The following is a conversation between David Duncan, a Senior Partner at Innosight and the Author of The Secret Lives of Customers: A Detective Story About Solving the Mystery of Customer Behavior, and Denver Frederick, the Host of The Business of Giving.

David S. Duncan, Senior Partner at Innosight, and Author of The Secret Lives of Customers

Denver: Customers have jobs to be done. They hire companies to solve a problem or fulfill a need and fire them when unhappy. This framework is shared in a very engaging new book by my next guest. He’s David S. Duncan, a senior partner at Innosight, and the author of The Secret Lives of Customers: A Detective Story About Solving the Mystery of Customer Behavior. 

Welcome to The Business of Giving, Dave! 

Dave: Thanks, Denver. Great to be here today. 

The reason it’s such a powerful idea is that it focuses your efforts in trying to understand customers, not on what products they want but rather on what problems they’re trying to solve.

Denver: Speak about the Jobs to be Done framework, and what does it exactly mean? 

Dave: Jobs to be Done is a model of customer behavior. And originally, it came from marketing thinkers. The basic notion is that the reason customers purchase things, pull new products and solutions into their lives, is because they have these things called jobs that they need to get done. It’s not the product itself that causes you to purchase it, but rather it’s the job you’re trying to get done that pops up in your life as you’re living your life. And that gives you the motivation to do something other than just default to the status quo of doing nothing.

A job can be a problem you’re trying to solve like: I want to soothe my sore throat or I want to repair a leaky pipe in my home. Or it can be a goal you’re trying to achieve like: I want to run a marathon or I want to get into a college. Either of those things can be jobs to be done. 

And the reason it’s such a powerful idea is that it focuses your efforts in trying to understand customers, not on what products they want but rather on what problems they’re trying to solve. We used jobs as a metaphor. We say that people – they don’t buy things. They hire them to get jobs done in their lives in the same way that you might hire somebody to perform a job like babysit your kids or fix a leaky pipe in your house.  That’s the basic idea. 

Denver: A completely different framework. You talk about customers, so let me ask you this, Dave. What is your definition of a customer?

Dave: I have a very broad definition of a customer. A customer is a person or a group or an organization whose problems and goals you’re trying to understand well enough that you can find ways to help them. And by help them, I mean, help them solve those problems or achieve those goals or help them get their jobs done. And by that definition, pretty much everybody, both is a customer and has a customer. 

Everybody certainly working in an organization has customers. So people that are obviously in roles like sales and marketing, product development, innovation – they have customers outside the organization whose problems and goals they need to understand.  But even people who have internal roles — If you’re in HR, if you’re in finance — there are people and groups within the organization who you want to help solve problems and achieve goals, so they’re your customers in a sense. Any manager – the team that they’re managing are their customers in a sense. They have problems and goals you want to help them with and vice versa. 

And so, if you accept that broad definition… and it’s a positive framing of what a customer is. So a customer isn’t somebody you’re trying to exploit or fleece. Rather, you’re coming at them from this fundamental frame of wanting to help them. If you accept that definition, then the first order of business for everybody who has customers is to figure out what from the customer’s perspective exactly they would find helpful. And I wrote this book to teach a way to figure that out, that anybody can learn. 

Denver: So a customer has a job to be done, and they’re going to go out and hire a product or a service to do it. Are customers, by and large, aware of this? Or is it more or less unconscious with them, and their purchasing decisions may be more impulsive or spontaneous, or maybe even irrational? I just wonder about the awareness of the customer as they enter into this. 

Dave: That’s a great question. So, they may or may not be aware of it. They might be aware of it but not necessarily able to articulate what the need is. And then they also might be aware of it and be able to articulate the need, but not be able to imagine what a solution might be or that there could be any solution. So, they’re just accepting of the need as it is. 

