01 Jun 2018
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Research Brief: Lessons from Last Place

by Jennifer Myers

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Ryan Buell (photo by Russ Campbell)

We all wait in lines—at the grocery store, the bank, or a ticket booth, or on hold to speak to a customer service rep about your cable bill. “By one estimate, Americans spend 37 billion hours waiting in line each year, and one way or another, the experience of waiting touches all of us,” says Associate Professor Ryan Buell. His recent working paper, “Last Place Aversion in Queues,” examines the human tendency to be uncomfortable as the last person in line–causing us to switch lines or abandon the experience altogether—and the operational implications of that behavior for service providers.

Buell’s research, which included observing the behaviors of people both in a physical line at the grocery store checkout and in virtual lines when asked to take an online survey, showed that subjects were more than twice as likely to switch lines and more than four times as likely to abandon lines when in last place, even after accounting for how many people were queued in front of them, how fast the line was moving, and the length of the line. (Although the impulse is to switch lines, Buell’s research found those who did so waited an average of 47.51 seconds longer than those who did not; line switchers also reported being 30.2 percent less satisfied with their experience.)

What is the takeaway for customer service providers? “Think about service design,” says Buell. “Address the customer as soon as he or she enters the line.” For instance, if the barista at the neighborhood coffee shop acknowledges customers as they enter the line and asks what they want to drink, the customer at the end of the line is less likely to leave or register dissatisfaction with the experience. “It takes your mind off of being in last place if you believe there is progress being made on your behalf,” Buell says.

The aversion to being in last place also stretches beyond the coffee shop to other arenas of distribution, such as income. Buell suggests that the “We are the 99 percent” slogan helped create a movement based on last-place aversion by putting 99 percent of the population in “last place,” behind the wealthiest 1 percent. He sees potential to use this aversion to motivate people to be more proactive in their own medical care, to save for retirement, or to persist in exercise or education. “It can have a meaningful effect on our behavior,” Buell says.

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