It is nowadays considered uncool, inefficient and irritating to stand in line unless confronted by very dire consequences, such as boarding a flight or visiting a doctor. Yet there can be a few better live classrooms for understanding consumer behaviour than being part of a queue with others like you, waiting patiently or irritatingly for a desired outcome. That is exactly why I must strongly recommend the habit of ‘Management by Standing Around’, MBSA inspired loosely by Management by Wandering Around, first expressed as MBWA by Peters and Waterman while being executed at HP and Toyota.
MBWA incidentally refers to the unstructured walk-about by managers while supervising workers, deemed to improve productivity, morale and purpose and also a vital element of Total Quality Management. MBSA can thus be defined as the undisclosed act of mingling with customers in the last mile of transaction to gain insights about the specific brand as well as general trends. What makes it most attractive as a scalable tool for research is the heady combination of spontaneity and engagement, thus potentially leading to a quality of input unsurpassable in any other format since there is no structured questioning. MBSA at its very best can also become a key indicator for valuable societal trends, giving vital clues for the state of relationships, levels of courtesy as well as opinions on current issues.
In terms of attitude towards queuing there are a few broad segments replicated across categories whatever be the occasion of consumption. A small but increasingly growing constituency is the ‘Courtesy Junkie’, typically having spent good time abroad as student or employee, who is only too eager to let the fellow customer gain precedence even if undeserving. The majority certainly is the ‘Might of Birth-Right’ segment that considers the person rightfully ahead to an undeserving contender for service, barging forward horizontally wherever vertical access is blocked. The third equally familiar to us is the ‘Sympathy Empathy’ customer who finds reasons ranging from old age to a daughter’s PTA to even a boil on the toe to pleadingly request priority.
While many of us consider the uncouth line-breaker as per the second category above to simply be an unschooled nuisance, there is perhaps a deeper reason why so many of us disregard such basic graces. For too long we have been a scarcity economy and a Darwinian instinct is very deeply ingrained, from lining up with the ration card or for drinking water, railway tickets and even essential medicines. The fear that stocks will run out still persists though thankfully subliminally for the most part, making an undesirable comeback on occasions like de-monetisation for ATMs or teller counters. It is reasonably certain that future generations will be far more civil in queues not just for greater exposure to global etiquette but equally for living in a fairly abundant economic environment.
That we as a people are fundamentally emotional cookies who thrive on relationships come alive remarkably when standing in line. It starts with forging an unprovoked bond with the fellow, which usually starts with delight or grievance with the brand experience, the former typically when buying tickets for a music concert and the latter when waiting to pay Airtel dues. Notes are vigorously exchanged and impressions duly reinforced through the conviction of others and once this fundamental basis of sameness is experienced, the relationship can easily extend beyond just the current queue, to lifelong friendships and even matrimony. This pattern is also visible in the non-transactional way we engage with relationship managers across industries, taking our own sweet time to get to the point much to the fury of the time-strapped next-in-line.
Anybody who has ever stood in a QSR restaurant like KFC or Domino’s Pizza would certainly have noted that the average Indian customer studies the menu only when it is time to transact. Thus, the lovingly-templatised signages with large graphics are rendered redundant for the most part as the job could be equally done by the typical leaflet format present on the table-top counter. Such eateries usually have the concept of a parallel queue, where we must wait for the tray to be filled, leading to an overlap of physical space that our innate lack of order is ill-equipped to manage. Borrowing from the age-old habit of a single passenger blocking seating for friends in an unreserved railway compartment, it is common to witness a solitary person placing the orders for many, including for complete strangers till a few moments back.
Lines are also instinctive socio-economic levellers as discernible areas of distinction or disadvantage, as the case may be, do not matter once the sequence is established. For an appointment with an ENT specialist what is relevant is the state of your tonsils and not the balance in the bank and even in a business class entry, the upgrader and the millionaire enjoy the same stature. Any attempts at flaunting wealth or privilege are summarily frowned upon, often leading to fisticuffs and screams, and the only concession for priority is a proven need for immediacy, connected to a contextual emergency. On various occasions, I have noticed this aspect frustrating the privileged who consider it an undeserving equalisation while sometimes delighting the under-advantaged taking delight at this level playing field, especially in my erstwhile home-city of Calcutta with Sotto-Leftist leanings. It is thus quite appropriate that when it comes to digital access similar democratic principles reign, broadband speeds certainly not proportional to the price of your gadget be it laptop, phone or tablet.
If your interest lies not in general observations but pointed brand-related insights the technique of involved observation in lines can be just as rewarding, the source of major learnings in my career over decades. While that is the subject of a different piece, the seamless conversion of the mystery shopper to the MBSA panel, Management by Standing around as explained earlier, will be very valuable for every industry where queuing is an inescapable part of the core experience. As brand experiences become increasingly virtual, it becomes critical for practitioners to remain unwaveringly real which is exactly why we must continue to stand in line at every opportunity.
(Shivaji Dasgupta is the Founder of INEXGRO Brand Advisory and can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org)
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