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Traditional customer research is broken. This is how to fix it.

Technology & Data

Traditional customer research is broken. This is how to fix it.


‘Want to know what customers think? Just ask them!’ turns out to be less effective than marketers have been led to believe. According to organisational psychologist Charlotte Rush, the key to understanding what the customer needs is knowing what rubs them the wrong way.

Charlotte Rush 150 BWThere is often a gap between what we say, and what we do. You, for example, might say you are going to take up dancing lessons and find that six months have miraculously passed, and you still haven’t Googled ‘tap dancing for adults’. This is nothing new – for years psychologists have documented what is known as the intention-behaviour gap and sought strategies to better align what we say we are going to do and what we actually end up doing. 

In the same way, organisations intent on innovating are stuck in an intention-behaviour gap when it comes to a customer-driven approach to innovation. This is not for lack of trying. Most organisations do truly want to create better solutions that actually meet their customer needs. The problem lies in the methodologies that organisations continue to use for uncovering customer needs. 

Unfortunately, most organisations continue to roll out focus groups and customer surveys to uncover customer needs. The problem with this is that these approaches often focus prematurely on ideas, without considering the underlying problem that customers truly need solved. In order to understand these problems, organisations need to apply Clayton Christensen’s Jobs To Be Done (JTBD). This theory is crucial for any organisation looking to update its traditional customer research methodologies for an approach that will actually uncover real innovation opportunities. 

JTBD theory explains that customers ‘hire’ products to do specific jobs for them. If your product or service is the very best thing at getting a job done, a customer will hire it. But only so long as it remains the best solution at getting that job done. If something else comes along that gets a customer’s job done better, they will hire that solution instead. So, organisations need to understand what ‘jobs’ customers have to get done in a given circumstance. Good innovations help to solve these problems, or ‘jobs’ for customers. 

JTBD theory allows businesses to uncover the biggest opportunities for innovation. It does that by understanding what motivates customers to use a product or service. An understanding of JTBD theory is crucial for finding opportunities for innovation. Yet, many organisations rely on traditional market research for uncovering opportunities for innovation. 

Unfortunately, traditional market research does not delve deep enough to uncover customers’ JTBD. Here are the key reasons why: 

Square peg, round hole

Organisations categorise customers by demographic and psychographic variables.

In traditional customer research, the goal is to ‘understand’ customers by segmenting them. Examples of these segments are by age, gender, interests or lifestyle. However, none of these factors can accurately predict customer behaviour. While purchasing decisions may relate to someone’s age, interests and values, they do not cause someone to buy a coffee before work each morning. 

Organisations can determine what is driving customers to buy a product or service (or not buy it!) by knowing the ‘jobs’ those customers have. Instead of learning as much as they can about a customer, organisations should instead be asking themselves, ‘what kind of progress are our customers trying to achieve in a given circumstance?”

This will determine your customer’s jobs to be done. Organisations that can answer this will be far better equipped to innovate than those that can reel off the details of their well-researched customer personas.  

Correlation is not causation

Traditional market research condenses masses of customer information into correlations. For example: 60% of customers prefer full-fat milk, 80% of customers have a coffee after eating breakfast. These correlations explain a relationship between two variables. The error organisations make is assuming a cause and effect relationship between those variables.

Understanding your customer’s JTBD will help you to make decisions about how to get your customers to ‘hire’ your product, and then re-hire it again. For example, I have a JTBD of passing the time while waiting for my morning coffee and this causes me ‘hire’ the Gmail app. An appreciation of this can guide the design and features of the Gmail app to best capitalise on this job. 

Unconscious biases limit validity

The questions we ask customers are often influenced by our pre-existing beliefs. For example, making the assumption that price is important to our customer’s purchasing decision. Asking, ‘is price important in your decision to purchase a coffee?’ will invariably see the customer reply: ‘yes!’

This is known as the Confirmation Bias. This, and other cognitive biases, limits our ability to do exploratory research and truly understand our customers. 

The key to uncovering a customer’s JTBD is through exploratory customer-led research. This involves, for example, asking customers open-ended and non-leading questions. Also, observing customers and developing empathy for their experience by experiencing it yourself. This allows you to understand how existing and potential solutions fit into their life and the full number of jobs that any one product could be doing for them. 

Market research techniques do a fine job in uncovering bubbles of frustration that are common across your customers. But these techniques won’t allow you to uncover a deeper level of insight where you understand why they are feeling that frustration. When we know our customer’s JTBD, we can understand why they are frustrated. This provides the key to come up with a great idea to unlock an opportunity for breakthrough innovation.

Charlotte Rush is an organisational psychologist and head of learning at Inventium

Further Reading:

Image credit:Daniel Mingook Kim


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