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How I Measure Customer Service: The PITAF

The best way to understand if a company is providing good customer service is how easy it is for customers to get what they came for; internally at CEB, we call this the 'PITAF' (pain in the a%^ factor)

At our recent North American sales kickoff (which convened nearly 2000 people), my colleague Kurt Reisenberg told a story from his first days at the company, which like mine were more than 20 years ago.

He told it about another colleague, Margot Dehn, and a heroic service effort that she and her team pulled off during a customer meeting we were hosting. Without getting into the details, the punch line was that a customer’s purse was stolen at our event (this has happened only once), and Margot and her team were able to replace it by the end of the event.

Not by finding it, but by figuring out what type of purse it was, what was in it, and then scurrying around Washington, DC to replace the purse, and everything in it. Including plane tickets (remember those?). The story damn near brought tears to my — and everyone else’s — eyes as an example of great customer service.

But in subsequent conversations, it became clear that nearly everyone missed the point. All of the follow-up conversation was about how much work Margot’s team put in and how impressed the customer must have been. One of the newer CEBers even used the most forbidden word in our language when he remarked “she must have been delighted.”

It’s Not About Delight

She was, but that wasn’t the point. The goal of our team’s effort wasn’t to dazzle her with our creativity or hard work. The goal was to ensure that she could do what she came there to do – engage with our team and her colleagues and use our research to solve real problems. Restoring the purse allowed her to get on with the task at hand.

The team could have prepared a champagne toast and written and performed an original a capella number to deliver it, but that would have been well beside the point. In fact, it would have defeated the entire purpose, as it would have actually distracted the client.

The reason that the “delight” word is almost a four letter curse at CEB is that we have built a massive data set that suggests most customer service functions point their energy in the wrong direction by focusing on delighting customers. Most service interactions – in both B2C and B2B contexts – begin because a customer wants to do something: ask a question, find a resource, solve a problem.

In general, they aren’t looking to be delighted – especially if “delight” comes at the cost of extra time and service steps. Our research is undeniable: repurchase behavior and long-term customer retention is the product not of delivering moments of delight, but in engineering “effortless” experiences which allow customers to do exactly what they came to the company to do, with the least effort possible. This makes sense when you look at the simplicity of the user experience of Apple and Google.

Low Effort Takes Effort

Low effort isn’t easy. And all too often firms add to the complexity in a misguided attempt to delight their customer base with special touches, instead of simply solving their problems.

CEB is no exception. Across the past decade, we’ve more than tripled our revenue – with all of that growth coming from additional products and services sold to the same customer groups. And we’ve more than doubled the resources available in existing product lines. This means that our average customer must navigate six times as much “stuff” to get the help he or she needs.

Our ability to keep growing means that we need to work hard to ensure that – even as what we can do for someone grows—we actually make it easier to engage with us. This has been far from smooth as the company has scaled, and a few times (including this winter) we’ve had to scramble to reorganize around making life simpler for our customers. But it is, and needs to be, a constant focus.

So what I measure to see if we are making headway or losing ground is technically how much effort it takes for customers to get what they want or need from us. Internally, I talk about minimizing the “PITAF” (pain in the a%^ factor) – how difficult are we to deal with – especially for the most common requests or interest areas.

I try even harder to apply this standard when we launch new products or marketing efforts to make doing business with us a smooth experience. Our clients come to us to do work – and to save time and money doing it. We aren’t a cruise line or resort. Our job is to minimize the PITAF and allow people to do what they need to so they can enjoy dinner at home or leave early for vacation.

A version of this post originally appeared on LinkedIn.

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