In response to a blog post I wrote a couple of years ago using Google Instant as an illustration,[i] one concerned reader commented, “Google Instant is not the problem. Instant works swimmingly. However, your colleagues should stop clogging the tubes with email FWDs and consider that the real issue here is PEBKAC.” Overlooking for the moment the insult to my colleagues, I had to look up PEBKAC – with Google no less. “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair.” Got it.

Overlooking for the moment the insult to my colleagues, I had to look up PEBKAC – with Google no less. “Problem Exists Between Keyboard And Chair.” Got it. The customer is the problem with your innovative product or service! (Perhaps this was also a veiled suggestion that the problem with my blog was between my keyboard and chair, but that’s a topic for a therapist to deal with.)

I tried unsuccessfully to explain to John U that the error in his thinking was that his focus was on the service whereas my focus was on the job-to-be-done. As I wrote then, “No doubt PEBKAC comes into play in many scenarios where it seems that services are underperforming. When the focus is on the customer job, though, we’re not even talking about a presumed solution – just outcomes I want to achieve in getting a job done. To suggest that all user frustrations, inconveniences, and suboptimal results that are obtained when searching for information on the web come back to something the user has done wrong is to suggest that the perfect solution already exists out there if only it weren’t for those incompetent users.”

John U is not alone in this preoccupation with the elegance of a solution if only weren’t for those incompetent customers. Case in hand. DePuy Orthopaedics currently faces more than 10,000 lawsuits in connection with its all-metal artificial hip implant known as A.S.R. However, internal documents that have become public reveal that “In the face of growing complaints from surgeons about the A.S.R., DePuy officials maintained that the problems were related to how surgeons were implanting the cup, not from any design flaw.”[ii](emphasis added)

This is the real problem with PEBKAC thinking; it stifles innovation because it looks at value as something that a company creates and that a customer consumes. When problems emerge with products that meet design specifications, it encourages the company to consider the problem as someone else’s responsibility.

In so doing, it fails to recognize that value is not created until the customer partners with an offering to get a job done.[iii] Customer competence and product competence (service) come together to create value. And it is the company’s responsibility to prepare the customer for their role in value creation or to incorporate competencies in its products or services that compensate for what the customer lacks.

Consider how Jenny Craig helps create value by addressing a common point of failure in a customer’s weight loss journey. Because many customers lack time, motivation, and skill to make healthy shopping decisions, Jenny Craig sells nutritious prepared meals to essentially build into its service offering a competency that the customer lacks.

I was recently asked to give a presentation to the executive board of a prominent service company. As part of my preparation, I reviewed some internal documents about the services the company offers. One image I came across (modified to protect confidentiality) illustrates the product-centric focus of many companies concerning value creation. With a product-centric focus, value is presumed to be embedded in our solution based on our unique assets, processes, and offering features.

To contrast this perspective, I shared the following image with the executive team. The point of this illustration is to change the focus of the company from its proposed solution to the customer job-to-be-done and to recognize that company offerings do not create value until they are combined with other resources and customer competencies. In other words, the company’s goal is not to create an elegant offering independent of considerations of the customer’s role in value creation. Rather, it is to create offerings that help the customer to get a job done in given contexts with full appreciation of the other resources and competencies required to succeed. 

Companies that consider their product or service to have embedded value blame the customer when things go wrong and they fail to recognize the innovation opportunities that come from a broadened perspective of when and where value is created. Further, they tend to talk about our domain and the customer domain as though such a delineation were real or mattered to the customer who is trying to get a job done. In contrast, a focus on the customer job reveals that such a delineation is artificial and this broadened perspective fuels service innovation.

For example, a few years ago, I worked with Abbott Medical Optics to uncover service innovation opportunities to complement their ophthalmic lenses. As shared in a recent article (p. 21),[iv] “Historically, service delivery/support by AMO and its competitors stayed out of the back room of surgical eye centres, presuming this to be the ‘customer’s space.’ Upon examining the job that materials managers were trying to get done, however, AMO realized that such a front-office/back-office distinction was artificial. Company executives were particularly intrigued to learn that materials managers often received requests for lens orders from ophthalmologists too late for standard ordering and replenishment. Because this had to do entirely with the processes of the surgical centre, it had not occurred to AMO—or its competitors—to address the issue. The job-centric approach to service innovation, though, prompted the company to take a more encompassing look at its customers’ needs.

This fresh insight led to the development of an advanced schedule-planning and inventory management software module, designed to aid materials managers with timely and effective lens replenishment. The system allows ophthalmologists or their assistants to input case needs and scheduling information data. The system then analyzes those needs, available inventory, and shipping requirements, and makes order recommendations—even automatically generating orders to cover known case needs! Finally, the system also generates status reports for materials managers to help them determine what actions need to be taken to ensure the availability of lenses for a surgical case.”

So, John U, the real issue when the customer struggles to use your service to get a job done is not PEBKAC (and my colleagues are not idiots). The real issue is that too many companies have artificially distinguished between what the company does and what the customer does as though the company has no role or responsibility for the latter. When value creation is viewed in relation to the job the customer is trying to get done, we come to realize that managing customer competence not only falls within the domain of the company’s responsibility, but it also offers an opportunity to introduce truly innovative and differentiated products and services – those that create value despite any customer resource or competency limitations.


[i] http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2011/02/innovations_in_service_must_lo.html

[ii] http://www.nytimes.com/2013/01/31/business/during-trial-new-details-emerge-on-dupuy-hip.html?nl=todaysheadlines&emc=edit_th_20130131&_r=1&

[iii] My own thinking on the customer role in getting a job done has been nicely complemented with the service dominant logic insights of Bob Lusch and Steve Vargo. Check it out at http://www.sdlogic.net/

[iv] Bettencourt, Lance A., Stephen W. Brown, and Nancy J. Sirianni (2013), “The Secret to True Service Innovation,” Business Horizons, 56 (January-February), 13-22. Available online at: http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/journal/00076813

Original Post: http://www.service360partners.com/my-service-is-perfect-its-those-incompetent-customers-that-are-the-problem/

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