And oftentimes, a customer won’t know whether a candidate solution meets their needs until they actually have the thing and they’re experiencing it. Like you could ask them all the questions you want to ask them about: Would you buy this thing? Is it going to solve your needs? But they won’t really know until they actually are experiencing it. 

So, all of those are challenges to this idea that you can understand in advance what the customer needs and then engineer a solution towards that need. But many times, you can, I would say, elicit a sufficient amount of detail and nuance around understanding the need that you can engineer against it. And even in the times when you’re uncertain, there’s still going to be some uncertainty left in it. 

You still need a vocabulary and a methodology to be able to articulate a hypothesis you’re putting forward with your product to the customer. And then, you need a way to incorporate the feedback you get from the customer into your next version. There needs to be a methodology around that so that you can at least have a way to have the best possible initial orientation and then be able to adapt in an efficient way after you learn from the customer’s experience.

Denver: And presumably, the customer, in many cases at least, has already hired a product or service to do this job. And I guess as a company, you need to begin to think about how you can do it better? 

Dave: That’s a great point, Denver. So, typically, the jobs that we all want to get done day to day, there’s often some consistency to those over a period of time. It’s not that I suddenly have a need that no one’s ever had before, even that I haven’t had before.  And so, there typically are some solutions out there for my need. Maybe that I can’t access them for some reason. Maybe they’re too expensive or they’re too hard to access physically, or they’re too complicated to use. Maybe there are solutions I can access, but they don’t perform in the way that I want them to perform or with the right set of trade-offs for me.

But exploring how people are attempting to get those jobs done today is a very valuable source of insight into the nature of the job itself and what my need is. And it’s also, as you point out, something that I need to understand because obviously, I want them to hire my product and so it needs to be better in the customer’s eyes than whatever the alternatives are. 

Denver: I can see all this is making the company less self-absorbed in terms of what they’re doing and what they’re creating and much more in an empathic mindset in terms of what somebody needs. So it gets you to step outside yourself. 

Dave, we’re in the heart of baseball season, so let’s take a baseball game at Fenway. What are some of the different jobs that people are seeking to have done when they attend the game? 

Dave: That’s a great question. We did a project for one of the major league sports teams in the U.S. It wasn’t necessarily baseball in particular, but the question they were asking us to get some insight on – why do sports fans hire live sporting experiences? They were looking for ways to grow, looking for ways to grow their fan base, to improve the experience for their existing fans. 

So we went out, we talked to broad set of fans. And a couple of the insights we discovered are that firstly, sports fans broadly fall into two categories. So there are the diehard sports fans who are really committed to a particular team, a particular game. They follow it avidly. In their case, they tend to use these sporting experiences. They hire them to solve more emotional jobs to be done. So things like express my identity, feel pride, lift my spirits. And they have an almost unlimited desire to consume very technical aspects of the game. You can throw them statistics, news, information. They want to just absorb all of it. 

The casual users spike more on Jobs to be Done related to the social aspects of the experience. So they want to go there to connect with their friends. Maybe it’s about having a meaningful experience with their family, participating in a shared experience. 

And then there was a really interesting thing we discovered, which is that– and I can relate to this personally because I grew up in the Northwest and then I was a transplant to Boston in my adulthood. And so, I didn’t grow up with any kind of loyalty or a particular interest in the Red Sox but then once you get there, you get caught up in it. And when you go there, when you then attend the game, it’s a way that you can become and feel like you’re more of a local. So you go from being kind of expat in a city to feeling like you’re part of the local culture. A lot of times, these sports teams that are in these big cities, they are places where there’s a lot of expats that have been transplanted there and the teams give everybody– they hire them for this job to be done and feeling like they’re part of the local community. 

And then one other interesting observation is that the same person could hire a sporting event and be a diehard or a casual fan depending on the situation. So, a diehard Boston Red Sox fan could go to the game and be consuming it for those emotional jobs to be done related to their loyalty to the Red Sox. But then maybe they’re home over Thanksgiving in some other part of the country and they watch a game on TV of some sports team that’s not the Red Sox that they don’t really care about. But in that case, they’re hiring the game so that they can have a neutral apolitical conversation starter there for their family situation. 

