Customer-centricity is everywhere in the business vocabulary, perhaps one of the most used buzzwords mentioned in elevator pitches and executive decks. Are we really customer-centric? What does that mean? Our success as Product people lies to a great extent on how well we understand the not-so-obvious patterns in the customer intent and behavior. That understanding helps shape our actions to enable the customer journey — the progress they are making. (Spoiler alert: customer ‘progress’ is what you see as a recurring theme as you read on)
So often hear about how feature-rich a product is, but what we need to understand more — what value is it bringing to our customers. You may have heard the often quoted: “Customers don’t want a quarter-inch drill-bit but a quarter-inch hole.” While that line of inquiry is directionally correct, it needs to go further out … “Why do they need that quarter-inch hole(s) in that wall?” Seth Godin in This is Marketing explains it like this
“What people want is the shelf that will go on the wall once they drill the hole.
Actually, what they want is how they’ll feel once they see how uncluttered everything is when they put their stuff on the shelf that went on the wall now that there’s a quarter-inch hole.
They also want the satisfaction of knowing they did it themselves.
Or perhaps the increase in status they’ll get when their spouse admires the work.
Or the peace of mind that comes from knowing that the bedroom isn’t a mess and that it feels safe and clean.
People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill bit. They want to feel safe and respected. Bingo.”
What is certain, you just cannot sit in your cozy office chair and dream about what works in the market.
Okay, if people don’t care about what you make, what do they want? They want to know what the product does for them. I don’t know if it’s subtle, but there is an essential nuance here. You can build whatever — unless the person on the receiving end perceives it as doing some good for them, they don’t pay attention. Attention, as it is, is a rare resource with so much information overload.
Enter Jobs to be Done.
What is Jobs-to-be-Done (JTBD)?
If you are in the business of building products, do yourself a favor — read @alanklement‘s ‘When Coffee and Kale Compete.’ One of the very best on the topic that has numerous interpretations, many misleading: Jobs To Be Done. https://t.co/y6U21JxS8p
— Surya Suravarapu (@surya_s) February 5, 2020
Jobs to be Done has several interpretations, leading to more confusion. Alan Klement‘s book When Coffee and Kale Compete is a huge step forward that brings some clarity, explains key concepts with case studies, asks some provocative questions, and helps in further investigating for all the curious minds out there.
Each of us, including our users and customers, has a life situation with the current state, say X. We aspire to move to a better future state, say Y. There are constraints or limitations that we cannot make the change all by ourselves. Here is where we look to hire something to make that progress from X to Y. Something can be your product, and that someone can be your customer, only if you understand their motivations and constraints well enough.
In Klement’s words, “Markets grow and transform whenever customers have a Job to be Done, and then buy a product to complete it.” A transformation process indeed.
James Clear writes in Atomic Habits about the source of innovation. Guess what it is? The desire for progress from the state of suffering to a better one. “Suffering drives progress. The source of all suffering is the desire for a state change. This [desire] is also the source of all progress. The desire to change your state is what powers you to take action. It is wanting more that pushes humanity to seek improvements, develop new technologies, and reach a higher level.” Understanding customer habits (which we will get into shortly) is a powerful input for driving innovation.
The users themselves, if they can, may build new solutions: the DIY types. More often than not, they can’t build it by themselves due to various constraints and look to hire a product for the job.
Klement provides a template to describe a JTBD. The statement combines the forces that generate demand with the job when it’s done.
“The emphasis on a struggle for progress is why this JTBD model often uses phrases such as give me, help me, make the, take away, free me, or equip me. These phrases remind us that success comes from the customers using the product to make progress. It also helps you think about how your product fits between where they are now and where they want to be.”
My favorite part of the book is the one that talks about various forces that work in your product’s favor — generating demand. In contrast, others act in the opposite direction inhibiting the demand. Klement describes Push and Pull as demand generators; Inertia and Anxiety as counter-balancing forces.
All these forces we are referring to are from the customer’s perspective. Not surprising if you are following along so far! Customer Jobs or Jobs to be Done, after all.
Let’s jump to a relevant snippet first, and we can peel the onion:
“Appreciating the interdependency between push and pull is why Elon Musk decided that Tesla’s first electric car would be a premium, high-end model. Musk believed he needed first to persuade customers that an electric car could be attractive, perform well, and be practical. He knew he needed to create a pull to begin changing people’s minds. Once he did that, he could begin producing less expensive cars with the manufacturing know-how gained through production experience while maintaining the company with the profits from selling high-margin cars.”
A push may come from a specific circumstance. Your circumstance or environment determines “pushes” for you to make decisions. There is no push for change when satisfied with the status quo. On the flip-side, when you perceive something is lacking, it builds the energy or pushes towards the change — “I don’t like how things are; I want to make a change.”
I can’t put it any better than this: “If a push is an engine that powers customer motivation, the pull is the steering wheel that directs motivation.”
