customer needs

Customer Needs

Know all the customers’ needs

By defining needs as customer desired outcomes

What are customer needs?

The success of every company is dependent its ability to create products and services that address unmet customer needs. Despite this fact, in over 95 percent of all companies, marketing and development managers don’t agree on what a customer “need” even is. More specifically, they do not agree on what characteristics a customer need statement should possess, what information it should contain, its purpose, and how it should be structured. The first step in becoming a customer-centric organization is agreeing on a customer needs definition.

Over the past two decades, we have worked to overcome this fundamental problem by inventing the “perfect” customer need statement. Our work is grounded in the fundamental belief that people buy products and services to get a “job” done. Looking at markets through a jobs-to-be-done lens, we’ve discovered that a customer need is defined as a uniquely structured statement that describes how a customer measures success when getting a job done. We call these statements “desired outcomes”. These statements, often totaling more than 100 for a given job, describe the precise dimensions along which customers potentially seek to get the job done better.

Take the job of listening to music, for example. Consumers tell us that they seek to (1) minimize the time it takes to find desired songs, (2) minimize the likelihood of choosing unwanted versions of a song, and (3) minimize the time it takes to change the order in which songs are heard. These customer needs examples show they are measures of customer value, actionable and controllable through product design, predictive of success, independent of a solution or technology, and stable over time. These are characteristics that “perfect” customer need statements should possess, as they enable an organization to align itself around the creation of customer value.

These unique customer inputs form the foundation for our innovation process, Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI). Learn more about customer desired outcomes in the MIT Sloan article authored by Tony Ulwick, Giving Customers a Fair Hearing.

customer needs

Myths that mislead

Managers and employees in nearly every company hold some of these mistaken beliefs about customer needs. These beliefs are a key reason why companies struggle to innovate. These myths have survived for decades because companies commonly confuse customer needs with solutions. The key point to remember is that a customer need is not a solution, product feature, or idea. The truth is customers don’t know what solutions will help them get their job done best, nor should they. Customers are not engineers, scientists and materials experts. It’s up to the company to come up with the best solutions once the customer’s needs, or desired outcomes, are known.

If you still believe that any one of these myths are indeed true, it is because you are falsely assuming a need can be a solution. This product-centric mindset is why traditional methods for identifying customer needs don’t work; and these myths seemingly offer an explanation as to why.

Understanding customer needs before developing solutions

Steve Jobs said, “You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You cannot start with the technology and try to figure out where you are going to sell it.” Our outcome-driven approach to innovation enables companies to do exactly that. Understanding customer needs before developing solutions is the hallmark of the ODI process.

ODI has its roots in six-sigma thinking where manufacturing engineers measure and control specific metrics to ensure a predictable process output. When applying this thinking to innovation, the goal is to understand the metrics customers use to measure success when getting a job done and to create products and services that help them get the job done faster, more predictably and with higher efficiency or throughput.

With a complete set of desired outcomes in hand, a company is able to evaluate a proposed solution to determine just how much better it will address the metrics and get the job done. Using this approach, companies can quantify the potential value of a proposed solution, thus making it possible to predict in advance of the development process what ideas will succeed in the marketplace.

Capturing customer needs is not easy

Customers do not naturally share the metrics they use to measure success when getting a job done. Consequently, customers must be engaged in a conversation that is designed to extract these desired outcome statements from them. The process begins by defining the job-to-be-done and the job map. The approach we use to gain these insights is the subject of one of Harvard Business Review’s most popular articles on innovation, The Customer-Centered Innovation Map, authored by Strategyn’s founder Tony Ulwick.

Trained interviewers can extract desired outcome statements from customers in nearly any customer setting including personal interviews, group interviews, and using ethnographic or anthropological research. In a typical one-hour interview, it is possible to capture between twenty and thirty desired outcomes from a single customer. The captured outcomes (totaling between 50 and 150 statements) collectively represent the set of performance measures that define the successful execution of a specific job.

Knowing the customer’s needs drives company growth

Having a full set of customer needs defined around the job-to-be-done impacts all aspects of innovation, including the way opportunities are defined, the way markets are segmented and sized, the way product and pricing strategies are formulated, and the way ideas are constructed, tested and positioned. Desired outcomes statements guide and drive the entire innovation process.

Learn more about customer needs analysis and why latent needs are a myth.

Published Articles

The Customer-Centered Innovation Map

In this groundbreaking 2008 Harvard Business Review article, Tony Ulwick and Lance Bettencourt reveal an important discovery they made while turning jobs-to-be-done innovation theory into practice: job mapping. A job map breaks down the job the customer is trying to get done in a way that enables us to discover all the customer’s needs. Learn More

Giving Customers a Fair Hearing

In this provocative article in the MIT Sloan Management Review, Tony Ulwick and Lance Bettencourt reveal how a customer need must be defined within the jobs-to-be-done framework to become a useful input into the innovation process. This article explains the different types of customer needs and how we use them to create customer value. Download the article

Debunking Myths about Customer Needs

In this thoughtful article published by the American Marketing Association, Lance Bettencourt discusses the five myths surrounding customer needs that undermine innovation. He refutes each myth and outlines why they are a negative influence.
Download the article

White Papers

Silence the Voice of the Customer

This white paper by Strategyn founder Tony Ulwick highlights the business advantages of our ODI methods for capturing and prioritizing customer needs. It explains why traditional voice-of-the-customer (VOC) practices continue to fail and makes a solid case for retiring VOC as a method for understanding customer needs. Download the white paper

Retiring the House of Quality

Quality Function Deployment (QFD) was created as a tool for product design, not as a tool for innovation. When used to identifying customer needs, this useful design tool fails to produce effective results. This article by Strategyn’s Tony Ulwick and Rick Norman and Richard Zultner of the QFD Institute makes a case for retiring the House of Quality as an innovation tool.
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What is Outcome-Driven Innovation

This white paper by Strategyn founder and ODI inventor Tony Ulwick explains why innovation has historically been an ineffective process, the discoveries he made that led to ODI, and how defining needs through a jobs-to-be-done lens changes the way the entire innovation process is executed. Download the white paper


What Customers Want

What Customers Want, the best seller by innovation thought leader Tony Ulwick, explains what Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI) is and why it works. Ulwick, who pioneered jobs-to-be-done thinking and invented ODI, details how ODI transforms jobs-to-be-done theory into a practical method for understanding customer needs and an effective process for innovation and growth.
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Case Studies

Choose from a dozen case studies with companies such as Microsoft, Ingersoll Rand, Bosch, and others, and learn how we have used our ODI methodology to understand customer needs in a variety of markets and used those inputs to help companies grow. Learn More

Ethnography in Outcome-Driven Innovation Webinar

Tony Ulwick, Founder and CEO, Strategyn. Using ethnographic research to drive innovation.

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