So broad set of jobs that people hire the exact same game for, and even the same people can hire it for different jobs at different times.

Denver: That’s interesting. My daughter lives in Boston now and when she was home, we found ourselves watching Boston Bruins playoff games. And I’m like – where did this come from? So I know exactly when you move into a city, you’ll get caught up in it all. 

And what was really interesting about what you said is that often when we think about jobs to be done, we’re thinking about it on a functional basis. I have this need and I need this job to be done to solve that problem. But it’s beyond functional. You mentioned emotional and social. So I guess there’s several different categories, correct, in terms of the jobs that you’re looking to get done.

Dave: There are. We typically think about them in those three categories – functional, emotional, and social. And usually, when we hire a product, we’re hiring it to solve multiple jobs at the same time. It’s really a bundle of jobs. So if I want to understand, Denver, why you buy a particular car, you’re going to be doing that for social, functional, and emotional jobs, motivations. And so, I would want to understand the whole bundle of things that’s important to you.

And a car is a good example because there are functional jobs. We hire cars for like: I want to be able to get from place A to B. I want to commute to work. I want to be able to take my kids to school. I want to be able to haul stuff around from one place to another. Those are all functional jobs. But then we have emotional jobs for hiring a car. Maybe we want to feel a certain way when we’re driving it. We want to feel successful, so we buy a luxury car. Or maybe we buy a very safe car because we want to feel like we’re a good, responsible parent. 

And there are certainly social jobs to be done related to a car, related to the image maybe we want to project. Maybe we want to show off and show that we’re successful. Or maybe we buy a hybrid or something because we want to project that we care about the environment. We’re environmentally conscious. 

And oftentimes in many product categories, but certainly in cars, the functional jobs are table stakes. Like all the cars are going to sort of satisfy those jobs and the things that differentiate and that people actually buy on are the emotional and social jobs. 

Denver: It’s also interesting, too, that talking about cars, if you’re looking at the framework that you just described, you begin to think differently about your competition. So if you’re a car company, maybe you’re not just looking at other car companies. Would be a broader palette, wouldn’t it? 

Dave: Yes, absolutely. And that’s one of the almost magical powers of framing your innovation development activities from the perspective of the jobs you are trying to solve as opposed to the products that you’re trying to sell.

If you think about yourself as being in the car business and your goal is to sell cars, then you’re going to think of your competition as other companies that sell cars. And you’re going to think about the size of the market as being measured by the total car sales or people that might be able to buy a car. And you’re going to be evaluated by the markets according to how many cars you sell and so on. 

If you think about your business as being, we’re in the business of say, personal mobility. We’re a solution to the problem of helping people get around, then you’re competing with a much broader set of competitors. You’re competing with Uber. You’re competing with motorcycles. You’re competing with public transportation. 

And you even could be competing with Zoom video calls. Because there’s a deeper job than just getting from place A to place B which is why do you want to get from place A to place B? It’s because maybe you want to have a meeting and connect with somebody in person. Zoom might be an imperfect solution to that, but it’s pretty good for a lot of situations. 

And so, suddenly, you go from competing with other companies trying to make a better car than they have, to competing with a company that provides over the internet video conferencing services. It’s just radically different game you’re playing in that case.

Denver: So, Dave, when you’re interviewing customers, how would the questions differ using the Jobs to be Done framework than the kind of standard customer interview questions that we’re accustomed to?

Dave: So a lot of times, customer interview questions that companies will throw out there relate to how they like the current products: What do they like about it? What they don’t like about it? What new features might they like to see added to the product? It’s a product-centric way of asking the customer questions. 

That’s decoupled from the more profound insight, which is: Why are they hiring your products in the first place?  What are they solving for and why do they choose your product as the solution to solve that? 

