How to understand customer needs?

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This is something obvious, but really difficult to nail. Let’s say you’re starting Airbnb, you cannot conquer the world on day one. You need to start small, you need to start somewhere — in their case, (i) it was apartments listed on Craigslist for the initial supply, and (ii) travelers looking for short term accommodation while attending conferences [3].

The more specific and identifiable your target segment, the less time it will take to understand their needs. A quick gauge — can you think of at least 10 people who fit the profile you have in mind?

In practice, it’s quite difficult to have this nailed down right from the beginning. So let’s start with something broad let’s say “recruiters”.

The ‘jobs to be done’ [4] is a simple, but really effective framework to understand customer needs. In essence, the theory is, ‘people hire a product or service to do a job they want to get done’. For example, I use Airbnb to book travel online, I take Uber to get to work.

You can start by Googling “a day in the life of ________”. There are loads of people who have written blogs about how they spend their day at work. Its the quickest was to start identifying what “jobs” your target segment needs to get done. Example — A day in the life of a recruiter [5]. Once you read through 5–10 of such entries, you’ll have an initial list of things they get done every day.

If your target segment is more specific (which is a good thing) this quick hack may not work. You can conduct user interviews with your target segment and ask them to describe a day in their life. The goal at this point is just to get a list of things that your target segment ‘gets done’ regularly.

At first, it might seem that it’s just a bunch of random things they’re talking about. And you can’t really tell what the “jobs” they’re trying to get done through the day. You can start making sense of this data by applying thematic analysis. Which is an iterative process of categorizing the data from your research into “jobs”, evaluating if those categories make sense?

Here’s an example from — A day in the life of a recruiter [5]

Code the jobs you find.

“And so I begin a passive search. I try not to rely too much on job boards, so I hit up the holy grail of recruiting — LinkedIn. I start with my network, looking for referrals, and then expand out into the cold calling abyss.”

The jobs: search candidates, source candidates.

I’ve written about how to apply how thematic analysis to user interviews over here [6] — you can apply the same process to identify jobs-to-be-done from your user interviews. It’s worth the effort to do the analysis because, by the end of it, you’ll start getting an idea of things like which jobs are done more frequently, which ones take up a lot of time, which ones are the most common across people in your target segment.

With your initial analysis, you’ll have a starting point to dig deeper. Not every job they do will be relevant to your product or service at that time. So think about the objectives that are driving your business forward and start digging deeper.

For example, let’s say that you’re building a recruitment platform. And you identify recruiters have three key jobs “source candidates”, “filter candidates” and “share candidates” which you want to serve.

Interview users about how they do that job.

Pick one and dig deeper by talking to people in your target segment. Ask them how they get that job done. Here are some questions to ask when getting started:

  • Can you describe the last time you did _____?
  • How much time do you spend doing _____?
  • How often do you do _____?
  • What is the hardest part of doing ______?
  • Do you use any tools to help you do ______?

Asking these questions should help you build an understanding of the “job(s)” you’ve chosen to focus on. Based on their answers you can start working out (i) what their goals are for that “job” and, (ii) how they currently go about getting it done.

The goals are usually some sort an optimization problem the customers are trying to solve. While “sourcing candidates” the recruiters’ goal could be something like — “reach out to as many relevant candidates as possible, in the least amount of time possible”. The element of optimization opens them up to new solutions. The solutions help them achieve those goals in a cheaper or faster way.

They have a set of existing ways of achieving those goals. Example “post job descriptions on online job boards”, “gather referrals”, “attend career fairs”, etc. Your solutions must be better than, or help improve upon these existing alternatives.

Going back to the Airbnb example, the job was “booking travel online”. The goal for their target segment was — “find the nicest, most affordable accommodation that is close to the city and its culture”. Optimizing for comfort, location, and price. And their existing alternative was to “find short term rentals on craigslist ”.

Customer needs are the specific challenges they face while trying to get their job(s) done. These challenges lead to inefficiencies in achieving their goals. Here are a couple of possible examples while “posting job descriptions on online job boards”:

  • “manually having to post on multiple job-boards”
  • “not having a central place to view all candidates across job boards”

These could be problems in their existing way of doing things. They cause inefficiencies in the job of “sourcing candidates”.

Create journey maps to visualize pain points.

By focusing your questions around how your customers currently get their job done, you’ll be able to start uncovering these needs. For example, the question “what is the most annoying part about posting job descriptions on online job boards?” is the most likely way of finding out something like — “manually having to post on multiple job-boards”.

Customers from different segments will perform the same job in very different ways. Their goal will be similar, but their needs can be very different. The steps that a recruiter hiring for executive roles will take, will be totally different from those hiring for a graduate program. Having a clear target segment is essential to understanding their job(s) and identifying their needs.

Identifying needs and understanding the customers’ job(s) is an iterative process. Sometimes you may discover that the initial definition of your target market wasn’t quite right. Or your definition of their jobs wasn’t accurate. But over time, your research helps you classify them better and improve your understanding of their needs.

Let’s say you started with “recruiters” as your target segment. Within a few interviews, you’ll realize that each of their jobs seems to be different. This should nudge you to improve your segmentation and classify them better. Perhaps as “headhunters”, “smb recruiters”, and “those in charge of graduate programs”. Pick one to focus on and continue.

For each job or step, you investigate, there can be a new layer you can dig into. This is great because it gives an endless tree of opportunities waiting to be captured. But it’s easy to get stuck in a loop of endless discovery.

There are endless opportunities, so stay focused.

There is only one key to finding these needs quickly and making progress quickly. Narrow the segment and the job you’re investigating with each iteration until you’re able to identify the pain-points in line with your business objectives.

Keep track of the path that you’re exploring to ensure that you’re making progress in the right direction. And remember that the learnings’ you uncover during these iterations can always come in handy at some point in time in the future. This could be when you’re looking to address new opportunities to target more segments or improve your offerings for existing customers.

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