I went to my local council’s customer service centre this morning. The service was broken, and it worked much better. That’s a slightly odd finding, with some interesting implications.

I wrote about the same experience a couple of years ago, when everything was working as it was designed to, including the fiendishly clever automatic ticketing system:

Having got a ticket, the next thing is to wait. That turned out to be very confusing – numbers were called apparently randomly, so both giving no indication of progress up the virtual queue and making it impossible to know whether your number had been called or not. I assume that there was a process going on of assigning cases to appropriately skilled staff members, and so in practice several queues running not just one. That’s perfectly sensible, but would be a lot less confusing for customers if the queues had distinct number ranges. To make matters worse, one of the display screens showed ticket numbers in the queue – but only some of them. If the number one higher than mine has been called, and if my number doesn’t appear on the screen, should I start worrying that I have missed my turn? As it turns out, no, I didn’t need to have worried, but it was hard to be sanguine at the time.

None of that was working this morning, so we were each given a raffle ticket instead. There was still more than one queue going – tickets for booked appointments seemed to be in a different sequence from the walk in customers, and customers were still being allocated to appropriate specialist staff, but it was a far simpler system than the normal one – and as a result, it was far clearer what was going on.

picture of a crumpled raffle ticketSo kudos to Lambeth for having effective contingency arrangements in place and for managing to look unruffled while  implementing them. And while I am being nice about them, even more kudos for the open and positive response which Raj Mistry gave to my earlier post – a model of its kind.

But back to today. How is it that the fallback service could feel better than the normal one? From a customer perspective, it made things simpler, clearer and more personal, with no obvious drawbacks. From Lambeth’s point of view, there was a bit of extra overhead in managing customers to agents. More subtly, and potentially more expensively, there might have been longer agent waiting time between customers.

Today, raffle ticket in hand, we sat and waited for our number to be called. So far just like the normal system. But what happened next was close to miraculous: the numbers were called out in sequence. That has an extraordinarily powerful effect. In the normal system, there is only one annoucement that carries any meaning for each person, the one which calls their number. In the raffle ticket system, every announcement carries meaning:

  • if the number called is lower than mine, I am reassured that I haven’t missed anything and have a sense of how much longer I might have to wait
  • if the number called is higher than mine, I know I have missed an announcement and need to call for help
  • and when the number is mine, I will be relaxed and ready to act on it, because in effect it comes at the end of a countdown.

That really matters, because as this infographic on the psychology of queuing reminds us, little things can make a big difference. There is a risk that attempting to optimise by being over elaborate can have unforeseen – and unseen – consequences which are not easy to detect from observing what may well appear to be a smoothly running service.

Or to be simpler still, if there is less noise, there can be more signal.