When you’re doing a jobs interview where you’re trying to get the jobs, you want to ask broader questions about their life in general: What does a typical day look like? What are the things that they struggle with as they go through the day? If there’s a particular aspect of their life you’re interested in, for example, how do they get around? 

Like, let’s say you are a car company and you’re in the personal mobility business. You want to have them paint a picture for you of a typical routine where getting around from place A to place B is a relevant goal that they have. And you really want to dig into how those experiences happen today. Where some of the frustrations are? And you want to be constantly asking why. 

So, when they say something, you want to get to the underlying:  Why was that hard? Why did you feel that way? Why were you frustrated? What were you really trying to get done? So that you can get insights about the jobs they’re trying to get done. What they hire today to get those jobs done? How satisfied they are with those solutions, why or why not? And then what are the indicators that there’s an opportunity to make things better? 

You also want to typically be more open-ended in your questions and more open to learning things that are going to surprise you. So, a good jobs-based interview, it’s going to get the root causes…but it’s also going to explore probably more broadly the set of things that they’re dealing within their life, their circumstances, and the jobs they’re trying to get done beyond just the things that you might think are most centrally relevant to whatever product category you operate in.

Denver: So you moved from benefits and features to root cause, what’s really at the heart of it.

Dave: You just said it a lot more succinctly than I did. That was very well said. 

And I would just add one thing is that you also want to typically be more open-ended in your questions and more open to learning things that are going to surprise you. So, a good jobs-based interview, it’s going to get the root causes, as you say. But it’s also going to explore probably more broadly the set of things that they’re dealing within their life, their circumstances, and the jobs they’re trying to get done beyond just the things that you might think are most centrally relevant to whatever product category you operate in.

Denver: We see that a lot in the social sector as well. We’re trying to deal with problems in a silo. And even through this pandemic, we realized how interrelated everything is. So what you’re saying there is that it’s just not a single-siloed decision. There’s sort of a mosaic and a fabric that this decision is embedded into, and you kind of have to understand that whole framework in order to really hone in. 

The book is a business fable format, which I really found to be very, very interesting and engaging. Why did you choose this style and was it influenced by anyone?

Dave: It was very much influenced by the books of a guy named Patrick Lencioni.

Denver: Yes, I know him.

Dave: He’s written a dozen or so books. I think the most famous one is one called The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. And they all have a similar format in the sense that they’re 85%, 90% in the format of a fictional story. And the story typically revolves around a fictitious company or leadership team that has some sort of problem they got to solve. And then the plot involves them working through in solving that problem using whatever frameworks that he’s trying to teach in his book. And then at the end, he steps out for a brief section from the story and has a nonfiction coverage of the same ideas and frameworks. 

And I remember reading the book The Five Dysfunctions of a Team 15 years ago. It took me a couple of hours to read. It was really fun, engaging. I never have looked back at it since but I never had to because I never forgot what it taught me. It was just so effective and powerful the way he unfolded the ideas in the story. 

And so, as I thought about, “Well, I want to write this book about how anyone can learn to understand the customers that they’re serving today or that they want to serve, to our earlier conversation, about how broad and ubiquitous that need is.” I wanted it to be accessible to a really broad audience and maybe engaging something that somebody who may not pick up a technical business book might find appealing. 

But there was also something about this topic in particular that I thought was amenable to that format. Because a lot of times, if you’re trying to teach somebody how to have a good customer conversation, the best way is to have them watch you do it. And then step back and reflect on what happened and what the method to the madness was. And when they first watch it, oftentimes it feels a little bit random and like it’s jumping around in unpredictable ways and it might not seem to have a structure or method at all. And usually, the best conversations feel that way. 

But there is a method that underlies it, and so I wanted to depict what do they look and feel like in reality. So in the plot of this story, there are many such conversations that are illustrated, so people can really see what it feels like in practice. 

