The Right Tool for the Right Job

One of the most famous quotes in marketing, and one that a friend of mine is very fond of repeating, is Ted (Theodore) Levitt’s comment that “People don’t want a quarter-inch drill – they want a quarter-inch hole.” Despite this good advice, marketers, researchers, designers and innovators continue to focus on the drill to understand customer behaviour and develop new product ideas. Clayton Christensen writes that, “Every marketer we know agrees with Levitt’s insight. Yet these same people segment their markets by type of drill and by price point; they measure market share of drills, not holes; and they benchmark the features and functions of their drill, not their hole, against those of rivals. They then set to work offering more features and functions in the belief that these will translate into better pricing and market share. When marketers do this, they often solve the wrong problems, improving their products in ways that are irrelevant to customer needs.”

He argues that segmenting markets by type of customer is no better, and my experience would support this. Too often, segmentation based on demographic, attitudinal, psychographic and even behavioural data identifies customer segments that are not different enough to design for and target in any meaningful way. So how can we do better?


The most meaningful ‘segmentation’ is to think about the purpose for which customers buy or use products, services and solutions. What are their goals? For example, I use the Singapore MRT to get to the office. The MRT could be better in many ways (especially in rush hour), but is that the point? Would making small improvements to the MRT make me more or less likely to use the service? Probably not. What would be make me much less likely is if there was a direct (and faster) service to Tanjong Pagar, as the ‘job’ I am looking to do is to get to my office as efficiently (time, money, stress) as possible.

Many businesses and many researchers make the mistake of ‘framing’ a problem in terms of the drill and not the hole. This is also a common problem in innovation too, especially when companies focus on existing customer needs, rather than seeking to understand the needs of non-users who are much more likely to provide insight into how a product, brand or category can grow beyond its existing boundaries (ie disruptive innovations come from thinking outside current category constraints).

Thinking in terms of ‘jobs to be done’ can inspire great innovations. For example, the standard solution or ingesting medicine is pills or shots. Should innovation focus on better pills and shots, or by thinking about ‘how do I make a better system for ingesting medicine?’ can you come up with better solutions such as skin patches? Similarly are you better to clean windows with squeegees or self-cleaning glass? Is manual brushing the best solution to cleaning teeth or cold we use sound waves? Are libraries the best way to search for information, or has the internet changed the frame of reference?

Thinking about ‘jobs to be done’ can be broken down into three key areas – who is the customer, what do they want to get done, and what is the context of the job? It helps to state any job in these terms in order to reframe it into an appropriate higher level goal, that may just be fixed by a very different solution? Typically, customer goals are not simple, but are composed of multiple jobs, and real innovation comes from either finding ways to better address more of these individual goals, as well as solving them in better ways.

\"leatherman-mut1\"Researching goals requires observation in addition to, and sometimes instead of, the more typical measurement of attitudes and behaviours, to really uncover the individual goals and real life context of customer problems. In particular, observation helps identify where higher level goals, or individual goal elements, are unmet or poorly served by existing solutions, providing a better focus for innovation efforts on things that really matter to customers.

Having identified the different individual goals or sub-goals that customers seek, a simple metric is to plot the relative importance of each gal against customer satisfaction with existing solutions. Those goals where importance is high and satisfaction is low, are ripe for innovation which can create breakthrough ideas. Think of this simple matrix as a landscape of opportunity for the category (or I should say for the job). Thinking in terms of ‘jobs to be done’ forces us to think at a higher level about a market, our competitors, and how the customer thinks (which may be very different from how our business thinks). Simply put, it helps us to reframe the business problem in a more helpful and relevant way.

If you have ever paid a dentist to whiten your teeth (something I have not done), you will have been amazed when P&G launched Crest Whitestrips (a brand now worth 100s of millions of dollars). For those who never used a dentist, and in any situation of non-consumption, there are likely to have been one of four reasons: price, time, skill or lack of access to the right technology. Crest Whitestrips arguably addressed all four of these issues for those who had never previously whitened their teeth, as it was expensive, took time, didn’t have access to a dentist;s technology and certainly couldn’t perform the task themselves.

Similarly, pregnancy kits and self-administered medical monitoring have addressed the same problems, as Skype, Whatsapp and other software and applications are doing to disrupt the business of messaging and calls for the telecommunications industry.

If you want to really understand how your customer thinks about a problem and the relevant solutions, think about what job they are doing. Only then can you can really be innovative about new solutions.


“Marketing Malpractice: The Cause and the Cure” by Clayton Christensen, Scott Cook & Taddy Hall from Harvard Business Review

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