Following the Department of Transport in the Ministry of Transport and Communications, Barclays Bank Botswana has become the second organisation in the country to introduce an Electronic Queue Management System (EQMS) to deal with a problem that costs the national economy millions of pula.
Barclays Bank’s corporate communications manager, Esther Norris, says that the system is being implemented in phases. The first phase was a tryout at the Station branch in Gaborone last year.
Performance was monitored over a period of time and Norris says that one of the observations they made was that the automated voice was inaudible. As it is being perfected, the service is being rolled out to other branches countrywide. Outside Gaborone, the new system has been installed in Selebi Phikwe, Francistown, Kasane, Maun and Lobatse.
The idea of it all, Norris says, is to improve banking experience for customers as well as optimise both branch and individual teller productivity. From their offices, managers are able to monitor banking hall performance and are able to deploy resources accordingly. Norris says that the system has resulted in improved service, especially around monthend, which is the busiest.
Along the way, the bank is educating both staff and customers about the new system.
This is how the system works: instead of customers being enclosed within a post-and-rope barrier as they shuffle towards the service point, queuing is now virtual. At the entrance, a customer selects the desired service(s) on a floor-standing touch pad kiosk and can virtually queue for different services at the same time.
The kiosk dispenses tickets with a four-digit number and customers wait to be called up for particular service. The call-forward system is both visible and audible: the number is flashed up on a display panel at an empty counter and an announcement is simultaneously made over the public address system.
This means that, unlike in the past, it would be impossible to jump the queue or reserve a spot while you attend to some other business in or outside the banking hall.
It also means that tellers who developed a special clientele of queue jumpers who returned the favour by slipping a tip under the grille have been put out of business. The system being phased out also made it possible for one enterprising curios seller at the Main Mall in Gaborone to start a business of reserving spots for customers and charging them P10.
He plied his trade at all the banks in the Main Mall as well as at the post office and the Water Utilities Corporation customer service centre. Barclays new EQMS automatically selects the next customer on a first-come-first-serve basis.
On the whole, queue management in banks is not systematic. At the FNB Branch in Riverwalk Mall in Gaborone, pregnant women are not required to queue up; they just walk up to the head of the queue and wait for a counter to open up.
However, the same women are required to join the queue in other branches of the same bank.
Banks are not the only sector that has to deal with the problem of queue management.
In an ideal situation, hospitals should have what is called a ‘triage nurse’ whose job is to quickly and accurately assess a patient’s condition and determine that patient’s priority for treatment.
In one way this is a method of managing queues but against severe shortage of nurses in government health facilities, it remains impossible to deploy triage nurses.
In the retail sector, Choppies is the largest supermarket chain in the country with heavy presence in both urban and rural areas. Naturally, that means long queues, especially at lunchtime and in the evenings. Through sensor technology, a different type of EQMS from that used by Barclays and Transport can give information about the number of people entering a store, the queue length, average wait time, flow patterns and overall store checkout performance. This information enables store management to understand customer traffic flows and deploy staff in the right place at the right time.
Choppies’ spokesperson, Sadiq Kebonang, says that while he has seen such queue management systems in the western world ÔÇô he cites the United States and England ÔÇô his chain is not at a point of considering them for use as of now.
“It is something we can look into, especially for shops like OK Foods,” he says.
Before that happens, Choppies will continue to use the rudimentary system it has always used. Kebonang believes it has served them quite well over the years.
“When it gets busy, we open more tills,” he says, adding that their managers have been trained in the application of this kind of queue management.
Calculating the exact opportunity cost (benefit, profit or value of something that must be given up to acquire or achieve something else) of queues is an immensely complex process that involves a lot of assumptions. In themselves those assumptions can have the effect of reducing the accuracy of the calculation. In a queue of 20 people could be a cabinet minister, a medical doctor, a lawyer, a sales assistant, a hairdresser, a public transport operator ÔÇô all of whom earn different sums of money.
Dr. Oupa Tsheko, an economics lecturer at the University of Botswana, says that no study has been carried out in Botswana to determine how much queues cost the national economy. He hesitates to even hazard a ballpark figure.
“But the opportunity cost is obviously huge because people in Botswana have to deal with very long queues in both the public and private sector,” he says.
Not being served in good time, he explains, represents enormous loss to the economy because waste of time where one seeks service has a cost on the productivity operations where one works. Dr. Tsheko, whose specialty is trade economics, concurs with the view that not enough focus is paid to queue management by the productivity movement.
He asserts that talk of productivity necessarily has to address the issue of how much time employees spend in queues and not their respective workplaces.
The Botswana situation notwithstanding, it is actually possible to work out the average opportunity cost of queues. In 2008 a study done by a Nigerian university found that the annual opportunity cost of hospital queues alone was the equivalent of P668 million.
This was based on estimates by the Nigerian Institute for Social and Economic Research that the opportunity cost for an average Nigerian worker was 176 naira.
ICT should help organisations manage queues but on the whole, its use in Botswana has borne little or no fruit. Hlubi Gilika, a software engineer based in Gaborone, cites two problems with regard to ICT in queue management. Firstly, in some customer service points ÔÇô like those at the Botswana Power Corporation – a customer has to queue twice (once to get a bill printout and then to a pay the bill) when it is technologically possible to combine and offer both services at one counter.
Secondly, computers are always crashing due to lack of training of users, poor maintenance, lack of IT support and a corrupt procurement system that results in the purchase of inferior but overpriced software and hardware.
In banks, the ultimate success of the queue management system will come when tellers develop ability to sit still for longer than 30 minutes and process queues instead of periodically disappearing into some back room within the building.