Restructuring expert attention to revive the lost art of personal customer service

Instead of mourning the lost art of personal customer service, I would rather celebrate examples that show it’s still possible. Yesterday I found two gems.

First, Southwest Airlines. I had booked a round-trip flight and then needed to change to one-way. You can’t do that online. So I clenched my jaw, called customer service, and prepared for the long wait.

Instead, this:

IVR: “Would you like us to call you back in about 20 minutes?”

Me: “Why…yes! Beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, beep, #.”

My jaw relaxed.

Twenty or so minutes later, an agent called back and we made the change. Now the unclenched jaw morphed into a smile.

Second, I’m making interior storm windows and I need double-stick tape for the project. Which, sure, you can buy online. But the smorgasbord of choices is paralyzing. I wasted a half-hour trying to figure out which product would best suit my unusual application and made no progress whatsoever.

Then, at, I read this:

If you have a specific question related to which tape would work best in your application please fill out and submit the following fields so that we can have an appropriate representative get back in contact with you.

A fellow named Kevin wrote back, we’ve have been discussing my options, and now I’m ready to buy.

Both examples remind me of Michael Nielsen’s luminous phrase: the restructuring of expert attention. He coined it to define a new era of scientific collaboration, but it applies more broadly.

We’ve been told that companies can’t afford to focus expert attention on customers. The truth, of course, is that they can’t afford not to.

For a generation and more we’ve driven a wedge between people who have expertise with products and services and people who need that expertise. How’s that working for you? Me neither.

It’s true that expert attention is a scarce resource. But we’re living through a Cambrian explosion of awareness networks and communication modes. Used adroitly, they can optimize the allocation of that scarce resource. Which is a fancy way of saying: Maybe personal customer service isn’t a lost art after all.