Volume 14, 
December, 2016


Is it Wrong to Understand Your Customer?
Arguments for and against using the customer as the unit of measure for defining new products


Sheila Mello


Two respected thinkers in the innovation community recently published new books. Clayton Christensen came out with Competing Against Luck: The Story of Innovation and Customer Choice and Tony Ulwick authored Jobs to be Done: Theory to Practice. These books made me consider how we have to choose our language carefully when talking about getting to the essence of what our customers desire—and will pay for.

Ulwick famously came up with the idea that consumers don’t purchase products; rather, they “hire” the product to “do a job.” Only by understanding “jobs to be done,” Ulwick asserts, can a company create a product that the consumer wants to “hire.”

Christensen, quoted in a recent Forbes interview, argues that his new book is based on the idea that “What you need to understand [instead of the customer] is rather that every day things happen to us. Jobs arise that have to be done. Understanding the job is the right unit of analysis.”

To me, these ideas seem like not much more than a semantic distinction, a fancy approach to a concept that PDC has been dedicated to for decades: understanding the customer in a way that transcends stated goals and desires to get beneath the surface to latent needs.

I worry that by focusing on jobs to be done, organizations will tie themselves up in knots to describe what consumers are currently doing. A lab manager who wants timely test results, for example, would be described as “hiring” a new piece of lab equipment to speed up the “job” of sample testing. 

But would such a characterization necessarily lead to a breakthrough product? What if, by focusing on the “job” of sample testing, the company offering lab management solutions misses the bigger issue: the challenge of keeping up with a complex and growing body of regulations? Maybe the real barrier to productivity isn’t how quickly samples can be processed but rather the complexity of compliance issues.

It doesn’t matter what you call what the customer is doing. It only matters that you capture the emotional struggle surrounding that activity. 

So call it a need, a desire, a job to be done—but make sure that you have a reliable, evidence-based, and repeatable process for gathering data about the customer’s emotional state. Somehow, you have to make the leap from understanding the customer to innovation.

Perhaps this aversion to understanding customers arises from a recognition that there are both productive and unproductive ways to do so. For example, companies may be advised to ask open-ended questions of their customers. While it’s true that open-ended questions will yield more useful information than yes/no questions, simply using open-ended questions doesn’t guarantee success. We worked with a client who had developed a questionnaire containing no fewer than eighteen open-ended questions! When interviewing, they stuck doggedly to the questions on the page. In the process, they missed an important opportunity for open-ended exploration.

In some cases, you need only one question to start the conversation. Then you rely on skilled interviewers to follow up customer responses with probing questions like “tell me more” or “what happened after that?”

No matter what you decide to name what you’re doing—open ended questioning, jobs to be done, or something else—make sure you’re

  • Digging deeply to understand the barriers your customer has to accomplishment or satisfaction;
  • Soliciting information in a way that goes beyond stated needs and desires;
  • Recording your interviews or encounters with customers to avoid filtering the information before translating it into images that will eventually become requirements.

There are subtleties to the process of understanding your customer. Just be sure you don’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater in your eagerness to try a new approach.

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