Posted by: Tony Carson | 2 November, 2007

Jumping the telephone queue with your credit card

Stuck in a telephone queue to get airline information and want to jump the line? Pay your way to the front.

That’s the suggestion in this op-ed at the Christian Science Monitor: ‘Your call is very important to us… ‘

To fully understand the concept think of the petroleum industry. They wanted to find some way to crank out more bang for their buck. They use to do it by adding different grades of gas, then by including more and more fancy additives, then they realized, hey, why don’t we just close some refineries: less gas + increasing demand = higher prices for the same product.

They have managed to perfect their scheme by making sure that the refiners they have are kept in poor repair thereby making them blissfully in efficient, another way of throttling down supply while demand increases.

The logic of both approaches is to richly reward shoddy service. In the case of the call centre for airlines, the notion of paying your way to the front is an elitist’s quick fix for a problem that can be solved by having more personnel at the receiving end or fewer reasons to need to call. That’s the market solution, not paying  for the lousy service to go away.

Here is his main point:

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.

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?

The reality is that the demand from customers often exceeds the supply of live help from telephone service agents. That’s why queues develop.

A great thing about competition is that it is very good at determining which business practices really do best serve consumers’ needs. Perhaps offering customers the option of paying to reduce their telephone times will not work. But if I were running Delta Airlines or Home Depot, I’d give it a try.



  1. Wouldn’t this just delay the wait even further for non-paying customers as more and more people jumped the queue, who were previously behind them?

    It’s an interesting concept, but I can’t see it taking shape.

  2. Sure it would delay for the non-payers and it would lead to a sliding scale for the payers, the front to the highest bidder. If consumers would stand for this, all is lost.

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