Phoney qualifications

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 30 April, 1995, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 30 April, 1995, 12:00am

THE other day I discovered a rule of economics. This might not seem big news to you, but please remember that: (1) I discovered it on my own; (2) generally, I am not known as an economic thinker.

For instance, as a hedge against the diving dollar, I recently put all my money into patacas. My new rule, aka Martin's Law, is: the rate of employment of the country in which a given phone is answered will bear an inverse relationship to the coherence of that telephone conversation. In other words, as an economy grows, companies start hiring more and more people to do less and less.

One of the first priorities of expanding companies is to hire someone who doesn't know anything to answer the phone. As soon as this phone-answerer learns anything, he or she is qualified to move up in the organisation, to be replaced by someone who, once again, doesn't know anything. It's a kind of Peter Principle in reverse: with Martin's Law, a person does not rise to his level of incompetence. Rather, the position itself stays at a level of incompetence, as people come and go. It could happen that the person in this position gets good at another task, say, making coffee. This might necessitate sideways movement - to another company, for instance. This does not affect the equation. The rule looks something like this (you can skip over this part if you're not a professional economist).

coherence = rate of employment - time spent making coffee in min. per day x calls per day (number of years on the job)/Hang Seng Index.

This goes for all companies, by the way. If a one-person shoe and key maker is doing well, his or her first priority is to hire someone to answer the phone poorly. The conversation will usually go like this: 'Phenomenal Fortune Shoes and Keys. Good morning.' 'Hello. Can I have a key made?' (Silence) What brought on the discovery was a phone call I made to a California computer company a few days ago. Cold calls to another country, even one's home country, can be unnerving and costly. In this case, though, the woman answering the phone ended up answering all my questions. That's because in California, like most places in the United States, small companies are in trouble economically. They don't have a single cent available to hire an incompetent to answer the phone. This is how the average job interview in the US goes nowadays: 'What experience do you have?' 'Well, after getting my master's at MIT, I worked at IBM for six years in mainframe software operating system development.' 'That sounds fine. You'll head up our data security division, and of course, you'll be required to answer the phone when the financial director is at a meeting.' In boom economies, it's different. Here is a transcript of a phone conversation I had recently. The person answering the phone spoke excellent English, so there was no language problem.

'Transcontinental Ice-Cube Trays. Good morning.' 'Hello. Can I have your address?' (Four minutes of silence) Eventually I found out the address, but only after being put on hold while the phone-answerer went to look up the address of the building she'd been working in for 17 months. Large companies nowadays are attempting to deal with incompetence by automating it. Instead of a live person who is unable to help you in any way, you get a recorded message that is unable to help you in any way. Until this method takes over completely, you can use Martin's Law. If you find it useful, please pay me some sort of tribute - say, four minutes of silence.