Our friend Don Boundreaux, chair of the department of economics at George Mason University and blogger at Cafe Hayek, had an article in the Christian Science Monitor last Friday on wait times for customer service.
Needing help booking a flight, you call your favorite airline’s toll-free number. After punching a few buttons to work through the menu of options, you finally connect to the bank of live agents. Sort of. A recorded voice says that "all agents are currently busy…. Please hold on."
We’ve all been there. The waste of waiting, and perhaps the waste of a fine phone or piece of office furniture if the frustration of waiting becomes unbearable. Boudreaux proposes an interesting solution.
Some companies have recently tried to reduce that [wait time] uncertainty by giving callers the estimated time that they’ll have to wait. But economics points to a better solution: Switching from the currency of patience to the real currency of dollars and cents. Setting a market price for speed of help would do much to bring speed and harmony to caller queues. For example, customers could pay a fee to guarantee that their call will be answered within, say, 90 seconds.
Okay… yes my hackles are rising a bit too. So let’s let him explain himself a little more.
Many people will grimace at this suggestion, asking why companies should make money off the need of many of their customers to get expedited service. But all of the money that firms earn comes from exploiting customers’ need for something. Why is it worse for an airline to make money from customers’ desire for quick help on the telephone than to make money by flying them to a distant city?
Boundreaux spends the next several paragraphs explaining how his system would work. But instead of analyzing the potential efficacy, I have one question:
Why did the customer have to ask for service in the first place?
Instead of adding massive cubicle farms of customer service reps in some cheap labor country, charging for better service to try to give customers what they paid for in the first place, how about analyzing the root cause of the problem.
Why are customers calling? What is wrong with the design, quality, intuitiveness, or use of the product that creates problems? With few exceptions, having to answer a call from a customer is a band-aid on a problem.
Making a larger and more efficient band-aid doesn’t change the fact that it is one. And who really has the gall to charge the customer for it?