With the “worst case scenario” now appearing to be the most likely Brexit outcome, the topic of queuing has raised its ugly head. Not just the hordes of people lining up to berate Theresa May, the ERG, Jeremy Corbyn, those pesky EU representatives or basically any politician that has even the vaguest connection to the whole Brexit fiasco, but very real queues that will affect the livelihoods of millions of people across the continent.
The good news is that the Brits are experts when it comes to waiting in line. As we all know an Englishman standing alone will form an orderly queue. Recent research by Prof. Adrian Furnham at University College London provides us with the fact base to assert that, if the No-Deal predictions are even partially realised, there’s going to be much harrumphing. According to the research, the average Brit thinks 5 minutes 54 seconds is a reasonable amount of time to wait in everyday queues e.g. at ATMs and supermarkets. Satisfaction drops from 95% for a 5 minute queue to 85% for a 5 minutes 54 second queue and falls off a cliff to 55% for an 8 minute queue So, waiting for days, while their toilet paper and other essential items sit in the lorry park along the M20 outside Dover, is clearly not going to cut it.
Given it’s going to take many months to get to a “new normal”, for the 62% of the electorate who didn’t vote for Brexit there’s a good chance it’s going to get ugly. My suggestion would be to turn to David Maister’s work on the Psychology of Waiting Lines (1985). Rather than focus on the more obtuse mathematics associated with queuing theory, Maister’s work was centred on how people experience queues. Why is it that a 2-minute wait can simply fly by on some occasions and feel infinitely longer at other times? The work is based on two laws of service:
Satisfaction = Perception – Expectation: if a customer’s perception of the service received is greater than their expectation of the service, they will be a happy customer and vice versa.
Playing catch-up is hard: customers are forming these perceptions in real time and if you get off to a bad start it is very difficult to recover. You never get a second chance to make a first impression.
Based on these two laws, there are eight factors that can make the wait seem longer. Once you know these factors, you use techniques to give the impression that it’s shorter. Look no further than Disneyland.
Listening to the UK’s politicians over the last few years has been a Masterclass in how not to do it. With acknowledgment to the work of “Led by Donkeys“, here are some examples and progress to date:
1) Occupied Time Feels Shorter Than Unoccupied Time: if we’re distracted or busy doing something else, waiting doesn’t seem to take quite so long. This is why there are mirrors in elevators or Disney characters roaming the park while you stand in line to ride Magic Mountain.
As Michael Gove said: “The day after we vote to leave we hold all the cards and we can choose the path we want.” Playing cards is a good way to distract people, who may now be wondering if they are on a path to chaos. As Britain seems to have played their distraction trump cards already – royal weddings, hosting an Olympics etc – perhaps the only solution is for them to come up with a world cup winning soccer team.
2) People Want to Get Started: this is why you get a menu even though your table isn’t ready at the restaurant or are asked if you’d like a drink at the bar.
As David Davis confidently asserted: “I believe that we can get a free trade and customs agreement concluded before March 2019.” Getting the trade agreement negotiations underway while the clock ticked down to that date would have been a great idea. The good news is that 7 out of 40 agreements are in place. The deal with the Faroe Islands is done, which should keep the wheels of the economy turning. Meanwhile industry continues to re-locate capacity offshore.
3) Anxiety Makes Waits Seem Longer: the dentist’s waiting room, need I say more. Always provide lots to read or watch to keep you distracted in the waiting room.
Boris Johnson’s prediction was “Brexit means Brexit and we’re going to make a titanic success of it.” This quote certainly seems to have an element of truth. Will the supermarkets run out of consumer staples? Will the NHS waiting lists grow even longer? Will the chemists run out of essential medicines? Will the expats living in Spain still be reimbursed for their health costs? How much worse off per person will Brexit leave us £1,000 pa? £2,000 pa? £4,300 pa? Don’t forget to stock up on iceberg lettuce!
4) Uncertain Waits Are Longer than Known, Finite Waits: standing at a bus or tram stop, with no timetable a 5 minute wait can seem like forever. Yet after being told that you will be on hold for 5 minutes in a contact centre queue, somehow the wait doesn’t feel so long. At least you know what you are up for and you have a choice and the ability to plan what to do in the meantime.
As John Redwood said: “Getting out of the EU can be quick and easy – the UK holds most of the cards.” Set a roadmap with clear dates and options and stick to them. Or, in the case of Brexit, ask the EU to do that for you.
5) Unexplained Waits Are Longer than Explained Waits: it’s infuriating to stand on a train platform waiting for a long overdue train and the only announcement on the public address system is so garbled that you cannot understand it. Jeremy Corbyn obviously springs to mind but trying to find a brief quote on what he stands for proved elusive.
Back to Boris – “There’s no plan for no deal, because we’re going to get a great deal.” This doesn’t pass muster as an explanation, it just smacks of incompetence. Blaming others (for example MPs) or external but known factors (the Europeans with whom you were negotiating) doesn’t work either.
6) Unfair Waits Are Longer than Equitable Waits: this is where the teller queue in a bank branch is long but there are bank staff, e.g. the concierge in plain view of the customer, seemingly unoccupied. Very infuriating!
No more infuriating than Nigel Farage saying “I never promised it would be a huge success.”
As Brexiters flee overseas, perhaps in response to these fine words, will the misery of austerity be viewed as a portent of even worse to come?
7) The More Valuable the Service, the Longer the Customer Will Wait: this is where customers are apparently happy queuing for tickets to a major sporting event or for the Boxing Day sales but will switch queues in a supermarket if an adjacent queue is moving 1-2 minutes faster.
David Davis was so sure: “There will be no downside to Brexit, only considerable upside.” It has been hard to discern the value of uncertainty and chaos and presumably this was not what Mr Davis was thinking about.
8) Solo Waits Feel Longer than Group Waits: while some people are happy with their own company, for the majority of us it’s nice to have someone to share the pain of waiting – another form of distraction really. All hail the ubiquity of the smart phone! And rest assured, even if you lose signal or battery, Theresa May assures us: “I am on your side.” Never has standing alone in a long queue seemed so appealing, if this is the alternative.
In the interest of attempting to put a positive spin on the forthcoming calamity, perhaps reading Maister’s paper is something you could do to while away the hours while queuing.