Mobile queuing app promises to take the pain out of waiting in line

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Your business makes a number of impressions on customers, but few business owners give much thought to how happy those customers are while they're waiting in line.

Generally, that level of happiness is incredibly low. Americans collectively spend a total of 37 billion hours each year waiting in line. Waiting in line is punctuated by boredom, anger, and sometimes even violence. Great amounts of science have been poured into how to make waiting in line less miserable. (See the first link for a few tips, like Disney's use of winding lines to conceal their actual length and habitually overestimating wait times so guests are happily surprised when they get to the front of the queue faster than expected.)

Such trickery may help ease some of our suffering, but most businesses don't have the luxury of wrapping a line around an interactive Winnie the Pooh exhibit to amuse customers while they wait. Instead, they regretfully funnel customers into a world of misery, where they're surprisingly likely to abandon their purchase and walk out if the line is long. If they do stick around, satisfaction levels plummet and those shoppers may never return to the store again.

Fortunately, high-tech solutions are forthcoming.

QLess (say it out loud) is one company that aims to keep customers happy while making line time more profitable than just selling packs of gum and Star magazines to those stuck in the queue.

A high-tech version of "take a number."

QLess CEO and founder Alex Bäcker says his software turns waiting in line into, of course, an app. Rather than physically stand in a line, customers get in line via a smartphone app. Back-end software run by the merchant manages the queue (and can display statistics like expected wait times on monitors) and sends a text message or automated phone call to the customer when it's almost their turn. This frees customers up to leave for a bit or — preferably — continue shopping while they wait for their turn at the head of the line.

What's the difference between QLess and the old pager system that many restaurants use to let patrons know when their table is ready? Bäcker says the essential concept is roughly the same, with a few twists. First is the fact that you don't need all that hardware — and customers don't even need to speak to the hostess to get in line. "You can get in line from anywhere, even at home," he says.

The bigger advantages, though, are for the businesses using the system. They earn access to loads of information they wouldn't normally be able to get.

"The key feature is that it gathers data for you," says Bäcker. "That's something a pager can't do. For example, QLess tells you how many customers you are losing, your busiest wait times, and customer return rates."

The system also automatically forecasts wait times based on historical averages and estimates of how long it takes to serve each customer. This information can be used to plan staffing for peak hours or to help decide when it makes sense to open another location.

Bäcker adds that the software does this far better than humans do. "QLess provides a wait forecast to customers, but if workers feel that estimate is wrong, they can override it,"  he says. "When workers override the forecast, they habitually decrease accuracy by 40 percent. When that forecast is inaccurate, customers are 75 percent less likely to return another time."

That's a lot of lost sales — and Bäcker says that long lines on the whole are responsible for businesses losing up to 50 percent of their clientele.

Basic installations of QLess are free, but big corporations (and organizations like the DMV, where you can probably see this software in action) pay millions for more advanced setups. It sounds pricey, but the company promises a 400% ROI and says it has a 99 percent customer satisfaction level.

"Most businesses don't know how many people leave instead of waiting," says Bäcker. "With QLess it becomes painfully apparent."

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