It is 10 minutes before the first meeting of the morning, and I am rushing out of the subway, wondering whether I'm going to be able to get a cup of joe at Starbucks. It's a fifty-fifty chance on any day, because if there are more than two people in line, there's no way. For sure, one of them is going to order a low-fat mochacappafrappadecafochino extra foam, the clerk will be steaming someone else's soy milk, and that will be that. Yeah, yeah--the last thing New Yorkers need is a stimulant. But it's amazing to watch so many of them walk up to the door, peek in and bolt. If they can't get it yesterday, they don't want it.
It's remarkable that so many companies still can't figure this line stuff out. We wait everywhere: at airline counters, at hotels, in department stores, on the phone ("a service representative will be with you when hell freezes over"), at the post office (natch) and, of course, we get in line online. If you're lucky, you can do it all in one week.
Service companies insist that things are getting better. Starbucks' problem is a good one--too many customers. A company exec says, apparently sincerely, that the wait for your latte is part of the ambiance, although when the line gets four deep, those customer-focused Gen-Y barista dudes should be hustling to open another register.
There is a science to this, called queuing theory, and it's well known to large companies. Queuing theory is also one of the forces behind Ethernet technology, which has made it possible for various people to send vast amounts of information along a network at the same time. You never hear data complain, do you? The gist of it is that you can use a complicated mathematical model to predict, say, how many people will arrive at a checkout counter at a certain time--and therefore staff just the right number of folks needed to meet the demand. Unfortunately, all too many companies seem to divide that number by two. Starbucks tries to predict how many customers will come in and what drinks they'll order in each store in 15-minute intervals. But there's no guarantee in these computations; they're probabilistic--sometimes you're just going to have to wait.
But progress is being made. How? By shifting the clerical work to us. At supermarkets such as Kroger and Winn-Dixie, self-service checkouts, replete with weight and bar-code recognition software, are being added; other stores are giving shoppers a handheld scanning device to tot things up as they cruise the aisles. United Airlines is installing 800 self-service check-in kiosks at 25 airports initially. Other airlines, such as Continental and Northwest, are already using such kiosks, which particularly suit those who are not checking in bags.
United is attacking an even more vexing problem: flight cancellations. "It is critical that we address the problems that happen at the airport," says spokesman Andy Plews. In most cases, if your flight is canceled, you are compelled to get in line with 200 other ticked-off flyers as they rebook, one by one by one. And isn't that fun? United's answer is a customer-advocate center that automatically rebooks passengers as soon as a flight is canceled. The company has also been employing portable service counters that it rushes around terminals, like forest rangers responding to hot spots. Now, if they can only eliminate that nasty rush to get on the plane.