Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Billing for Wasted Time

Last week as I was driving to a meeting I was listening to the Clark Howard show on the local talk radio station. If you've never heard the show, it's basically a 3-hour call-in session where listeners can get answers to financial questions. The show's tag line is, "pack a punch in your wallet, spend less, save more, and avoid getting ripped off!"

One of the calls I heard came from a woman who wanted to talk about Dell. She had bought a computer from Dell, had been promised a $100 rebate, but was having trouble getting her check. Lots of people have had similar problems, apparently. So she called Dell to complain. She was asked to fax in her information again. Nothing happened. She called and faxed again. Nothing happened. She sent a certified letter, and so on. She was quite persistent -- Clark even gave her a pitbull award. To make a long story short, in the end she was rewarded for her persistence -- she got three rebate checks instead of one.

This situation begs two questions. First, why is Dell offering rebates? You call up Dell, you order your computer, Dell ships you your computer... If they are going to give you a rebate, why not simply put the rebate check in the box with the computer? And if Dell is going to do that, why not simply reduce the price by $100 in the first place, rather than offering a rebate? It would cost Dell a lot less to reduce the price than to print a separate check, track the check, mail the check, etc. Something smells fishy.

The second question is this: Perhaps Dell has a legitimate reason for using rebates -- some weird tax law, for example. If so, how hard can it be to mail a rebate check? Dell already has the customer's name and address. Dell has successfully shipped a 50 pound computer and monitor to that address. How hard can it be to mail a check to the same address?

The woman's question to Clark was, "So Dell sent me three checks instead of one. Should I send back the extra $200 Dell sent me?" Clark's answer was that yes, she should be honest and send the $200 back, but she should deduct her expenses (for example, the cost of the certified letter).

Here's my question. Her expenses were a lot more than the cost of that certified letter. This woman has also had to waste a whole lot of her time calling Dell, wading through the voice mail system, waiting on hold to talk to somebody, actually talking to somebody and explaining the problem, etc. If the woman works and she makes $40,000 a year, her time is worth at least $20 per hour. Why can't she bill Dell for the wasted time as well? If she wasted two hours on all the phone calls, letters, etc., she would deduct $40 for her time.

Think about what this concept might mean at a societal level. How much time do we waste, and what if we got paid for all of that time? For example:That last example is especially interesting -- it is amazing how much of an effect one little fender-bender can have on a whole bunch of people (and the businesses they work for). And what about the case where over-development leaves traffic snarled every morning. What if you could bill the department of transportation or the developers for the time wasted on daily traffic problems?

In our lives we tend to think of our time as "free". If a company or government agency wastes our time, we have no way to recover it. That means there is no reason for companies not to waste our time -- they can do it with abandon. If we were to make all wasted time billable, it might be amazing to see how efficient our society could get.

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