Understanding your customer isn’t enough

According to Clayton Christensen, the customer is the wrong unit of analysis for innovators to focus on. Instead, focus on the job that customers are trying to get done when they use your product or service.

There were lots of thought-provoking ideas offered at the World Innovation Forum conference, which concluded yesterday in New York City. But one particularly stands out for me — and it came from a presentation by disruptive innovation expert Clayton Christensen of Harvard Business School. Christensen took issue with the conventional wisdom that understanding your customer is important to successful innovation.

How could that not be the case? Well, according to Christensen, the customer is the wrong unit of analysis for innovators to focus on. Instead, he said, focus on the job  that customers are trying to get done when they use your product or service.

This may sound like a minor distinction, but Christensen went on to discuss a topic he and several coauthors explored in a 2007 article in MIT Sloan Management Review: Finding the Right Job for Your Product. One example? A fast-food company discovered that a significant portion of its customers were “hiring” its milkshakes for an unexpected use: as a food to consume early in the morning, while driving on a long, boring morning commute.

By focusing not on the customer for the product but, more specifically, on what the customer was trying to do – consume a filling food on a boring daily drive – the fast-food company could customize the product for its early-morning milkshake buyers in ways to make it more effective in that function. It also gave the company a greater understanding of its competition — which, in the case of the morning milkshake, ranged from bananas to doughnuts.

7 Comments On: Understanding your customer isn’t enough

  • Lucy Garrick MA WSD | May 14, 2009

    What is understanding your customer if it is not understanding what they are trying to get done with your product. Does not seem like a revolutionary concept.

    Probably worth making the point, however, since these days so much emphasis is put on counting clicks and data mining which becomes an end in itself.

  • rogerdennis | May 14, 2009

    This presentation sounds more like the work of Anthony Ulwick than that of Clayton Christensen.

  • Barry C Johnson | May 15, 2009

    This very important distinction has been presented for at least 50 years. As Alex Osborn (1954???) said, “People buy holes (relief from the tedium of commuting) not shovels (milk shakes).”
    Perhaps this sheds some light on the distincion Dr Christensen is pointing out.Theodore Leavitt made similar arguments in 1960. The work of N. Kano (198x) Anglocized by Glenn Mazur (199x) may help us understand how the translation of customer wants into product/service delivery may also contribute to this thread.And it seems dispite the harkenings of the emininet Dr Christensesn, we still don’t get it. For those who don’t get it from these simplified explanations, I would refer you to Joseph Schumpeter on the process of creative destruction or Dr Christensen’s detailed description of how disruptive technologies impact market leaders.

  • Understanding customer isn’t enough; learn what they’re trying to do. From MITSloan: (sloanreview.mit.edu) (via @heatherrast) - Twitoaster | May 20, 2009

    [...] 14, 2009 Understanding customer isn’t enough; learn what they’re trying to do. From MITSloan: (http://sloanreview.mit.edu/improvisation…) (via [...]

  • Martha E. Mangelsdorf | May 21, 2009

    Interesting comments, all. Thanks for furthering this discussion!
    Best,
    Martha
    Martha E. Mangelsdorf
    Senior Editor
    MIT Sloan Management Review
    http://www.sloanreview.mit.edu

  • graham | May 25, 2009

    as other commentators have already pointed out, this is hardly a new observation.

    henry ford is once supposed to have said, “if i had asked my customers what they need, they would have replied, ‘better horses’”. so that makes the observation about 100 years old.

    in the very first class in entrepreneurship i use the example “what do you buy at a gas station?”
    of course, the answer is not “gasoline”, but “seven days mobility”.
    (this is my preferred version of the well-known drill-versus-hole-in-the-wall example.)

  • bdeblois | June 8, 2009

    While the concept of “jobs” or outcomes is not new, it keeps floating to the surface. Perhaps this points to the fact that as a product development community many are still struggling to understand how to convert insights into opportunities for their organizations.

    In my experience this is less about which approach is the better approach, and more about having a good set of tools and a working knowledge on how to craft a customer experience into action. Teams that have failed to effectively operationalize a customer experience may not have been adequately prepared to fully understand that experience and therefore see all the potential within it. Converting a customer need statement into a jobs statement is one tool. Having ways to measure the importance of the desired outcome and how successful the user is in accomplishing that outcome adds more dimension. Standing back from the experience and trying to understand what is really motivating a customer and the context that influences decisions and activities at a level deeper than they can articulate, may in fact lead to even richer opportunities for your organization.

    If a customer buys a shaver and tells you it is to remove hair and you fail to drill down to the deep underlying relationships around the user, the tool, the environment etc….then you are not adequately prepared for the journey. You can only own a customer experience once you thoroughly understand it.

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