Denver: It’s a good teaching method. I think I read somewhere that stories are remembered 22 times better than information. And a lot of these business books that I read, I go to Amazon and I go through Popular Highlights and they all end around page 30. So, in other words, all these authors lost their mojo on page 31, or people said, “Hey, I got it,” or they checked out or they bought another book. So this was an ingenious format. 

So Dave, let me ask you how this framework might work in the philanthropic sector and why don’t we take donors? What might be some of the jobs to be done that people are looking to have done when they make a contribution to a charitable organization?

Dave: That’s a great question. So I think it definitely applies in the sense that if you’re a philanthropic organization, you have customers in a sense. You have the people or organizations that you’re set up to help up. And those are clearly people whose problems and goals you want to understand and create effective solutions to help them solve problems, achieve their goals. 

But to your point, you also have other stakeholders, and that’s true at every organization as well. There are multiple stakeholder groups, not just the customers. There’s employees, there’s investors. There’s the public, there’s regulators. There are all of these different stakeholder groups that you want to understand their problems and goals. 

In the case of donors, you would probably know more what their motivations are than I would. But if I think about– and I suppose it also depends on the nature of the philanthropic organization, inevitably, you are going to have social, functional, emotional jobs to be done that you’re solving for with your donation. 

You might have some functional goals around wanting to achieve a certain result in society and some sort of some benefit whether it’s eradicating a disease or helping to educate an underserved population. Or maybe you’re donating to your university that you went to that you feel a strong sense of affiliation to. 

Then, I suppose there are, there are emotional social jobs to be done as well related to how you feel about fulfilling your personal values. Maybe you’re trying to project, demonstrate to your family a certain set of values. 

Maybe I should turn that question around on you, Denver, and ask: What do you think that some of the functional, social, emotional jobs that donors have? 

So, you want to prioritize the highest value, highest priority, most unsatisfied jobs to be done of the stakeholders. That’s step one Layering on a second layer of prioritization based on where you’re in a unique position to solve it in a sustainably differentiated way. That’s step two.

Denver: Well, there is a multiplicity of them and I could probably go on for about an hour about that. But I think that the real issue is sometimes is that when you begin to identify them, what do you do? So essentially, if you see all these different things in terms of trying to make a difference in the world, a lot of times, it’s nostalgia.

Sometimes it’s paying tribute to someone. Sometimes it’s something that’s happened to you in your life. Sometimes it’s just a newfound compass that you’ve addressed. So much going on right now, let’s say, with racial equity and trying to have a fair and more equitable society. 

There’s a whole bunch of different things but I guess whether it’s a company or it’s a nonprofit organization, the question always becomes once you get these insights, what do you do then to activate those insights in a way that’s going to improve the outcome of either your philanthropic efforts or your sales efforts within a company? 

Dave: And so that gets into– well, I’ll answer that in a couple of different ways. Let’s say that donors have 25 different jobs to be done that they might solve for. And so, the first question is: Which ones do you want to focus on solving? If you can’t solve all 25 of them, how are you going to prioritize the ones that are of most interests and that are going to be of the most benefit to your organization, to whoever your organization is serving, and to the donors?

There are, I think, you want to look at things like: Which ones are really the most important, most unsatisfied, most high-value to the donors themselves? And obviously, in the case of a philanthropic organization, you need to understand all of your stakeholder groups and prioritize the jobs to be done that you want to solve for each stakeholder group, and then make sure they’re all aligned with one another.

You don’t want to focus on say, serving a donor at the expense of the people that they’re actually donating to help. So, you want to prioritize the highest value, highest priority, most unsatisfied jobs to be done of the stakeholders. That’s step one. 

Step two would then be to say, OK, well of those high priority jobs from the stakeholder’s perspective, which ones are we best positioned to solve in a differentiated way that’s going to lead to them choosing our solution versus all the other solutions that could be out there? So you’re layering on a second layer of prioritization based on where you’re in a unique position to solve it in a sustainably differentiated way. That’s step two.

