How do you understand what the customer wants? To answer that question, James Allworth likes to tell a story about milkshakes. The co-author of How Will You Measure Your Life? — the New York Times bestseller that applies business principles to the art of living — describes a burger joint that wants to improve its milkshakes. After tweaking the product in response to customer surveys, the store owners are sure they’ve cooked up the perfect recipe. They roll out their new product and — drumroll please — nothing changes. No line out the door; no rave reviews in the local paper; not even a modest boost in sales.
The market research had failed to unveil an important fact. The restaurant had two types of milkshake customers: the morning customers and the afternoon customers. And those customers were consuming milkshakes for completely different reasons. The morning customers? “These people have a long, boring commute to work, they want something to keep them occupied; they’ve had their breakfast but they’re going to get hungry if they don’t have something else and the milkshake keeps them full,” says Allworth. The afternoon customers? “They came with their kids … and all week they have been saying no this, no that, no whatever, and eventually they get to this point, they’re going for dinner, the kid looks up at the dad and says, ‘Dad could I have a milkshake’ and the father, or mother … wanting something innocuous to say yes to says, ‘Yes, Johhny, I’d love to get you a milkshake.’”
Allworth would say that these two sets of customers “hire” the milkshake for different purposes. Just as you wouldn’t hire an HR professional to run your company’s communications operations, the shake shop’s customers want to “hire” different types of milkshakes to meet different job qualifications. The morning customers want viscous shakes that will last their whole commute, perhaps with flakes of fruit to keep them entertained. The afternoon customers want something small and quickly consumable, preferably mess-free, so that the family can get on with their evening.
There’s a fancy name for this powerful idea, cooked up by Allworth’s co-author, Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, who’s perhaps best-known for coining the phrase “disruptive innovation.” It’s called the jobs-to-be-done theory, and it supposes that customers hire products to fulfill certain tasks in their lives. In doing so, it supposes that businesses need to understand that customers aren’t just customers: They’re humans, varied and unpredictable, with personal stories and contexts like the ones that Allworth, with his endearing Australian accent, spins in such vivid detail.
Traditional market research doesn’t capture any of that. And Allworth is quick to point out that several innovators, like Akio Morito and Steve Jobs, famously never conduct traditional market research. “What they do instead is they really deeply examine the way that people live their lives and the context [of] what they’re trying to achieve, and then they architect their products and solutions around that.”
In short, jobs-to-be done require empathy, and it’s not surprising that this approach to customers is being touted by the man who recently wrote a piece claiming that empathy was among the most important skills he learned at Harvard Business School. The connection isn’t lost on Allworth. “The jobs-to-be-done approach forces you to put yourself in the shoes of the people, as a businessman, you’re hoping to serve,” Allworth says. “It’s a business frame for empathy.”