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Online Queue System Brings Rave Reviews for the DMV

The Michigan Secretary of State's office is the latest agency to deploy an online queue system that is slashing customer wait times, and driving increased efficiencies.

One citizen described the event as the best experience they had had since the birth of their first child. They were talking about a recent trip to their local department of motor vehicles (DMV). Though likely a case of hyperbole for effect, it only sounds like a joke because going to the DMV is typically a painful experience. But a new cloud-based system designed to make waiting less painful is resulting in five-star reviews on Yelp and praise for organizations that people traditionally hate.

The service is called QLess, and in addition to a wide range of private-sector businesses, many public-sector organizations are finding value in the service too. Currently used by the Texas Department of Public Safety, the Kansas Department of Revenue, many motor vehicle departments, cities and even universities, last week the Michigan Secretary of State announced a $1.1 million QLess contract that will eventually deploy the service in 10 of its offices.

How It Works

Waiting in line is a waste of time, said Alex Bäcker, founder and CEO of QLess. While his service is relatively new, the problem he addresses is not. MIT engineering professor Richard Larson is known for being a pioneer in “line psychology” research. Larson published a paper in 1977 called The Psychology of Queuing and Social Justice, which established Larson in his chosen field -- where he later asserted that the average person spends two years of his life waiting in different types of lines.

Lines are bad for many reasons, Bäcker explained. Lines are wasting time that people could be spending being productive, which has a negative impact on the economy. Lines also make people unhappy, reduces the efficiency of organizations, and diminishes the relationship between organization and customer. QLess technology alleviates or solves most of those problems, according to company data and customer testimonials.

Michigan’s deployment, underway first at offices in Detroit, Flint, Grand Rapids and Lansing, is a good representation of the features QLess offers, Bäcker said. First, QLess will allow customers to join a queue online, so they can begin waiting wherever they want, before they arrive at the office. Customers will be able to either call or text the service for various functions, such as cancelling their spot in line, or pushing their turn back if they’re running late. Customers can see their place in the queue along with an estimated wait time by looking online, or by looking at onsite monitors. There will also be tickets onsite for people without phones.

The system also allows for appointments that integrate smoothly with people in the queue who did not have appointments. If the office is running late, they can notify those in line that their wait will be extended before they make their way to the office for their turn. QLess releases more than 100 updates and improvements each year, according to Bäcker. "One of the nice things about having a cloud-based infrastructure is that many of those automatically get deployed and Michigan gets the benefit as we release those,” he said.

The system is also platform-agnostic and requires no existing infrastructure, he added – they can build the system into an office’s existing hardware, or provide new equipment as needed.

The Contract

Michigan’s five-year, $1.1 million contract is expected to let Secretary of State offices do more with their existing resources while also saving customers time, said Fred Woodhams, communications manager at the Michigan Department of State.

“The department has reduced its staff by 25 percent over the last decade and consolidated offices, with the result being that we have more than 40 fewer locations across the state than we had a decade ago,” he said, adding that the state now has 131 offices and there are no plans to open more, so they need all the help they can get.

Their online services and self-serve kiosks only go so far in helping with the workload, Woodhams said, so QLess will help manage the lines in 10 offices, which altogether account for 2 million transactions each year.

While the deployment isn’t finished yet, Woodhams reports an uptick in customer feedback due to surveys they now administer via text message. “Previously we had been mailing customer service surveys to customers or reviewing in-office comment cards,” he said. “The technology also will allow managers to better track and measure customer volume and wait times.”


Evaluating metrics is a coup for most organizations, Bäcker said, because it allows them to look at their operations and continually improve. Sometimes, a QLess deployment can optimize wait times automatically, like it did in Johnson County, Kan. Two nearby offices had wait times that diverged by more than 250 percent, but after QLess was deployed, the divergence equalized to within 1 percent. People could see the wait times of each office before they chose which one they would schedule an appointment with, Bäcker explained. Providing basic information to customers can be a huge first step toward solving the line problem.

QLess is so convinced of its value to organizations based on data from current customers that it guarantees a 400 percent return on investment.

The cost savings come from a number of different dynamics, he explained. “On the one hand, there’s a documented reduction in no-shows,” he said. “When you let someone wait wherever they want, you increase people's patience. And then when you have a digital tether to them and let them know when we’re ready to serve you and we’re going to serve you very soon, you have a lot of people [show up] who might not otherwise have come back.”

QLess implementations have resulted in a 75 percent reduction in the number of people who see a line, and then leave and don't come back because they don’t want to wait, he said. Having the option to leave and do other things while remaining informed on the length of the wait cuts down on a lot of the frustration associated with waiting.

Using QLess also reduces the amount of human labor needed to physically manage people in lines by 90 percent, Bäcker said. With fewer people waiting on site, waiting rooms can be reduced in size or eliminated and that space can then be repurposed. It’s also very easy for people to notify the office if they’re dropping out of the queue. By simply texting the letter “L” (for leave) to the service, that customer is removed from line, which cuts down on those lags in service where a name or number is being called for a person who will never arrive.

While Bäcker believes strongly in his product, even he was surprised when DMVs started sharing glowing customer experience stories. “I couldn’t believe it,” he said. “I thought they had to be crazy to tell me a DMV customer experience was the best they ever had.”

Colin wrote for Government Technology and Emergency Management from 2010 through most of 2016.