I have been teaching the MBA core operations class this quarter. This week we just wrapped up talking about bottlenecks and capacity. I consequently found an article in The Guardian rather timely (The tube at a standstill: why TfL stopped people walking up the escalators, Jan 16). TfL in the article title refers to “Transport for London” which runs the Underground. The article reports on an experiment run at their Holborn station.
The experiment in question gets to a bit of escalator etiquette. Specifically, when using an escalator, should people stand to one side so those in a hurry (or in need of a work out) can walk up the escalator or should people patiently stand two abreast? Now if you prefer to chug up the stairs, you clearly lose under the second scenario. However, can it be the case that accommodating the walkers cost the system as a whole an unacceptable amount of capacity?
It’s all very well keeping one side of the escalator clear for people in a rush, but in stations with long, steep walkways, only a small proportion are likely to be willing to climb. In lots of places, with short escalators or minimal congestion, this doesn’t much matter. But a 2002 study of escalator capacity on the Underground found that on machines such as those at Holborn, with a vertical height of 24 metres, only 40% would even contemplate it. By encouraging their preference, TfL effectively halves the capacity of the escalator in question, and creates significantly more crowding below, slowing everyone down.
The big news in the restaurant world this past week is that Danny Meyer, one of New York City’s most prominent restaurateurs, is going to be abolishing tipping at all his establishments. He discussed the move on CBS.
(He also had an interview on CNBC that covered a lot of the same ground plus a few other points that I will mention below.)
Tipping — at restaurants and in hotels — is something we have covered before. As much as I like the idea of linking pay to performance, I think that tipping is a pretty miserable custom. Meyer touches on some of these points in explaining why he is banning the pourboire. But he also highlights a completely different issue: Attracting and retaining talent.
Call center agents often sound robotic — and that may well be by design. Having agents follow a script helps keep service times predictable, supports delivering consistent service, and possibly reduces training costs. The same logic holds for other forms of electronic customer service interactions — be they chat sessions, emails, or Facebook posts.
The company employs about three dozen member service agents who answer phones and emails, conduct online chats and reply to queries on social media — all while channeling the brand’s distinctly playful and irreverent tone.
The strategy isn’t easy. Training takes weeks. Finding the right personalities is challenging. It would be cheaper and less hassle to contract with a third-party customer service firm, which Dollar Shave Club does to complement its in-house team.
But online retailers, including pioneers Zappos and Bonobos, have found the investment in unscripted customer service worthwhile. The interactions, they say, feel more authentic and help humanize e-commerce brands that are, by their very nature, faceless.
So when does a scriptless approach pay off? (more…)
We have written in the past about some of the challenges of staffing retailer operations. Given competitive markets and an ample supply of labor, many firms have employed staffing models that may be kindly described as aggressive — although some might prefer to call them abusive (see, for example, here, here and here). In essences, firms want to avoid overstaffing but also don’t want customer service to suffer. Employees are caught in the middle of those goals as employers demand more and more flexibility from them.
But to some extent that has been changing. Labor markets have tightened and regulators have begun asking questions. Consequently, firms have backed off some of their more noxious practices (at least in some jurisdictions). Among the leaders here has been Starbucks. Last year it committed to posting worker’s schedules at least 10 days in advance and to giving workers more consistent schedules. Further it said it would no longer have workers doing “clopenings” — closing the story one night only to have to be there for the opening the following morning. As the New York Times tells it, the transition hasn’t been so smooth (Starbucks Falls Short After Pledging Better Labor Practices, Sep 23).
But Starbucks has fallen short on these promises, according to interviews with five current or recent workers at several locations across the country. Most complained that they often receive their schedules one week or less in advance, and that the schedules vary substantially every few weeks. Two said their stores still practiced clopenings.
I must confess that I have never really been enthralled by Trader Joe’s. I have never lived close by one so it was a convenient option for shopping nor have I ever been desperately loyal to their private label products. But there certainly are people who love Trader Joe’s and their stores can be quite busy. As consequence, the check out lines at some locations can be a special sort of experience. McSweeny’s offers a parody “Trader Joe’s Waiting in Line App” asking user to rate their overall shopping experience on the following scale:
4 stars: Took a while, but got what I needed.
3 stars: Eerily friendly cashier weirded me out; there was hardly any bagged lettuce left.
2 stars: Constant gridlock. Teeth gritted the whole time.
1 star: Anarchy. Like the ending of Lord of the Flies.
Not long ago I was waiting in line at the smaller-than-average and perpetually mobbed Trader Joe’s near Union Square in Manhattan when I noticed the shopper in front of me had come up with a clever, possibly devious solution to the crowd problem. Upon entering the store, she claimed a shopping cart and staked out a spot in the checkout line (which snaked around almost the entire perimeter of the store). She proceeded to do all her shopping from her place in line: picking up produce as the line crept through the produce aisle, frozen goods as it passed by the freezer case, cereal when it neared the cereal section.
A group of Danish researchers have discovered a rather unexpected solution to the long lines of people that can appear ahead of new iPhone launches or to get into sporting events.
They say serving the person at the back of the queue first can actually make lines move faster – something which may horrify British and Americans who adhere to the strict etiquette of waiting your turn.
Instead it suggests people like the Italians, who often frustrate other tourists with their lack of regard for the order of a queue, may have been on to something after all.
The findings could put an end to traditions which have become almost British institutions such as queuing to get tickets for Wimbledon or the Proms.
So what is going on here? Is serving customer last-in, first-out really the answer to queuing woes? (more…)