Jobs-to-be-done’s place in a customer-centric organization

On Twitter, I asked this question:

I asked it, as I had a conversation in recent days with a fellow from a large corporate. Customer-centricity was recently adopted as an internal mantra, but the manifestation of that was…wait for it…sentiment analysis.

It’s a start, right? But is it really a difference-maker?

I’ve written recently about jobs-to-be-done. As in, what customers hire your product to do. Those jobs have a tendency to (i) be hidden from you; and (ii) change over time. Knowing, and acting on, jobs-to-be-done (JTBD acronymized) is probably one of the most customer-centric things a company can do. You’re getting deep into what someone is buying your product for.

While I don’t work for a large corporate, I am integrating jobs-to-be-done in some work on next generation gamification elements for the Spigit platform. Why? Because there are many different types of game mechanics that can be applied to a platform. But why would you add any of them? To better deliver on what your customers hire you to do. To accomplish this, I’m using the Listhings site – online post-it notes – to collect and socialize these. I follow my own format for JTBD: context, job, success metric. An actual (blurred-out) example is below:

You know what? Customers love talking about their jobs-to-be-done. Seriously.  I usually schedule an inital hour to talk about them, and every single company has wanted to continue to the conversation for another hour. The conversations are not just good customer relations, which they are. They are leading to areas where the Spigit platform can apply game mechanics to improve their outcomes.

But apparently, this approach is sort of radical. As only 7% of firms are deemed to be customer-centric.

Where would JTBD fit?

Which got me thinking. What exactly are companies doing today, at least in the product and service development arena? Where would customer jobs-to-be-done fit with existing approaches? The graphic below is my take on what’s happening out there:

The center blue area represents the work of ideating, designing and producing products and services. The top grey boxes floating around up there? Those are the current factors influencing the product/service development process.

Market Analysis: Classic input for product development here. What are the trends? What are competitors doing? What’s going on in adjacent markets? You’re got to do this. It’s a source of ideas, and evidence of what customers are gravitating toward.

Executive Fiat: Does this really happen??? Heh, just joking of course. This will be a reality forever, and it’s actually appropriate in mild doses.  The thing to watch is the bull-in-the-china-shop approach, where that product is gonna get done, I’m not listening to anyone! Perhaps too many executives subscribe to the Steve Jobs-attributed notion that customers don’t know what they want (“So I’m going to give it to them!”).

Usage Vectors: Once you have product out there, you learn what people are using, what they value in the existing product features. And you continue to develop along those vectors. It’d be irresponsible to do otherwise. Just watch getting stuck on those vectors and missing the market shifts.

Customer Service Tickets: As people use your product, they’re going to file requests and report issues. These items are some clues to what people are trying to get done. They suffer from being narrow, focused on a specific interaction point and grounded in what they know of the current product. But you can divine some of what people want to get done from these.

Customer Surveys: Surveys get you closer to customers. Polling people’s preferences for difference attributes and behaviors. Good input as you consider a product or venture. Problem with surveys is that the questions are set ahead of time. Whoever puts them together has to decide what the key factors are. But that leaves a huge hole in understanding what customers themselves value.

Focus Groups: A favorite activity of large companies is to get some random people in a room for a couple hours and ask them about some concept being tested. In that these sessions have actual people talking, they are nominally useful. But common critiques of these are that

  • Participants tell researchers what they want to hear
  • The format is unnatural – forced face-to-face interactions with strangers for two hours in a closed room
  • Alpha personalities sway things
  • What’s discussed are already-decided concepts, not insight on what customers are looking to get done

As was stated in this 2003 Slate article, “The primary function of focus groups is often to validate the sellers’ own beliefs about their product.”

Jobs-to-be-done fills a gap

In all of the popular bases for developing products and services, one can see a gap. Most are a triangulation to understanding what customers want. Now some are quite useful in a customer-centric sense: usage vectors, customer service tickets, surveys. But they’re also piecemeal.

They represent the hope that you’ve got a bead on customer needs and wants.

Why the reluctance to actually talk directly with customers? Seems plain talk in a (not overly) structured way will give you a better sense of where opportunities lie. Aside from the product/service tools listed above, there are the social media engagement practices of today (react to tweets, have a Facebook page, sentiment analysis). All have their place, but they fall short.

Want to be customer-centric? Try talking to your customers.

I’m @bhc3 on Twitter.


Do big companies need a ‘slow development’ movement?

Read this comment by George Ciardi from a discussion about why products fail in the Market Research Group on LinkedIn:

While proper research could certainly be part of the blame for the failure of some new products, I also see the realities of business pressures to launch “no matter what the research says”.

Most companies have internal objective to launch new products throughout the year. These new product launches have sales estimates of demand, which in turn feed through to company projections of future growth.

If you accept my statement to be true for a moment, then it would seem that part of the solution is to have a more flexible business plan and a corporate culture that would permit business objectives to be more fluid and allow for products not to be launched that are not ready to market in the first place.

But who is going to tell the CEO that they will miss their second half sales estimates because their new product isn’t ready to launch just yet? Do we have any takers for that assignment?

A rush to “get something out” can be driven by the calendar. In startup companies, specifically software ones, the advice is to release often. Get stuff out there, see how it performs. Y Combinator’s Paul Graham advocates this.

But does that advice work for large companies? Not just software entities, but other industries as well? It’s not as realistic. PT Boats can adjust course and channel resources much more quickly than can aircraft carriers.

Which puts a premium on “getting it right” as much as possible before release. Not fix what went wrong afterwards. One can argue that philosophically, big companies just need to be more nimble. That advice and $3.00 will get you a cup of coffee.

Big organizations would do well with a slower development cycle that…

Puts a premium on understanding customers jobs-to-be-done: Before developing anything, spend time talking with customers about what their needs, desires and pain points are. There is some of this via focus groups, but my sense is that those are (i) sporadically used; (ii) designed to elicit opinions on something already in development. People who express these jobs are potentially good candidates for any co-creation the company wishes to engage in.

Allows for small experiments: Once you’ve got a bead on what jobs customers are hiring for, try out some solutions. In many ways, this is taking a page from Steve Blank’s customer development methodology. Talk with some customers, particularly the ones who identified the job-to-be-done.

Finally, senior executives need to look at this as an essential part of increasing the odds of success for new product introductions.