The Problem with the Take-a-Number System
You’re in a hurry after work and want to pick up some steaks from the local butcher to grill for dinner. The store seems a little busy, but then you see a red contraption that stops you in your tracks: a ticket dispenser, encouraging you to take a number and wait for service. You then think, “Maybe I’ll just order pizza.”
There’s a reason the take a-number system many businesses and organizations use has been made fun of in popular culture (including Marvel’s recent Loki television show)—customers don’t like them. The strategy harms the customer experience, with people potentially hesitating to return knowing they’ll have to take a number again to be served.
However, some businesses don’t know of a good alternative to take-a-number because it is often better than no system at all. But you don’t have to settle for this antiquated queuing strategy when digital solutions can deliver so much more to your customers, your employees, your operations, and the bottom line.
The Basics of a Take-a-Number System
A take-a-number queuing system is mostly self-explanatory. A customer or guest enters a business, receives a number, and waits for that number to be called, indicating their turn has arrived. The number itself might be a ticket the person takes from a dispenser, or some sort of digital system that spits out a receipt with numbers printed on it. Employees may call out each number when it comes up, or the customer might be responsible for keeping an eye on a wall-mounted digital display (i.e., “Now Serving 43”)—or both.
Although the exact way an organization uses a take-a-number system may vary, the essence remains the same: Here’s your number, now wait your turn. Businesses that often use this approach include:
- Butcher shops
- Grocery store counters
- Retail stores with customer service counters
- Government facilities (e.g., DMVs, city or county clerks, public utility counters)
- Post offices
- Healthcare clinics
Some businesses—particularly fast-food restaurants—use take-a-number in reverse, in which you place an order and wait for your number to be called when that order is ready. The principle remains the same: Your patronage is reduced to a number, and you’re forced to stay nearby and wait.
Why Take-a-Number Stinks
The take-a-number concept is rooted in bringing order to the uncertainty of determining who’s up next to be served. Some organizations don’t have the floor space for a physical queue or enough business to justify the expense of something so formal. Furthermore, expecting the line to govern itself doesn’t always work, particularly in the COVID-19 age. An employee asking, “Who’s next?” might get different answers, and picking the wrong customer to serve next—someone who just arrived over someone who’s been waiting 10 minutes—can lead to stress, anger, and even lost business.
However, a take-a-number system often creates new problems while trying to solve the old ones. These new issues include:
An Impersonal System
Detroit rocker Bob Seger opens the song “Feel Like a Number” with the line “I take my card and I stand in line.” Although the song is about feeling trapped at work, it also perfectly describes the customer experience of the take-a-number system: You’re nothing more than the next transaction, waiting for your number to be called.
Customers need and deserve personalized attention; by making them take a number, you’re impersonally telling them they’ll have to wait to get it.
An Unknown Wait
After taking a number, customers are left wondering how many minutes will tick off the clock before that number comes up and they can be served. The difference between their number and the “Now Serving” number on the wall might give them some clues to make an educated guess—but it is just a guess, because they don’t know:
- How much time the customers in front of them will require
- How many customers gave up and left
- If more employees will be added to pick up the slack
- If fewer workers will be available to serve customers
Little Freedom to Leave and Come Back
Because customers don’t have good information on how long their wait will be, they can’t easily leave the waiting area and come back closer to their turn. Fear of missing their spot after waiting can be worse than the wait itself. Sure, if they’re waiting as a group, one person can stay while the others step out—but that still isn’t fun for the person left behind.
People with disabilities or other conditions might not be able to hear their number being called or see it come up on the display. Moreover, even if they do realize it’s their turn, they may struggle to get to the counter in a timely fashion or call out that they’re on their way. In all these scenarios, the take-a-number system is working against people instead of for them.
These drawbacks aren’t limited to people with accessibility challenges. In a crowded, loud waiting area, a person with perfect hearing might not hear their number called. Or, a mom with three young, antsy kids may need extra time to corral her family and get to the front. Take-a-number always carries the risk that someone misses their turn despite being on the premises and paying attention.
A take-a-number system doesn’t run itself—someone has to call the next number, press a button to change the display on the wall, decide how many times they’ll call out a number before determining (sometimes incorrectly) that the person left, and so on.
Furthermore, employees still may be stuck fielding questions on expected wait times or calming angry customers who didn’t hear a number called several times and had their turn skipped. All this line management takes time away from other duties—including directly serving customers.
Take-a-number also comes with some basic maintenance tasks, such as:
- Replacing tickets in the dispenser
- Ordering or purchasing tickets for the dispenser
- Resetting the digital sign and ensuring the next ticket in the dispenser matches the number on the wall
- Cleaning up discarded tickets
That last task underscores an inherent issue with a take-a-number system: It creates unnecessary waste. A little bucket with a sign that says “Place used numbers here” is not a good—or professional—look for your organization.
Ticket Fortune and Misfortune
Here’s a scenario that can ruin the customer experience. Someone with a ticket is near to being called but decides to leave and gives the number to another customer who just walked in. The recipient of the ticket hits the jackpot … and angers everyone else who has been patiently waiting and following the rules.
Also, what happens if someone loses their number? Or never realizes they were supposed to take one? Or misses their turn because they had to run to the restroom? Take-a-number isn’t so clear cut because it might not factor the human element into the queuing strategy.
Virtual Queuing to the Rescue
Virtual queue management platforms offer a customer-friendly, efficient alternative to the traditional take-a-number system. The concept and the technology are straightforward. Customers enter the digital queue simply by scanning a QR code, sending a text message, or entering their info into a kiosk. Then, they receive notifications on their smartphones for estimated wait times, when their turn is near, and when they’re up.
If this sounds like take-a-number, it is a little. Customers do reserve a place in line and wait to be “called”—just like they would if they took a ticket from a dispenser. But the similarities end there. With virtual queuing, the system handles nearly every part of the process. It’s a huge upgrade for several reasons, including:
No Hassles and No Worries After Check-In
Once in the virtual queuing system, customers never have to worry about losing their number or be scared off by all the numbers ahead of them because, well, they never get a number. Their place in line is reserved and secure.
Instant, Direct Notifications
With alerts coming directly to their phones, customers don’t have to worry about not hearing their number called. Besides notifications on wait times, customers can also communicate—through text messaging or a webpage linked through a text—with staff while they wait, so if they have questions or special needs, that information can be relayed before their turn arrives.
Freedom to Move Around
When customers receive updates on wait times, they don’t feel so tethered to the (sometimes crowded) waiting area. They can move about the building, visit the restroom, get a cup of coffee, go for a little walk, or do anything else in the time the system is saying they have.
Your employees, freed from managing the take-a-number system, can focus on the customer in front of them and provide the best service possible. Furthermore, staff will already know what your customers need by the info they provided—when they joined the queue and/or while they waited—which increases efficiency even more.
Priority of Certain Customers
As much as we all want queues to be fair, some customers’ needs may take priority over others. A take-a-number strategy can’t separate these priorities out, but a virtual queue can be configured to automatically move certain customers up in line as needed.
Data and Analytics
The data on take-a-number is limited to how many tickets were drawn in a day—and even then, it might not reflect how many customers were actually served. Virtual queues track all sorts of data in real time, to let you know how the queue is being used, peak periods, the types of services being rendered, and much more. From this data, you can plot operational strategy and make key adjustments.
Virtual queues offer another massive advantage over a take-a-number system—they can increase sales. Check out our guide, Why Virtually Queued Customers Buy More, to see how.