And then you’ve clearly identified a problem worth solving, that you’re uniquely situated to solve, and you would pass those insights into your solution development process. And then we’re in a whole other area of thinking, which is around: How do you engineer an effective innovation or product development process to develop solutions? 

You need a precise language with a precise vocabulary that enables you to elicit the right information at the right level of detail, with the right level of nuance so that you can have a deep understanding of the things that are going to help you help them. So that’s the language. 

Denver: So jobs to be done is a front-end activity. It’s helping you to get to that point that you just talked about, where you pass a baton off into some other areas. 

Finally, Dave, one thing that I found really interesting is that this Job to be Done framework is just not a niche activity. It’s not a marginal activity within an organization, but it’s rather a language, a method, and a mindset that can be used across the company. Speak about that and how best to employ it in your organization. 

Dave: You’ve hit on what I describe as the three things that a person needs to learn to be able to effectively elicit these types of insights from customers or potential customers. They need to learn a language which is a kind of specialized vocabulary that gives you the words you need to describe the insights you’re trying to learn about customers. So that includes things like jobs to be done, but also the circumstance or context that they’re in and a number of other terms.

And people really need to learn a language so that they can have intentional specific goals when they’re having these conversations. So, it’s not just about kind of fuzzy insights around needs and things like that. You need a precise language with a precise vocabulary that enables you to elicit the right information at the right level of detail, with the right level of nuance so that you can have a deep understanding of the things that are going to help you help them. So that’s the language. 

Then they need to learn a method, which is a set of questions that you’re trying to answer in a particular sequence in a way to elicit that information that was defined by the language. And then they need to go into those market research activities with the right set of mindsets. So, there I talk about things like needing to be genuinely interested in the person that you’re talking to, showing up as your authentic self, being willing to share something about yourself. 

Well, I borrowed a term from Zen Buddhism of showing up with a beginner’s mind so that you sort of park your assumptions at the door about what you’re going to learn, and you’re open to what you might discover. And then having a bias towards just getting in there and having conversations as opposed to over-engineering them before you’re willing to do that.

So that’s the language, method, and mindset. And I personally think that just about everybody in any organization would benefit from learning that. Then you have a shared language across the organization that you’re speaking about when you’re describing customers and trying to understand them. And to our earlier conversation, everybody has customers that they need to understand. 

Denver: And from your observations, is this catching on? 

Dave: From my book or Jobs to be Done in general? 

Denver: Probably a combination. Jobs to be Done in general, hopefully fueled in part by your book. 

Dave: So I think it is. It’s early days in the case of my own book. But I’m sure after this podcast it will start accelerating a bit.

But I do think Jobs to be Done is a concept that has got an increasing traction in recent years. Just as one example, we had the opportunity to have Jack Dorsey come to Innosight a couple of years ago for a CEO summit that we hosted every summer, along with Clay. 

And he came and one of my colleagues interviewed him for an hour about nothing but how transformational this idea of Jobs to be Bone had been for both Twitter and Square as a way to clarify what they were focused on at a strategic level, get everybody aligned around that.   And then, propagating that into the way that they deal with customers and develop products. That’s one high-profile example and endorsement of this idea of jobs. I could name a bunch of others as well. 

I think what the unmet need I suppose or a job to be done that I perceive is for taking it off further was just a clear articulation of what you need to learn to be able to do it. And so that’s what I spent time developing in the course of writing this book. And then hopefully a way to teach that in a way that people will find engaging and easy to consume. So I’m hopeful this could be a contribution. 

Denver: The title of the book again is The Secret Lives of Customers: A Detective Story About Solving the Mystery of Customer Behavior. So if your organization is looking for a new framework to improve results and outcomes, you just might find it with Jobs to be Done. 

Thanks for being here today, Dave. It was such a pleasure to have you on the program.

Dave: Thanks so much, Denver, for having me on.

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