Building a Better Mousetrap
Theodore Levitt, a Harvard Marketing Professor, used to tell his students, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want to buy a quarter-inch hole!”
What Levitt was trying to get his students to understand is that people don’t buy products, they “hire” products to do a job. If we can think of products in terms of what job people will “hire” them to perform, we can then design products that have a higher likelihood of becoming successful.
In the HBR article entitled “Marketing Malpractice,” written by Clayton Christensen, Scott Cook, and Taddy Hall, the authors argue that every new-product developer and marketer they know agree with Levitt’s line of thinking. However, these same people segment their markets by types of products and price points. They measure the market share of the product, not the job the product is “hired” to do. They also benchmark the features and functions of the product against those of rivals. They then start to work on more product features and services to differentiate themselves from rival products. They often believe that this will translate into better pricing and a larger market share. However, when they do this, they are often solving the wrong problems. They are improving their products in ways that are irrelevant to the customer’s needs. Christensen, Cook, and Hall call these “phantom” needs.
We have all experienced features created to meet a “phantom” need when purchasing a new product. How many times have you bought a product and asked yourself, “Why would anyone need that feature? Or have you ever said something like, “I never use that feature; I don’t even know what it’s used for”? That’s a feature created for a “phantom” need. They were likely added to the product by a development or marketing team that thought their customers would like to have the feature. Or the feature was added because they thought it would differentiate the product from its rivals. However, the features don’t add value to the product in terms of getting the job done. In other words, building a better mousetrap doesn’t always translate into higher prices and better sales.
Christensen, Cook, and Hall argue that segmenting markets by type of customer is no better than doing it by product features and functions. In segmenting by type of customer, we put them into small, medium, and large businesses, or we force consumers into age, gender, or lifestyle groups. We then attempt to understand the needs of these customers in those segments and create products that address those needs. Does this methodology sound familiar? However, customers don’t conform to their wants and desires to that of the average customer in a demographic. When we design products to address the needs of typical customers in a demographic, the results are an inability to know if a specific customer will purchase the product. We can only determine the likelihood or probability of the potential customer purchasing the product. This estimation equates to high stakes bet with a low chance of winning.
A Better Way of Thinking
A better way to think about market segmentation is through the lens of the customer’s point of view. A customer wants something that can help them get a job done. When they buy a product, they are “hiring” that product to do the job for them. If we can understand what jobs periodically arise in a customer’s life, and then create products that the customer would hire for those jobs and deliver it in a way that reinforces its intended use. When a customer finds themselves in a situation where they need to get that job done, they will “hire” our product. However, since new-product developers don’t think in these terms, they end up creating products with “phantom” needs that don’t help customers do the job they need to get done.
So, if we have a better chance of creating successful products by focusing on the job and not the customer, then why do so many new-product developers and marketers try to understand the customers and not the job? It probably has to do with the fact that there are times when the job closely aligns with the customer demographics and it furthers the notion that if you understood the customer, you would also understand the job. Christensen, Cook, and Hall argue that these are rare occasions, and that is we focus on the customer we will be targeting “phantom” needs.
Understanding the jobs to be done
In the HBR entitled “The Customer-Centered Innovation Map”, Lance A. Bettencourt and Anthony W. Ulwick state that every job is a process. They go on to say that all jobs have a beginning, middle, and end, and comprise of a set of process steps along the way. The first step in creating a new product or service is to map out the job from the customer’s perspective. We execute this process by analyzing each of the steps involved in completing the job. We can then look for ways to create value.
Bettencourt and Ulwick argue that the “goal of creating a job map is not to find out how the customer is executing a job — that only generates maps of existing activities and solutions. Instead, the aim is to discover what the customer is trying to get done at different points in executing a job and what must happen at each juncture for the job to be carried out successfully.” In other words, when we map a job, we don’t want to look at the overall process, but we want to look at each of the steps that need to be executed in the process to get the job done. This analysis requires us to observe customers as they’re using products to identify jobs they are trying to get done. Then we can think of new or enhanced products that could do the job better.
Christensen, Cook, and Hall also state that each job has a social, functional, and emotional dimension to it. An example of this is Always’ Feminine Products. Their customers hire their products to help protect them during their menstrual cycle. In the past, the marketer or product development teams would segment these customers by usage. Then design products and features related to what they thought the average customer in that demographic would like to see in their product. However, there is a social, functional, and emotional dimension to the job of protection. For instance, all women are unique, both physiologically and psychologically. What works for some women may not work for others. Always’ appears to have taken these aspects into account in improving their product roadmap and providing women with multiple product options to meet different needs that they have when they are on their menstrual cycles. The Always’ Brand of products understands that their customers need a job done, but that there is also a social, functional, and emotional dimension to that job and have created products targeted to a specific job, not a typical customer. This focus on the job and its different aspects have resulted in successful products that have led to the company’s growth.
If we want to create innovative products that will have a higher likelihood of success in the marketplace, we must focus on the job to be done and not on a typical buyer. Innovative products have the potential to spur growth for an organization if designed and developed to meet the needs of the customer. There are thousands of new products produced each year, and most of them will fail. One way to increase your chances of developing a successful product is to design for the job and not the customer.
Marketing Malpractice: The Cause and the Cure. https://hbr.org/2005/12/marketing-malpractice-the-cause-and-the-cure
How to Sell (For People Who Hate Sales). https://www.americanexpress.com/en-us/business/trends-and-insights/articles/how-to-sell-for-people-who-hate-sales/
The Customer-Centered Innovation Map. https://hbr.org/2008/05/the-customer-centered-innovation-map