This mindset shift is at the heart of the jobs-to-be-done approach, which focuses on understanding fundamental consumer or customer problems, as opposed to their stated needs.
Consider an example from a business-to-consumer company, the audio innovator Bose, and its breakthrough product, SoundControl Hearing Aids. As Bose looked for growth in the hearing aid market, they did not simply ask how they might make a better hearing aid. Instead, they looked for important and unmet customer jobs to be done that would enable them to offer something entirely new. Their focus was not the current hearing aid customers who had significant and clinically diagnosed hearing loss, but rather non-hearing-aid consumers who had moderate challenges hearing in very specific situations such as noisy restaurants. This led Bose down the path of a more consumer-friendly solution – a hearing aid that is bought online instead of through an audiologist and is self-tunable – that is expanding the market for hearing assistance products.
While the jobs-to-be-done method is widely used in B2C companies —you can read how Twitter relies heavily on the method to make strategic decisions — B2B companies have been slower to adopt it. Part of this gap is driven by the unique challenges B2B companies face when trying to navigate disruptive change. For example, they are deeper in the value chain, insulated by one or more intermediaries from the end-user, which limits the insight they have into the underlying drivers of change. Or they often sell into more complex decision-making systems with multiple stakeholders. B2B companies can navigate these challenges and deploy this method of understanding customers by following five key principles.
1. Look beyond your current customers.
In many cases, B2B companies are embedded in complex value chains and are often one or more steps removed from the ultimate consumer of their product. This doesn’t pose an issue when the market is stable. The implicit assumptions about what matters that are baked into any mature industry are sufficiently reliable. B2B companies can be confident that the solutions their immediate customers are asking for reflect what is important to the end consumer.
During periods of significant change, however, relying only on your existing customer base can limit your ability to innovate. For example, consider an auto supplier in the early-2010s that only focused on existing OEM customers. They would have heard a significant amount of skepticism about the potential for electric vehicles based on the assumptions that those OEMs were making at the time.
If, instead, they had invested time talking to new entrants and directly to consumers, they would have received a different perspective that suggested a more aggressive adoption scenario, leading them to take faster action and capture first-mover advantages. Of course, companies should not ignore existing customers, but they should expand where they source their inputs to generate a more robust set of perspectives to inform decision making.
2. Go beyond historical industry definitions.
Understanding where a customer’s most pressing jobs are requires not limiting yourself to existing category-centric questions. Disruptive change often reshuffles existing categories and precipitates new priority jobs as they navigate between paradigms.
Consider a materials company in the packaging space that we advised. One of their main product categories was plastic packaging for CPG goods. They had close relationships with CPG companies but focused their interactions narrowly on their existing category and type of plastic packaging. This led to important but limited conversations about how to increase recyclability of plastic packaging to address sustainability concerns. What they missed was a broader and more important job related to helping their customers navigate a wider range of competing packaging solutions. This would have included helping their customers address additional questions, such as:
- Can we substitute new materials, such as bio-based, for traditional plastics?
- How can we reduce the overall amount of packaging regardless of the material by, for example, shifting away from secondary packaging?
- How do we create scalable solutions given regional differences?
These and other questions could have created the opportunity for the company to build deeper relationships and ultimately bring a broader portfolio of solutions that helped migrate their customer toward a more sustainable packaging portfolio.
3. Understand the full buying decision-making system.
While end consumers are not necessarily easy to understand, the complexity is bounded by the fact that you are selling to a single individual. This is rarely the case in B2B situations. B2B buying processes often include a diverse set of stakeholders who all have their own individual jobs to be done.
Consider a medical device company that was trying to launch a new cardiac business. They had historically focused on the cardiologist as their primary customer, and most of the customer jobs they focused on were specific to this role: for example, efficacy of the device, ease of implanting, linkage with the doctor’s research interest.
However, when doing jobs-to-be-done research to uncover new opportunities they realized there were other critical stakeholders in health systems who had equally important jobs. There were nurses who wanted help managing inventory to save time as well as more convenient ways to engage patients remotely for follow-up. There were hospital administrators who had jobs related to managing and balancing financial constraints but also needed to protect and enhance the reputation of the hospital. Solving all of these jobs was critical to winning the hospital’s business.
In addition to a complex set of buying processes within a B2B customer, there is also a need to look at similar dynamics across the ecosystem. For example, consider any B2B selling process that involves the government. While the government may be the main customer, other stakeholders such as politicians, auditors, and solution partners all have their own jobs that need to be addressed. The upside of this complexity is that solutions satisfying the jobs of multiple stakeholders are often stickier in the market.
4. Focus on both primary and secondary jobs.
In addition to thinking broadly about whose jobs to focus on, it’s also important to understand a customer’s full range of jobs. Often B2B companies focus solely on satisfying primary functional needs of their customers, typically through the main product or service. And while that is necessary, it may be insufficient to encourage adoption of a new solution.
For example, we worked with a large chemical company that was attempting to launch a new suite of sustainable molecules. They traditionally engaged customers around the functional benefits of their product innovation such as how a new molecule could offer higher levels of performance. However, when launching this new class of products, they focused on not just the primary functional job associated with the performance of the molecule, but other jobs as well. This included other functional jobs such as “Help me overcome the challenges with switching material paradigms” as well as “social” jobs of decision makers such as, “Help me mitigate the career risk of taking a chance on something unproven.” This more comprehensive approach overcame many of the traditional barriers that challenge simply better performing products.
5. Embed jobs into the organization.
For any methodology to change how an organization operates, it needs to be as broadly adopted throughout the company as possible. The same is true for jobs to be done. In addition to the market researchers who employ jobs as tool to understand customers, the leadership team must have enough fluency in the concept to engage with the insights emerging from jobs research. In addition, they need to know what questions to ask to reinforce the desired value and behaviors. Engineers and designers need to know how to translate jobs insights into product attributes and functionality, which can be more involved because by definition, a job-insight is not a request for a specific feature. The companies that are most successful at infusing jobs into how they set strategy and design products take a holistic approach to the thought process and the language system.
B2B companies are increasingly facing disruptive trends and responding with new products and services. These solutions are often new to the market and require different types of consumer insights, compared with incremental improvements to existing products. The jobs-to-be-done methodology can be a powerful tool to increase the odds of adoption and market success but requires addressing the unique challenges of B2B markets.
About the Authors
Ned Calder is a partner at Innosight.
Dani Cinali is a senior associate at Innosight.