The Five States of Customer “Pain”

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What is a Customer Need?

Something we have learned over the years is that you can’t simply ask a customer “what do you need?” There are a few simple reasons for this:

  1. They will answer the question in the context of your product or service offering — which may, or may not, be useful.
  2. Different customers will view the question through their unique circumstances; which may remain unknown.
  3. They will express their need in a language that makes sense to them (feature, specification, benefit, etc.); but may not be the same language used by others; making synthesis a crap shoot.
  4. There is no way of knowing how large the need is in the market based on the response from a few qualitative interviews.
  5. They will almost always express it in terms of under-servedness.

So, when we hear people use the term “customer need” it’s almost always unclear, unvalidated, and represents something customers don’t have that they do want…supposedly. The question that remains is whether it is a comprehensive view of needs (or “Pain”) or whether it could be better.

As innovators, strategists, consultants, marketers, and solution designers, we need a more complete, and stable, view of customer needs if we’re going to serve customers successfully into the future. That’s because…

“The unmet needs of today will determine the successful products of tomorrow”

Our premise is that we can know these needs now, and we do not need to guess. There are a lot of evangelists out there making a good living convincing you to guess. Our premise is that we’d like to see your customers doing better by eliminating the guesswork.

To do that, we need to understand what a need really is. So, I’m going to tell you.

“A customer need is a metric”

A need is not a statement of desire, or a pain point. Those are mushy words used to describe a state of a customer need and are therefore extremely unstable over time. Since we don’t want to be in guessing mode, I’m going to lay out the 5 states of a customer need, as a stateless metric. The states themselves cannot be determined until they are quantified statistically in the market.

Note: we go into great detail on what a customer need metric is, and how to catalog them at jobs-to-be-done.com

State #1: Appropriately Served

There are always a number of needs, possibly the majority, that are somewhat important to customers and also adequately served by current solutions in the market. In these cases, you want to make sure that the status quo is preserved as you enter a market, or making improvements to you offerings.

State #2: Table Stakes

When you find a need that is both very important and very well served, you must address it in your offering. They simply must continue to be satisfied.

State #3: Overserved

Some customer needs are not deemed to be important, yet offering in the market over-satisfy. In these cases, it makes sense to reduce cost and complexity. This could be dollars you invest into the product, or time a consumer has to invest in using a solution.

State #4: Irrelevant

When you find customer needs to that are both not important, and not well satisfied, do not begin addressing them in your product. If you do, you put yourself at risk of over-serving the market and adding unnecessary cost. If you’re already addressing these, stop addressing them.

State # 5: Underserved

And finally we come to the one that everyone generally equates with pain or the generic term need. When you find customer needs that are very important, but not very well satisfied, you have just found an opportunity to add value in the market.

A few final thoughts

Because customer needs are actually metrics and not qualitative statements expressed by a non-representative group of consumers, it’s important to understand that these are stateless. We see this consistently in finance, process control, etc. A metric doesn’t have value until you put some data through it. The same thing is true of customer needs and pain.

Perhaps this is why we see such dismal levels of product success. Ideas and guessing has proven not to work. Process owners do not assume what the cycle time will be as a resource is used to create an output from a process or activity. So, why do we make assumptions about customer needs?

Also, there is no single customer that can show you what all customers need; there is no average customer (and never was). In fact, as people try to get a job done, different groups struggle in different ways due to different circumstances. These factors will lead a group to rate a metric differently than another group who struggle with a different set of factors. You just can’t make assumptions about these if you want to be consistent in your understanding of customers needs.

Finally, pain is not a useful word. Cost and complexity can be pain (over-served), taking table stakes features away can cause pain. Any of the five states can be considered to be pain since they describe how a different groups of customers (or potential customers) view how well current market offerings serve them as they try to get the same job done.

I purposely did not spend time describing our method for cataloging (or prioritizing) customer needs. You can read more about that here and here. And if you’re interested in seeing how these five states of pain play out in our overall Outcome-Driven Innovation™️model, check this out:

The Jobs-to-be-Done Canvas


The Five States of Customer “Pain” was originally published in Transforming Customer Experience with Jobs-to-be-Done on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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