The great management scholar Peter Drucker wrote a half century ago, “A customer rarely buys what a company thinks it is selling him.” What Drucker meant was that customers aren’t buying products but rather are just trying to get jobs done in their lives, and products or more frequently brands help them to do this.
When people go to a movie, perhaps they are really eager to see a particular film, but they are also finding a way to occupy a Saturday afternoon, keep the kids entertained, switch off from the pressures of daily life, or even just keep their partner happy. As Drucker’s contemporary, Theodore Levitt, was fond of telling his Harvard Business School students, “Customers don’t want a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”
This insight – so obvious to these leading thinkers decades ago – continues to elude many corporations. Automakers, for instance, have focused on defining their markets in terms of physical features and product categories such as “small sedans,” and they have competed feature-for-feature against rivals in highly symmetric ways. Mini, however, looked more broadly at what customers are trying to get done and addressed jobs such as “self expression.” By offering dozens of potential cosmetic variations on a standard chassis, Mini was able to nail the self-expression “job” when it seemed not even to occur to competitors. In so doing, it was able to sell a highly profitable vehicle in a small car category typified by thin margins.
Companies can struggle to understand jobs to be done precisely because they are broad. Where to begin? Resist the temptation to focus just on the physical product you happen to be selling and its tangible features, but instead examine the context in which a brand might potentially be used. What are customers thinking and feeling? What are they doing beyond just using your sort of brand? What do they wish they could do, but refrain from because it’s too awkward or inconvenient? After you map the broad context, dig deeper into how customers might evaluate whether a job has been done successfully. Uncover the full set of competing offerings – including ones from totally different industries, as well as doing nothing at all. Then, discover the barriers to getting jobs done in new ways and assess the extent to which your brand can help overcome these barriers.
By using such a broad approach, your customer insight can be both extensive and rigorous at the same time. You can spot new avenues for competing, new kinds of value to deliver, and specific ways that these offerings can gain traction. For instance, Mini offers countless ways customers can get their “self-expression” job done . This has enabled Mini to move from the car business to the self-expression business. A subtle but seismic shift.
So the question is, when will you too get out of the business of selling drills and start selling holes?
Stephen Wunker has a long record of creating successful ventures. He was also a long-term colleague of the leading innovation authority Clayton Christensen in building up his consulting practice. He now leads New Markets Advisors, a firm that helps companies win in changing environments. He blogs for Forbes and Harvard Business Review and authored the critically-acclaimed book Capturing New Markets: How Smart Companies Create Opportunities Others Don’t. He holds degrees from Princeton, Columbia, and Harvard Business School.