Labun Jordan: Virtual VIP

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(HOST) As Vermont polished up its Norman Rockwell image for the foliage season, commentator Helen Labun Jordan started thinking about how an economy built on personal attention in a small town will fare in the digital age, when everything we want seems to be one click or screen tap away.

(LABUN JORDAN) I recently participated in my first staffed conference call. This idea of staff for a phone call was completely new to me.

Normally, conference calls use a series of automated menus, half remembered pass-codes, and infinite hold loops to dump you onto one phone line filled with people who forget to press mute while they start doing things in the background.

The staffed conference call began with a secretary named Mary taking my name, checking the spelling, and then informing me that because I was speaking on the call I was on the VIP list. She would escort me to the pre-conference meeting room.

“Mr. Maguire,” Mary said to our host, “Ms. Jordan is entering the room; the main room will be admitting participants in 4 minutes. Is there anything you need?”

I could almost see the doors swing open into a green room filled with my fellow presenters, lounging on couches and sipping spritzers. Every few minutes Mary checked on our well being. I was an honest to goodness virtual VIP.

A week later, at a presentation on the digital future, I heard an anecdote from Electric Town in Japan. The speaker had been walking down the sidewalk when a signal from his phone caused a nearby billboard to flash his picture alongside a Nikon ad – and direct him to a sale around the corner.

This should have been another example of VIP treatment in the digital age – a billboard reconfiguring itself to match your personal shopping needs! But to me it didn’t feel like VIP status. It was a nifty trick, but more akin to ordering flowers for delivery to your own doorstep – without another person, the dynamic just isn’t the same.

What the billboard really demonstrated is that today we can personalize almost anything – building our own news rooms with selected blog feeds, or watching favorite TV shows on our own schedule. But ‘personalized’ doesn’t mean quite what it did back when there was an actual person involved.

This shift is important for Vermont, where many businesses have been built on old fashioned personalization, the kind that meant special treatment, not just customized services. And today it’s possible to benefit both from the new technology and from the value of having actual people in our interactions.

Visitors to a sugaring operation can still enjoy an insider’s tour – and also enjoy the convenience of ordering syrup whenever they want online.

Customers in a downtown bookstore may value a conversation with the owner more than they value an algorithm that spits out ads based on past purchases; but they might also rely on Facebook for updates on the next author reading.

A lot has changed in today ’s economy, but we still like personal attention to go with our customized gadgets now and again; and who doesn’t like a bit of VIP treatment – even if it’s just for the length of a phone call.

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