The Job of Creating a Customer


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If there is one thing we (for profit businesses) can all agree upon, it’s that we are in business to create customers. In order to do that successfully, we must figure out what they need and do it better than anyone else. Yes, it’s a zero sum game much of the time; which may explain the degradation of capability as we continue our desperate attempts to keep our corporate heads above water. In my last post I talked about a community of like-topic-minded folks who use the term job-to-be-done; which is a term that has been heavily associated with innovation. However, innovation is really just another conceptual silo we tend to get stuck in.

Innovation alone will not make you successful unless you have an entire process that starts with market identification (and prioritization) through to the implementation of valuable and profitable solutions in that market, and new markets as they emerge. These steps relate to attracting new customers as much as they do retaining existing customers; and let’s not forget growing your customers. So let’s not focus on the job of innovation, or the job of marketing since every step along the way is interdependent and a component of a larger system of jobs.

A system refers to interactions and interdependencies on a large scale. Systems thinking refers to the “general reflex or habit of conceiving of reality in terms of interdependencies, interactions, and sequences.” (Scholtz 1998)

The job(s) of creating, retaining and growing a customer does not boil down to an interview, or social listening, or (especially not) an idea. There is an end-to-end process (or Job) of acquiring customers in various contexts that make up a larger system designed to sustain growth and profitability in a business. But how do we do that?

There are many tools available to us to assist in getting the job done, but it’s likely we are not all selecting the right tools at the right time. Let’s take a look at customer case research (this is fascinating reading) to start. In essence, this approach to understanding customers attempts to determine why customers switch; e.g. why does a couple pick scuba lessons (see previous link for context) out of the blue in the dead of winter? This approach clearly uncovers the job-to-be-done since it helps to understand that the scuba shop wasn’t competing with other scuba shops, and the channel for attracting customers shouldn’t really be the convenient one provided to the diving industry.

They found that there was a market around couples getting married and a segment around the unmet need of trying something new and exciting together on their honeymoon. While jobs-to-be-done and needs based segmentation wasn’t specifically discussed, it is exactly what they stumbled upon. There were also clearly related functional, emotional and social needs; the latter two playing a significant role in messaging through the proper channels (wedding-related as opposed to diving-related).

The customer case approach to marketing is far more powerful than what we see daily across the channels we listen to (yea, I know, it’s “to which we listen!”). We are bombarded in these places not because we want to receive messages there, and not because they have somehow tapped our hidden awareness cycle. We are bombarded there because it’s convenient; it’s what’s cheap and accessible and supports the “more is better” crowd. Making the switch to wedding magazines may be convenient, but it’s also much more effective than soliciting local subscribers to Dive Magazine because the couples in question would not have thought to look there. They have many other options; it’s your job to be where they look – convenient, or not.

However, what we are dealing with here is a potential problem for many companies and industries. First, its primary focus is on marketing and not a broader look at what should be offered to a job-related market as it offers no serious metrics related to what customers need. Scuba diving may never go away, but there may be better alternatives to getting various jobs done. Looking backward at why people are choosing them (or not choosing them) may help in a narrow, short-term context; but it is not a comprehensive means of competing over the long haul.

I believe these two statements (Tweet 1 and Tweet 2) demonstrate a relationship between various approaches in understanding the customer through the lens of jobs thinking. However, they are clearly on a different rung of the latter when it comes to successful long-term application and predictability for a business as a whole. In the former, the jobs focus is there, but a framework based on subjectivity simply can’t compete with a systematic and predictive lens for what customers truly need yesterday, today and tomorrow.

As businesses we are supposed to create customers – or so the saying goes. Therefore, does it not appear that a dilemma has surfaced much like the chicken and the egg? For example, do we need a product first, or do we need a need first? If we attempt to understand why people buy, or leave our product, we have selected the product first approach. How can a startup use information about the customers’ buying process when there is no product? The reason is because they have already created the product and are preparing to fail fast over and over again. They might consider a better targeting mechanism!

Our job should be to eliminate the friction customers experience when becoming aware of a need (whether a product exists or not) and then be able to resolve that need in the market over time. If the customer is having a struggling moment, those with forward looking measures of value and awareness will be there first; and quite possibly with a solution that looks nothing like your product; because frankly, vinyl records are no longer with us, Eastman Kodak is no longer with us and a whole slew of products and services are no longer with us – except for nostalgic purposes. Don’t worry, Milkshakes will always be with us but that doesn’t mean it’s a growth market. Can anyone say Smoothie?

There is nothing to say that perceived switching isn’t taking place between “like” products simply due to the desperate confusion of not being satisfied – and not really being able to articulate why in a measurable way. Switching between mattresses is not quite the same as switching from a flip phone to an iPhone. The latter clearly gets more jobs done on a single platform. How does a customer case interview help innovators – in a scientific and repeatable way – devise new solutions that get existing jobs done better, more related jobs done and new jobs done before anyone else? Personally, I don’t think it does any of these things as well as outcome-based approaches, so we are left with the hope that we have the right product and that all we need to do is sustain it and message to a more appropriate channel; but the evidence tells us that hope just doesn’t work in the long run. The entire system must be considered.

Understanding why someone makes a purchase is very important; but this is something that can easily be derived from forward looking methodologies.

Understanding the job-to-be-done by specific job executors defines our market, and understanding the groups of customers with similar unmet needs in getting that job done will define the market segments. That has to come before we begin selecting channels aligned to the segments, messaging for the channels and the rest of the value delivery process. They are all interdependent steps required to successfully complete the job of creating (or acquiring) a customer, and continuing to do so long into the future.

Don’t get me wrong, I see a lot of value in customer case approaches to the job-to-be-done focus. However, for those that are devising comprehensive business strategies around acquiring customers through sustaining market growth, related market growth, new platform creation, core platform disruption, core market disruption and related growth in a disrupted market (the 6 organic market growth paths per Strategyn) one needs real metrics and a feedback loop. They need a system that goes far beyond the marketing department since strategy is not an idea, it’s a path to reaching your business goals.

This post was written as part of the IBM for Midsize Business program, which provides midsize businesses with the tools, expertise and solutions they need to become engines of a smarter planet. I’ve been compensated to contribute to this program, but the opinions expressed in this post are my own and don’t necessarily represent IBM’s positions, strategies or opinions.

Republished with author's permission from original post.


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