Why businesses should pay more attention to customers last in line

Tempted to walk away when you’re at the end of a line? You’re not alone.

Being last in line negatively affects your satisfaction and makes you more likely to quit before you get to the front, says Ryan Buell, a professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, whose research was published last year in the Management Science magazine.

He studied how customers behaved when paying at a grocery store, as well as how they behaved in online queues. Customers at the back of the line were 2.5 times more likely to change lines than those further down the line (within about 30 seconds of waiting) and three times more likely to leave the line altogether.

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But those who never felt like they were last in line—in other words, when someone immediately joined the queue behind them—were 43.5% less likely to leave their place in line than those who felt in last place.

In general, people’s dissatisfaction with being the last in line was equal to their dissatisfaction when a person got ahead of them and increased their waiting time.

The lesson? Retailers tend to focus on serving people at the front of the queue, says Professor Buell, “but we need to invest a bit to improve the experience at the back.”

For example, a coffee shop might recognize people at the end of the line or ask about their order as soon as they walk in, Professor Buell says. “It’s a more satisfying experience and helps them be more patient,” he says.

Meanwhile, call centers can provide customers with updates about their place in line while they’re waiting, so they know they’re moving up the queue.

Prof. Buell’s previous research showed that people want to avoid the last place even beyond standing in line. For example, many people are also hesitant to order the cheapest bottle of wine or don’t like being the slowest in gym class.

“It shows up in so many places,” he says.

It can come down to status: Subconsciously, Professor Buell says, we want to feel superior to someone in the same situation, and we may feel uncomfortable when we can’t find a person in a worse situation.

“As human beings, if someone is worse off than we are, it makes us feel a little better,” he says.

Ms. Dizik is a writer in Chicago. You can reach her at reports@wsj.com.

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