Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

15 April 2003

The Telephone Queue

A Computer-Industry Parable

Hi! You’ve reached Hightech Bubble Co. We can’t tell you how happy we are that you called us! And we can’t tell you how important your call is to us! Your call is so important that we are going to make you listen to several obnoxious product promotions before we do anything useful.

We designed our announcer’s moronically cheerful synthesized voice to infuriate Type A personalities. If you want to curse and hang up, please do so now. You are probably a Type A and a shouter, and we don’t like shouters.

If you are calling about our new All Function Box, Version 6.725, please visit our Website at www.hightechbubblewonders.com. We want you to know how wonderful our product is, even though you are calling because it doesn’t work. If you are calling about versions 1.0 through 6.724, you are out of luck; we don’t support them any more.

Surveys show that, on the average, callers spend twenty minutes on our Website, fruitlessly looking for answers, before calling us. But we want you to do it again. Our Call Center is overloaded. Anyway, the more we make you wait before we tell you anything useful, the more shouters will hang up. Please feel free to hang up now.

Now you are ready to make your selection. Please listen to the following options carefully. We change them every day, so you can’t call back without listening to obnoxious promotions. If you push the number you used the last time you called, you will get the wrong department and have to dial again. Here are your options:

Choose 1 for our sales department, to buy more of our wonderful products that don’t work. Although most of you called for technical support, we put this choice first because our sales people are so cheerful. We like good cheer, and we like revenue. We don’t like problems and expenses. We especially hate shouting.

Choose 2 for billing problems. We put this choice second because we like to be paid. Also, with each additional nonresponsive choice, more shouters tune out. Please feel free to hang up now.

Choose 3 for our voice-activated automatic response system. This is a poorly designed, excruciatingly slower version of our Website. We provide it as a special service to dyslexic customers. If you’re tired of waiting to do anything useful, please hang up now.

Choose 4 for technical support. We know this is what most of you have been waiting for, but you’re not done yet. After you make this choice, you will hear another long menu, carefully designed with the most-used choices last. By the time you finish listening to this menu, 95% of shouters will have punched holes through the drywalls near their desks and hung up. Now we’re ready to talk.

* * *

Congratulations! You have chosen the instructions for using our Tech Support Center.

Since you made this choice, you are probably a moron. So we are now going to explain everything very carefully, using an excruciatingly slow and cloyingly cheerful synthesized voice. Please have a large bowl ready by your side as you listen. By the time you have heard our drippy, saccharine voice through its entire spiel, you will want to vomit, unless you idolize Mary Poppins. We don’t want you to get barf on our wonderful All Function Box.

Here’s how our Tech Support Center works. We give you one call for free. We automatically connect you to one of our greenest, most cheerfully cretinous representatives—a specially selected high-school dropout. Your rep will have had a three-day crash course in technical support and will be prepared to diagnose and solve problems that the doctorate-level engineers who design our products couldn’t avoid.

The purpose of this first call is to explain exactly what your problem is. Please speak slowly and clearly. Most entry-level reps have learned our product terminology only the previous week, and they have to take careful on-screen notes.

Your rep’s note-taking is a crucial step in the process. Most of the time, entry-level reps fail to ask the right questions or record relevant facts. This means you’ll have to call back again, and then we’ll charge you. So pay attention.

Your first call will not likely solve your problem. (Most of the time, it doesn’t.) But please be patient with our entry-level reps. If they don’t get your story right, all your subsequent calls will fail, too. Remember the childhood game of “telephone”? Your entry-level rep is the first person in the circle to hear your message.

Anyway, we have ways of making you courteous. Our computer monitors all our entry-level support calls. If you swear or shout, it will automatically disconnect you. If you ask to speak to a supervisor, it will put you on hold for five minutes and automatically disconnect you. If your free call lasts more than a hour, it will automatically disconnect you. If you take the name of God in vain, a synthesized voice will chastise you for blasphemy and automatically disconnect you. Just to put the fear of God in you, our computer automatically disconnects 5% of calls at random.

