced forecasting models, most organisations will occasionally be caught off guard and be forced to respond to spikes in demand.

Like the queue busters of old, if you are a people-rich organisation you may be able to divert staff from their day jobs to assist on the phones. Likewise, if you have the money, you may be able to pay for an outsourced team or ‘second site’ that boosts your capacity in the short term, allowing you to get though the queue lines faster.

However, both of these two options are flawed in that while they undoubtedly help with the objective of queue busting, the level of service provided to your customers at these times can often be significantly degraded when compared with your regular service standards.

This typically happens because ‘fall back’ teams,  regardless of whether they are internal or outsourced will rarely have received the same standard of training as your ‘regular’ customer service staff, or spent nearly as long dealing with customer queries in practice to be sure of delivering consistently positive outcomes.

Of course, when this happens, you’re really back to Option 1 again ‘Weather the storm’. The fallout will almost certainly be lessened, but there will still be a cost to pay in order to rebuild customer trust.

3. Re-architect your processes


Whereas Sun Tzu taught us that Every battle is won before it’s ever fought and the British Army preaches the value of 7 Ps (Proper Planning and Preparation Prevents Piss Poor Performance), we too must recognise that dealing with queues after they’ve already formed is unlikely to ever be the most efficient solution.

Far better to be on the front foot by removing the causes of the problem and preventing the situation from arising at all.

So, where should you start?

Earlier in my article I referenced how Bristol Water started to tackle these issues by first reviewing their customer journeys and then by expanding the resulting customer journey map to include how those journeys are supported by both the internal operation and the IT systems that underpin that operation.

This approach, which looks at the delivery of processes from end-to-end is called Service Design and its one I often advocate for organisations faced with similar challenges.

Whether you work for a small start up or a large multinational the principles of Service Design will firstly help you better understand how your customer experiences are delivered and secondly, assist you with architecting more sustainable and efficient end-to-end processes. If you’re new to Service Design its worth taking a look at my article, which explains the concepts of ‘front stage’ and ‘back stage’ and details how well designed services are highly symbiotic, working in complete harmony from what a customer sees, to how your teams work, through to the way your systems and technology functions.

One of the first steps toward designing your services is developing a really strong understanding of how you interact with customers and how your customers interact with you, across each of your channels and customer touchpoints. A customer experience map can be a really great way to visualise all of these interactions as well as a great tool to build understanding and stakeholder buy in within an organisation.

If you’ve never created a customer experience map before check out my experience mapping how to guide, that will give you a step by step walkthrough of how to create your experience map.

Then, when you’re ready to take your map to the next level I’d recommend the Service Design Blueprinting Guide from There are others available but this will help you understand the principles quickly.

What you’ll rapidly find is that often small tweaks and changes to how you design your customer experiences can result in major gains to your operational performance.

In the case of Bristol Water, they found that by introducing relatively inexpensive digital technologies, such as LiveChat and Knowledge Base, at key points in a customers journey, make a significant difference in their ability to cope in the event of increased contact volumes.

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