Buzzword of the Week: Bringing the 'Pain Point'

Businessman and buzzwords.
Businessman and buzzwords.

For anybody who has ever seen Marathon Man or spent an afternoon in a dentist's chair, the concept of "pain points" is fairly easy to understand. In its clearest interpretation, a pain point is exactly what it sounds like: an area of unpleasantness that one is likely to strenuously avoid or -- if need be -- try to fix.

But buzzwords sometimes shift meanings, and for a significant group of boardroom buzzwordistas, pain point now means something very different. Beginning in the early 2000s, writers started using the term to delineate the moment at which a situation becomes so irritating that a consumer feels compelled to seek out a remedy. It's the moment when the room gets stiflingly hot, the stomach grumbles become impossible to ignore, or -- for music lovers -- when that irritating Kim Kardashian song comes on the radio. The pain point, in other words, is when you get out of the chair and try to fix the problem.

Time for Pain

One of the first articles to use the term this way appeared in July 2000. Discussing the adoption of customer relationship management software, CFO Magazine's Scott Leibs noted that "One school of thought holds that companies should focus on a critical 'pain point' and buy whatever software product meets that immediate need." While Leibs' usage fit the traditional notion of a pain point as an irritation, it also suggested the "moment of change" definition that later came into common usage.

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Recently, PPC blog explained the inherent sadism of this latter definition in somewhat disturbing detail: "You want your customers to be in a ... painful position, not in the sense that you wish pain upon them, but you do want them to have a burning need." The article goes on to note why a pain point is so useful to a company owner: "The customers that are most likely to convert have a pain that they need to alleviate. Now."

In other words, for business owners, a customer's pain can be good. After all, if a company can solve a pain point, it will become more popular with consumers, and its products will sell well. This perspective emerged in a recent article on network access firm NetClarity, when Tom Corn, chief strategy officer for computer security firm RSA (EMC), noted that a key integration with NetClarity meant that "together we're helping customers solve a critical pain point."

A Thousand Points of Pain

But not everyone agrees with the most recent definition of the word. In a recent article about wireless provider T-Mobile (DTEGY), Vice President Frank Sickinger was quoted using a more traditional version of the term when he noted that "International roaming rates are often seen as a major pain point for" international consumers. Similarly, Gail Goodman, CEO of e-mail marketer Constant Contact, recently noted that "building highly-engaged customer relationships is the number one pain point for small organizations." In both cases, the term "pain point" basically means ... well, pain.

As if things weren't confusing enough, a third meaning for the term is emerging. More accurately defined as "pinch point" or limiting factor, this version of pain point is a key factor or problem that limits the development or expansion of a program. Recently, Ross Hudgens used the phrase that way, noting that the pain point in SEO optimization is "time wasted performing data entry type tasks." In this case, the pain point is measured in terms of limited effectiveness.

On the surface, a pain point sounds like something most companies would go out of their way to avoid. After all, even in its most benign form, the phrase has an unpleasant connotation, and a company's boast of its ability to inspire pain points seems likely to be taken out of context. Yet, logic aside, pain points are gaining popularity in boardrooms across the country, suggesting that, when it comes to buzzwords, the reality might be no pain, no gain.

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