If by some chance we don’t disconnect you, our reps will ask about your other high-tech products—like operating systems—that work with our product. All these other products are just as hideously complicated and just as defective as ours. Our rep will tell you that some other manufacturer’s product is responsible for your problem and will give you the toll-free number of that manufacturer’s telephone queue.

Ninety percent of high-tech firms in North America belong to our beloved trade association AATQC (pronounced “At-Quack”). This is an acronym for All-American Telephone Queue Conspiracy. The Baby Bells—what’s left of them—and all long-distance companies are nonvoting members. You can take your pick of telephone queues, but they are all the same.

AATQC’s ethical rules require each manufacturer to point its finger at the others. On the average, it will cost you 3.76 times more in time and aggravation to find out who caused a problem than to junk all nonperforming products. The industry earns more money that way; after all, we’re all in this together!

Upon being disconnected, or after being referred to another queue, you may notice an unusual gurgling sound. Please don’t be alarmed. That will be the sound of your own voice, vocalizing the driving philosophy of AATQC: hopeless despair.

We put hopeless despair to work by making sure you never talk to the same rep twice. Each time you call, you must repeat your whole story from scratch. Of course, it gets longer each time because the previous rep asked the wrong questions or the current rep failed to read the previous reps’ notes. (Remember that game of telephone?) It gets even better when you have to call the reps of several different manufacturers, all pointing fingers at each other. By the time you figure out that we are all actually leaving you to solve the problem yourself, the industry will have extracted from you, on the average, 80% of what it can expect to get before you call your lawyer. And you will have spent 70% more than the price of our product on psychiatric help.

The burned-out computer programmers who serve as AATQC’s industrial psychologists made our core philosophy do double duty. Not only did they put hopeless despair to work for you. They also imbued our reps with the same motivation.

Have you seen those old pictures of nineteenth-century industrial sweatshops—the ones with the drab brick walls and identical machines in endless rows? AATQC members’ call centers are just like that. Reps work in endless rows of identical cubicles. They have no privacy. They endure ceaseless eavesdropping by supervisors and relentless pressure to increase their call rate. Their brief training makes them feel hopelessly inadequate as they try and fail repeatedly to solve problems they can’t begin to understand.

Your sense of pity at their abject failure adds to your own feeling of hopeless despair. We exploit this piteous bonding to reinforce the customer relationship.

Best of all, no rep ever speaks to the same customer twice. The rep who takes your call today is not responsible for yesterday’s mess, and today’s rep knows the next one will have to clean up the mess he makes today. Not only is there no responsibility or continuity and no human relationship; no one learns from his or her mistakes. And another hapless and impatient customer is always waiting on the line. AATQC worked hard to squeeze all vestiges of human feeling, learning and personal responsibility out of the customer relationship. And what a great job it did!

We are very proud of our own Call Center. It has the lowest suicide rate in the industry. Our average tech support rep leaves at least three months before even contemplating suicide. That helps us keep our salary and insurance costs down. Our alumnae and alumni who don’t later commit suicide work happily as supermarket clerks, gas-station attendants, forest rangers, and hit men.

Our creative use of hopeless despair makes the industry gobs of money. On the average, customers tune out before their problems are solved, but only after paying heavily for useless products and useless support.

What’s more, our system protects our reps. Shouters and angry customers tune out early, leaving only the passive-aggressive ones to contend with. While passive aggressives can be vengeful, we have taken precautions. Like most AATQC members’, our Call Center is in central North Dakota, right next to the nuclear missile silos. Elite Marines patrol its perimeters, so don’t even think about revenge.

Not many of our savvy tech support customers come back for more. But AATQC has solved that problem, too. P.T. Barnum said it best: “There’s one born every minute.”

Now that you know how our system works, please make your selection. After doing so, you will have to wait (click, pause) . . . twenty minutes (click) for a rep. While you wait, we will bombard you with loud and intrusive promotions or heavy-metal rock music. So don’t even try to use a speaker phone or headset to get any work done while you wait. Remember: if you hang up now or make a mistake, you’ll have to listen to this whole spiel again. Have a nice day.



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