In the electric car (Tesla) example, if I don’t need the car (no push), I don’t care how nice the car is (pull does not matter). But, as my life situation changes and I’m now ready to buy the car (there is a push!), the pull is how your product transforms my life situation (the progress, my JTBD). Push and pull will have to work together to make that demand going. If there is no push, you will end up with the ChotuKool situation described in the following sections.
Forces that reduce or block demand should be investigated and managed with the same enthusiasm as demand generation. Why? These forces are competitors themselves as any product produced by a competing business.
The magic of push and pull working toward progress is not just for the customer but also for your own business. As Klement pointed out, you ought to be equally aggressive in pursuing the demand reducers. The research team led by George Loewenstein studied two types of emotions that create anxiety: 1) anticipatory and 2) anticipated emotions. (We live in our heads, don’t we? Okay, back to the business.) The book refers to the anticipatory emotions as Anxiety-in-choice and the anticipated ones as Anxiety-in-use.
It’s that experience when we don’t know whether a given product works for us or not — to get the Job Done. As part of the product strategy, plan for trials, refunds, and discounts. Let the users get their feet wet. Provide documentation, genuine marketing material, and handouts to help the customer feel safe and minimize risk perception.
Now that the customer bought the product (or at least given it a try), your next hurdle is to activate and empower them as quickly as possible to alleviate any anxiety from the usage.
Understanding as precisely as possible the users’ struggle while using your product goes a long way toward improving customer acquisition and retention needs. Stay close with the customer: every week or month; whatever cadence makes sense to you. Co-create whenever possible. Keep that feedback coming. It is the fuel required to propel your go-to-market engine.
Like anxiety, there is another demand reducer that we are all quite familiar with — a preference for the status quo, also known as inertia. Making a decision and dealing with the consequences is far better than indecision (I’m sure there are exceptions). Klement explains, “Think of inertia as ‘a tendency to do nothing or remain unchanged.’ Inertia can manifest in different ways. Mostly, inertia forces are habits: habits-in-choice and habits-in-use. Understanding customers’ habits play an important part in your ability to offer innovations.”
This is a dominant force propelled by the concerns of switching costs from the current solution to the new product. Your job is to understand the fears, validate them, and offer solutions. A possible solution, for example, is to provide import/export tools to migrate the data safely. This tooling has to be part of your product management and go-to-market strategy. A proactive approach wins the day. Remember, there is only one first impression. By the time you deal with the damage control, you have already lost the perception game.
Once the customers make the purchase, you remove the inertia related to habits-in-choice, but you still need to track the product usage metrics. The customers may go back to their previous solutions or combine your product with some other compensatory behavior. Humans — old habits die hard! That may be fine, but you have to be in the mix working with the customer to learn the factors that could potentially limit your product’s success.
Inertia and Anxiety are your silent competitors. At its core, innovation is about helping customers make progress. Get them to that better version of life that they aspire to. It’s not just about helping customers break constraints by pulling them with flashy, new features. A lot of not-so-sexy work is involved.
Understanding the Competition
Sleep is my greatest enemy.
— Netflix US (@netflix) April 17, 2017
One of the eye-opening themes of JTBD is challenging the traditional competitive analysis — the features you offer vs. your competition. While that exercise is useful, you also need to understand different kinds of competition going beyond the business entities competing directly with you. There are numerous other forces, many of which are intangibles.
Reed Hastings, Netflix’s CEO, said a couple of years ago, sleep is one of his competitors. “You know, think about it, when you watch a show from Netflix and get addicted to it, you stay up late at night. You really — we’re competing with sleep, on the margin. And so, it’s a very large pool of time.”
Klement explains, “Customers don’t define or restrict competition based on the functionality or physical appearance. Instead, they use whatever helps them to make progress against a JTBD.” He further adds, “When customers start using a solution for JTBD, they stop using something else.” That something else doesn’t need to be a competitor’s product.
Case in Point
There is an excellent example in the book that drives the point. Clayton Christensen, a revered Harvard professor, joined forces with Godrej and created chotuKool, a lite version of the refrigerator for the poor in rural India (target market). That product failed to gain traction. Envisioned disruption never took place. The main reason: not understanding the competition holistically, including the customers’ current solutions, thinking their race was just with other refrigerator brands. How did rural Indians, Godrej’s target market, unknowingly put a big question mark into the disruptive innovation theory? Their compensatory behaviors are different — they are content with their current “solutions”: “they buy vegetables every day for immediate consumption,” “boil milk to prevent from spoiling,” and “use pot-in-pot to keep food and water cold.”
Customers look for a solution, not a product. If it takes multiple products to get there, so be it. It may involve no product, as we use the term product in the general sense. So the lesson: If you are building anything non-trivial, do not assume your customers’ intent. Our intuition can use some humbleness. Continue to match your intuition with the data by validating your bets on time.
