Queue Management and the Psychology of Waiting

Posted by

Mike Errecart


January 15, 2023

Innovative approaches to queue management should focus on 3 areas:

  1. Eliminating or reducing the wait
  2. Managing customer expectations
  3. Enhancing the waiting experience

This article focuses on #2 – managing the expectations of your customers when they're in line.

Even when your service operation is running as smoothly as possible, your customers will likely have moments when they're waiting.

As we discussed in our articles on Disney and Hostess Hacks, there's a lot you can do to help improve your customers' perceptions of the waits they're experiencing.

In this article, we'll dig even deeper into the psychology of waiting and the things you can do to improve how the wait feels, even if you can't change the wait.

Let's start with some observations about waiting, and discuss the kinds of actions managers can take to improve the queuing experience.

Unoccupied time feels longer than occupied time

When you're sitting in a line with nothing to do, waits feel interminable.

Action: Give people something to do

  • Provide entertainment - TVs, magazines, etc.
  • Give people forms to fill out
  • Let people have the flexibility to wait how and where they want (no pagers, use text message notifications)


  • Disney does this well with short films before some of their rides, which are really just an extension of the line itself.
  • Doctors' offices could probably give you your forms ahead of time to fill out, but by not doing this, they help occupy patients and take their mind off the wait.
  • You can use a digital waitlist like TablesReady (link) to allow people to shop nearby or get a drink at the bar.

Pre-process waits feel longer than in-process waits

There are so many examples of this! E.g., waiting in the the hospital waiting room feels longer than the wait between seeing the nurse and seeing the doctor when you're already in the exam room.

Action: Get people “in process” as soon as possible


  • Car dealerships can drive cars behind the building for service immediately, even if they can't start work on them. Customers feel better if their car is out of sight.
  • Greet people as soon as they walk in
  • Provide clear and accurate instructions on your process
  • Give people a self-check-in kiosk

Anxiety makes waits seem longer

I think we can all agree the bag drop or security queues at the airport always feel much longer when you're worried about making your flight.

Action: Soothe your customer's anxiety


  • Airlines can have representatives patrolling long queues, assuring travelers that they won't miss their flights.


Uncertain waits are longer than known, finite waits

This is all about expectations. If you know a wait is going to be 30 minutes, you can prepare for it mentally and don't get bothered unless it's more than 30 minutes. Conversely, if you don't know how long a wait will be, 30 minutes can feel like forever.

Action: Provide accurate (or slightly overestimated) wait times.


  • Post signs that show how long a wait is from certain points.
  • Use your queue management software or well-trained employees to quote wait times

Unexplained waits are longer than explained waits

I'm sure it's happened to you: everything is running along smoothly, then all of a sudden, the line isn't moving anymore.

Maybe it's unexplained traffic for no good reason at a time when there shouldn't be a traffic jam. Maybe your flight is delayed for seemingly no reason – after all, weather's fine and the inbound aircraft has arrived.

Action: Explain your waits! Over-communicate. Don't leave your customers in the dark.


  • If you've got everyone on a digital waitlist, send a one-off SMS to everyone.

Unfair waits are longer than equitable waits

I think this one drives me the craziest! We just visited a place where we had to pay for parking. There were 5 lines of ticket booths, and there was only a car or two at each, so we pulled up to the shortest line. But the car ahead of us could not figure out how to work the credit card machine. We sat and sat, and meanwhile the cars in all the other lanes were buzzing through their queues. (We were blocked in from behind so couldn't switch lines.) I hate that!

Action: Make your queues as fair as possible


  • Form one line instead of many.
  • Serve the line on a first-come, first-served basis
  • Use a "take a number" system so everyone can see it's first-come, first-served
  • Create an "express line" only if it can be formed in a way that everyone finds fair
  • Do not allow line jumping

The more valuable the service, the longer one is willing to wait

I'll wait 90 minutes for the new Disney Star Wars ride, but I will definitely not wait that long for It's A Small World.

Action: Have some self-awareness about your service and where it falls on customers' cost/benefit curve and take appropriate action.


Most of these observations probably feel obvious, but hopefully having them all together helps clarify what's most likely going through your customers' minds while they wait for your service and provides you with some inspiration for improvements you can make to improve your queue management.

In our next article in the series, we take a deep dive into providing estimated wait times for your customers, which can help with both managing their perception of their wait, as well as actually make your average wait times shorter!

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