Interesting article in the latest Harvard Business Review argues customers have a “job to be done” and they’ll hire your company to do it–if you can just figure out what the job really is.

To explain with a story…

The four article authors (two from the Harvard Business School, two consultants) describe a condo project in Detroit that targeted empty nesters, older couples looking to downsize from their full-size houses.

Sales were slow and the developers tried adding more and more attractive features, stuff that focus groups and other research recommended. Sales stayed slow.

Finally, the developers talked to their too-few purchasers and heard a surprising comment: “As soon as I figured out what to do with my dining room table, then I was free to move.” Turned out that giving up the dining table meant the customers were giving up their place at the center of family life. The condo project was competing not against other projects on features — but against not moving at all.

“I went in thinking we were in the business of new-home construction,” the developer told the authors. “But I realized we were in the business of moving lives.”

The project added dining rooms to the units and other features for “moving lives” like extended use of storage areas for new residents to sort through their life possessions at a comfortable pace. Sales jumped.

The big take-aways, say the authors:

  • By focussing in on the particular “job to be done” — downsizing without giving up family life — the developers were able to focus on what customers really wanted to accomplish.
  • The “job” turned out to be more important than the usual “insights” of market research like customer demographics or market trends.
  • Focus on the “job” opened the path to innovation. The developers saw they could offer a new alternative to staying at home vs. downsizing to a condo.
  • Companies should re-think their processes to fit the “jobs”. They give the example of  Southern New Hampshire University that put both its traditional students and its online course students through the same admission and class scheduling processes. SNHU realized that the “job” for traditional students is “help me become an adult” and the “job” for online students is “I’m already an adult, get me an education that’s fast and convenient.” The school now grows at 34% a year, according to the authors.

For more detail and examples, check the article Know Your Customers’ “Jobs to Be Done” by Clayton M. Christensen, Taddy Hall, Karen Dillon and David S. Duncan on the Harvard site.

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