Practice higher-level thinking by looking down on your machine and thinking about how it can be changed to produce better outcomes. pic.twitter.com/G6rKAglFcy
— Ray Dalio (@RayDalio) August 9, 2018
Systems Thinking and Jobs to be Done are deeply interlinked. Mental models resulting from Systems Thinking are essential to understanding customer demand, satisfaction, and overall behavior.
In the business of product building, we too deal with systems. Sometimes the impact of not understanding the system is fatal — ask Blockbuster or Kodak! Quoting Peter M. Senge, “Systems thinking is a discipline for seeing wholes. It is a framework for seeing interrelationships rather than things, for seeing patterns of change rather than static ‘snapshots’.”
In the most basic sense, a system is any group of interacting, interrelated, or interdependent parts that form a complex and unified whole that has a specific purpose. The key thing to remember is that all the parts are interrelated and interdependent somehow. Without such interdependencies, we just have a collection of parts, not a system.
Everything Klement described earlier in the book, like the customers’ challenges and hopes, their desire to make progress (JTBD), the forces of progress: push and pull, and the forces against the progress: anxiety and inertia — you have to look at all of these as interconnected components of a system. The two most essential interdependencies within the progress system are between customer demand and producer.
The two parts in the top hemisphere describe customer demand as a JTBD, whereas the two parts in the bottom describe the producer interacting with that demand.
While an in-depth overview of Systems Thinking is out of scope for this article, let’s quickly define the terminology for a productive conversation. We can understand and view reality from the following multiple levels of perspectives: events, patterns, and system structures.
Events are what we encounter on a day-to-day basis. A couple of examples: a customer reports a defect in your product, a colleague goes out of their way to help with a problem you are dealing with.
Patterns are events repeated. For example, growing customer dissatisfaction about the product quality, or on the more positive side, your colleague consistently demonstrates a high degree of ownership.
Systemic structures are the most difficult to see — continuing with our previous example of product quality — What entities are causing these events and patterns? Who are the actors? What kind of interactions do they have (the culture)? Are people overworked? Are the requirements well-defined, and is the team doing the discovery & delivery as a team? We cannot solve the systemic problem by looking at the fragments in isolation.
Feedback Loops: Two kinds: Reinforcing and balancing feedback loops. Reinforcing ones grow (or fall) in the same direction (e.g., savings account and the balance compounded over time). Balancing loops are negative feedback loops that try to keep the system at some desired level of performance (e.g., a thermostat maintaining a specific temperature). There is no right or wrong about the feedback loops. We, as product managers, need to clearly understand how the system operates and what levers we can pull for a specific outcome. There are delays associated with each of these loops inherently. Following them and improving the perceptions in the right direction would be good for the product offering.
The forces of progress, push & pull, increase or decrease how quickly the customer moves through the system. Forces of Progress are represented as dotted lines in the adjacent figure.
Every human-centric system in which customers and users live (unless you have machines as customers!) can change its purpose. For example, a company can adjust its course from a non-profit to a for-profit one. That change triggers how an organization functions internally and externally. In the JTBD, we closely follow the customers’ journey — their behavior and patterns in a system. In the chotuKool example, the makers assumed the market intent, which caused the doom. Blockbuster did not learn its lessons of changing user behavior soon enough, which accelerated its journey to bankruptcy.
Our goal as product people is to understand which feedback loops are important and how accurately we know about the gaps between the current and desired levels. With that understanding, explore options to close the gaps. Finally, even if we address it all to our heart’s content — changing perceptions takes time, and perceptions are part of the system.
I recommend this outstanding book to explore further — Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella H. Meadows. A key quote from her book:
“You can’t navigate well in an interconnected, feedback-dominated world unless you take your eyes off short-term events and look for long-term behavior and structure; unless you are aware of false boundaries and bounded rationality; unless you take into account limiting factors, nonlinearities, and delays. You are likely to mistreat, misdesign, or misread systems if you don’t respect their properties of resilience, self-organization, and hierarchy.”
A customer or a user lives in a system — their needs, desires, and pain points emanate within that system. They can relay what the system tells them only when you probe them. Listening is a skill. They may suggest possible solutions for what they want and need. Take them with a grain of salt. That’s not insulting the customer’s wisdom. They want to make progress from the current state to the desired state as effectively as possible. It’s not the customer’s role to design the product — it’s ours as product people. It’s for us to carefully look at dysfunction (or function) symptoms. Study the system carefully with empathy (borrowing the term from Design Thinking) and help the customer move between the states using our solution.
Moreover, our work is not complete with the product delivery alone, or after finding some customers. As long as our solution serves the customers, commit to learning and traveling along with them. Product Management means you have the cradle-to-grave responsibilities for the solution.
Doing product work is hard. Hey, we did not sign-up to do the easy stuff, right? Fortunately, we have some excellent proven concepts and frameworks available to help us build some mental models and operate. There is no one way or a silver bullet. The key is to know which tool to employ for a given job (no pun intended)!