Yesterday I stopped by the printer to order several bound copies of my latest book to use while waiting for copies from the publisher. When I arrived there were a couple people already in line. I took my place in line and browsed through the printing options for bindings, etc. As the clerk waited on each customer in turn, other customers joined the line behind me and one customer went to the self-copy area to use the copy machine. The clerk paged for additional staff to come and provide services.

As the clerk took care of the two people in front of me, the self-serve customer asked her a question that would (from my experience) require more than a minute to answer. She politely indicated that she would be with him as soon as she could—in the order that the customers had arrived (the self-serve customer was three customers behind me based on the order we entered the store). The self-serve customer continued to “use” the copier.

As I stepped up to begin placing my order and get the options priced, I told the clerk to go ahead and deal with the other customers while I reviewed the options. She quickly took the orders of the other customers and they left to return later to pick up their order. Then she came back to me and took my order. As she was writing up my choices, another clerk finally arrived. As the original clerk began ringing up my order for payment, the self-serve customer came over to berate her for not immediately serving him for a question that would take “ten seconds.” His tirade included how he had 700 customers a day going through his gas station and his customers would never wait for a ten-second issue.

I had to differ with that assessment. I’ve never been to a gas station where everyone in line is not waiting to be served in the order they arrive. I’ve been the customer waiting to get gas and pay for it while someone takes “ten seconds” to do some small thing, or dealt with two clerks taking time to chat while they wait on the customers.

As a customer, waiting in line is not my favorite thing. But I recognize that it is a first come, first served world. I am not any more entitled to circumvent someone else’s turn because I have a “ten second” question than this gentleman was to jump ahead and be serviced ahead of me or the other customers waiting in line ahead of him.

In this case, the gentleman said he needed help. He didn’t say “I don’t know where to align the original to make a copy” (by the way, the illustration and directions were on the copier… and on the wall above the copier and…). When the obvious “how-to” questions are answered by illustrations and directions at the self-serve copiers, then it is fair to presume that the question will take time to answer.

Part of the problem in this situation was the customer expectation that having a “simple question” meant that he should jump to the front of the line. The second problem was the store’s staffing. Too few qualified/trained staff members were available to handle a sudden spike in customers. Something that we all deal with.

Waiting in line and for our turn is part of what we as customers have to accept. As business owners, managers, and staff, we also have to do our best to minimize wait times. A reasonable wait time differs based on:

–        what service or product we provide

–        the volume of business we do

–        the means and mechanisms we have to support customers

–        the variation demand patterns: lunch crowds, seasonal fluctuations, etc.

–        customer expectations

–        competitors’ offerings.


An angry customer may not buy from you again. If you consistently anger your customers you will be out of business. If you have a customer with unrealistic expectations ­– they may cost you more than they spend. It is not realistic to expend the same amount of time to a customer making a 35 cent copy as you do a customer placing a $3500 order, especially when they are in your store at the same time in the same line. First come, first served and full service versus self-service will decide who is helped first.

As a business, be sure that you have put in place sufficient staff to deal with your normal volume, staff for peak times, have a plan for cross-training and backup of your front line staff, and be willing to hear the occasional complaint from the demanding customer who wants to jump to the head of the line. And when you are the customer, remember that most businesses value you and your business. Waiting in line means first come, first served. Be patient and wait your turn.

Author: Lea A. Strickland, MBA CMA CFM CBM GMC

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