Understanding customers with Jobs to Be Done

What is Jobs to be Done? 

People don’t want a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

— Theodore Levitt 

Jobs to be Done, abbreviated JTBD, is a unique way of approaching products. Instead of starting with a product and ending with features (what most founders do), you start with customers and end with outcomes. 

JTBD, as a framework, was first created by Tony Ulwick at Strategyn and then popularized by Clayton Christensen at Harvard Business School. 

The basis of the framework is this: Customers don’t buy products. They hire them to do a job.

Jobs to be Done (JTBD): a product framework based on the idea that customers hire products to fulfill a job

The most famous example of JTBD in action concerns milkshakes. In the mid-1990s, Bob Moesta and Rick Pedi were advising bakeries and snack food companies. A chain they worked with wanted to sell more milkshakes, and the chain had spent months asking customers, “Can you tell us how we can improve our milkshakes? Do you want it cheaper? Chunkier? Chewier? Chocolatier?” The chain tried plenty of improvements. None of them worked and sales didn’t move.

Moesta and Pedi tried a different approach. They began wondering what job does someone hire a milkshake to do? When they started researching customers from this angle, they noticed something peculiar: nearly half of all milkshakes were sold before 9am. When they dug into this insight, they realized morning customers were hiring the milkshake for a surprising reason: to help them stay awake and occupied and make the morning commute more fun. Turns out, milkshakes are more filling than a banana, less messy than a donut, and less guilty than a Snickers bar for breakfast. 

The same approach helped Moesta and Pedi identify an afternoon job, too. Together, these two jobs gave the chain a totally new set of insights, competitors, and marketing opportunities for boosting milkshake sales.  

What do milkshakes have to do with your tech startup? 

JTBD doesn’t just apply to milkshakes. It applies to software, too. In fact, whatever your product is, understanding what job your customers hire it to do will help you make effective marketing, positioning, and product development decisions.   

Take Airbnb for example. Initially, one of the jobs Airbnb solved was participating in something without feeling like a tourist or racking up debt. Their customers’ cash-strapped context and social aversion to being “tourist-y” meant Airbnb wasn’t competing against hotels—at least not as their main competitor. They were competing against staying on a friend’s couch or not making the trip at all. The job defined their position, who they competed against, and how they marketed their solution to customers. 

Or look at Netflix. Sure, they deliver gobs of TV shows and movies. But most people hire Netflix as an easy way to relax and detach from the day. Reed Hastings, CEO of Netflix, knows this. He says, “Really, we compete with everything you do to relax. We compete with video gaming. We compete with drinking a bottle of wine. That’s a particularly tough one!” Understanding why people choose Netflix—not just what they do with it—determines how Netflix innovates. 

So what is a Job?

Jobs are a specific type of progress your customer wants to make. That progress (the job) could be functional, social, emotional or a hybrid. When Stephen Wunker, market consultant, worked with a credit card company to identify jobs customers wanted to hire out, he discovered customers hire the card to:

  • Resolve travel mishaps (functional)
  • Display status to peers (social)
  • Escape workday pressures (emotional)

These showcase the four characteristics that define a useful job: 

Jobs are product-agnostic. They exist regardless of whether or not your product or solution does. A corollary of this is a job doesn’t focus on features. It’s not concerned with bells and whistles; it’s concerned with outcomes. Someone may use a CRM tool to add more contacts to a database, but the reason they hire the CRM has nothing to do with the database (a feature)—it has everything to do with closing sales (an outcome).  

Jobs don’t change over time. Customers in the credit card scenario want to escape workday pressures and display status. People have wanted to do this for centuries! The job exists, whether it’s 2000 or 2020. Put another way, you don’t invent or create jobs; you discover them. 

Jobs are anchored in context. Every job is swimming in a sea of pressures, expectations, pain points, lifestyle choices, and options that define the customer’s world. Understanding this context is part of the power of Jobs to be Done. As Christensen put it, “A job can only be defined—and a successful solution created—relative to the specific context in which it arises.” Jobs don’t live in vacuums. 

Lastly, jobs aren’t complicated. The method of uncovering a job can be complex, and people are certainly complicated. But the job you find will be neither of these things. It will be straightforward and, at that stage, obvious. Christensen says, “In hindsight the job to be done is usually as obvious as the air we breathe. Once they are known, what to improve (and not to improve) is just as obvious.” 

Job: a specific type of progress the customer wants to make; a key piece of the JTBD framework

Here are a few more popular jobs that fit these four characteristics: 

  • Quickly and reliably receive money 
  • Transmit accurate information to coworkers 
  • Remember everything you need to do each day
  • Get more (and better) sleep 

How do you uncover a job?

The best way to uncover a job is to talk with and listen to customers—to do customer research. We’ll get into this more in the following sections, but researching customers involves:

  • Doing customer interviews
  • Researching what customers say online
  • Recording and organizing qualitative data
  • Identifying insights
  • Distributing information to your whole team
  • Repeating this process often

Through the research process, you build up a rich understanding of customer context, what they hire and fire, what variables drive their behavior, what kind of progress they’re trying to make, and which types of progress are most applicable to your product. 

You go from guessing and hoping, to knowing and executing.

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