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Dysfunctional Queue
Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Today, I encountered one of the most dysfunctional queues in my history with queues. This sounds rash, but a queue puts items in and takes them out in the same order they went in, so any queue that doesn't do this is broken or should not be called a queue--this is a black or white, true or false issue.

I found this unqueueing queue behavior in an automated phone system. It was infuriating. My interaction with the system went as follows:
    I needed to place an order for graduation pictures, so I called the 1 800 number provided in the ordering package (I'll withhold the company name, but if you have graduated in Ontario, chances are this company took your pictures). I was immediately put into the system, which ordered me to press 1 to get connected to a live "customer representative."

    It was around 4:00 PM, so I knew it was going to be a busy time and perhaps a long wait. I immediately got the generic message "We're sorry, but all our customer representatives are busy. Someone will be with you in a moment. Your number in the queue is 5. You are next to talk to a customer representative."

    I'm thinking, "Great, I'm next in the queue." However, being number 5 in a queue doesn't mean next, unless there are exactly 5 customer representatives and are able to simultaneously take the 5 calls exactly at the same time. I didn't pay to much attention to this, so I kept waiting.

    A couple of minutes go by and the message came up again and said "We're sorry...blah, blah, blah...Your number in the queue is 3. You are next to talk to a customer representative." Wait, I thought I was next. Oh, well.

    A couple of more minutes go by and the message again said "We're sorry...blah, blah, blah...Your number in the queue is 2. You are next to talk to a customer representative." This message gave me hope: I went from 5 to 2.

    But then something happened to my queue number. I heard the automated message come up again saying "We're sorry...blah, blah, blah...Your number in the queue is 7 [that's not a typo; it said number 7]. You are next to talk to a customer representative."

    What do you mean 7: I started at 5, now I'm 7, after being 2.
I'm not sure what happened here, but if you give me a number in a queue, I'd expect it to decrease with time, NOT increase. I waited for about 20 minutes and this pattern kept repeating: you are number 5...4...6...3...2...5. I hang up.

I tried again later, and the same thing happened. However, this time I waited until I could place my order.

Jason B. MacDonald and Kirk Smith wrote a paper titled "The effects of technology-mediated communication on industrial buyer behavior," published in the Industrial Marketing Management journal, stating that the satisfaction level with any point of communication with a company has a great effect on future purchase intentions. This is clearly such case where my satisfaction with this broken queuing system almost determined my purchase. I hang up the first time and only called again because my mom likes to hang pictures of her kids in her living room. If it were up to me, I wouldn't have called back.

I do wonder if the managers of this company know or care their system is broken, and that this automated mistake has a negative effect on their customers?

8:51 PM | 3 comment(s) |


Haven't you ever heard of a priority queue? Obviously you weren't high on the priority list.
By Blogger Alex, at 11:38 AM

Well, yes, I have heard of priority queues. But a priority queue is a different data structure, hence the name "priority queue" and not just a "queue." The system in question called itself a queue.

I still stand by my statement that the queue is broken, or should not be called a queue. To be technically correct, it should say "your number in the modified [priority if you like] queue is X." :)

But a question arises: if calls are coming in randomly, how is the system to determine which call will have higher priority? Leave aside the fact that some customers are more important than others, depending on how they will spend, how does the system know this?

There are many likely technical scenarios to explain the behavior, but from a customer's perspective it's annoying to be played like that: you are 5...Now 3...Now 7...Now 2...Now 7 again...

My first thought would be that perhaps some customers who were talking to reps were put on hold for whatever reason, the system could be basic enough that it counts them as part of the queue, and at the top of it since they are already in a "conversation".

Of course that doesn't quite jive with the queue positions you mention. That would be a lot of ppl on hold at strange times.
By Blogger Matt, at 9:44 PM

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