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« 120 seconds (shipping vs. rushing) | Main | No decisions, no responsibility »

Getting smart about the time tax

If you want to go to Shakespeare in the Park in New York, you need to really want to go.

That's because it's free. Well, mostly free. They use a time-honored tradition to be sure that the tickets are allocated to people who truly want them: they tax the interested by having them wait on line, for hours sometimes.

It seems egalitarian, but it's actually regressive, because it doesn't take into account the fact that different people value their time differently. People with time to spare are far more likely to be rewarded.

Another example: Call the company that sells your favorite tech brand and ask for customer service. You'll be on hold for one to sixty minutes. Why do they do this? They can obviously afford to answer the phone right away, can't they?

Like the mom who waits for the sixth whine before responding to her kid, these companies are making sure that only people who really and truly need/want to talk to them actually get talked to. Everyone else hangs up long before that.

You can hear the CFO, "well, if we answered on the first ring, more people would call!"

Again, at first glance, this seems like a smart way to triage with limited resources. But once again, it misses the opportunity to treat different people differently. Shouldn't the really great customer, or the person about to buy a ton of items get their call answered right away? The time tax is a bludgeon, a blunt instrument that can't discriminate.

We don't need to make people wait in line for anything if we don't want to. Why not have the most eager theater goers trade the three hours they'd spend in line in exchange for tutoring some worthwhile kid instead? Instead of wasting all that time, we could see tens of thousands of people trading the lost time for a ticket and a chance to do something useful. (Money is just one way to adjudicate the time tax problem, but there are plenty of other resources people can trade to get to the head of the line).

This logic of scarcity can be applied to countless situations. First-come, first-served is non-digital, unfair and expensive. And yet we still use it all the time, in just about everyone situation where there is scarcity.

The opportunity isn't to auction off everything to the highest bidder, but it might lie in understanding who is waiting and what they're willing to trade for the certainty and satisfaction of getting out of line. [A great example].

When in doubt, treat different customers differently.

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