The jobs to be done framework is a powerful tool businesses can use to better understand how and why customers make buying decisions. As such, it can be leveraged in a range of situations.

For example, new and emerging ventures can leverage the jobs to be done framework to learn what potential customers value when making a purchase, and use that information to differentiate from industry incumbents. Established companies, on the other hand, can utilize the framework to better understand their market position and identify new threats and opportunities.

Likewise, both new and existing businesses can use the framework during times of disruption, such as the coronavirus pandemic.

Here’s a primer on the jobs to be done framework—what it is, different types of customer jobs, and how to apply it—along with how the coronavirus has brought the theory front of mind for many businesses.

What Is the Jobs to Be Done Framework?

The jobs to be done (JTBD) framework is a theory pioneered by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen, who also developed the theory of disruptive innovation. It’s a means of understanding underlying customer motivations that influence the buying process.

According to the jobs to be done framework, a customer doesn’t really buy a product; they hire it to get a job done. In this sense, a job to be done is defined as the goal a customer—whether an individual, entity, or business—is trying to achieve.

In the online course Disruptive Strategy, a job to be done is defined as a “circumstances-based description of understanding your customers’ desires, competitive set, anxieties, habits, and timeline of purchase.”

When a company embraces the jobs to be done framework, it’s focused on understanding what causes a customer to buy a product. This is different from conventional marketing techniques, which frame the buying decision around customer attributes, such as age, gender, income, marital status, and other demographic information.

Whereas demographic information can be correlated with buying behavior, identifying a customer’s job to be done offers a direct window into the reasons they decide whether to buy a product.

In Disruptive Strategy, it’s noted that “integrating around the job to be done is how a company organizes itself and its offerings to deliver on a set of experiences that perfectly ‘nail’ the job to be done. This means instead of organizing around traditional categories (i.e., marketing, product development, and sales), companies should organize and integrate to deliver a product or service perfectly centered around the job to be done.”

Jobs to Be Done and the Coronavirus

In many ways, 2020 has been a year unlike any other. The emergence of the coronavirus in February and March has impacted businesses across industries, sectors, and market capitalizations. Social distancing measures have been put in place to limit the spread of the disease and, while effective and necessary, have shut down much of the economy.

Businesses have been grappling with drastically reduced cash flows and broken supply chains, all while being forced to embrace a shift to remote work, where possible.

As many states work to reopen their economies, businesses are finding that customers—unwilling to risk the health and wellbeing of themselves and their families—aren’t returning as quickly as expected.

The result is that many businesses—previously in the process of launching a new product, service, or venture—have been forced to hit the brakes due to economic slowdown and wavering demand. Similarly, many established businesses have been forced to confront the fact that their business models no longer work in a socially distant world.

While the disruption caused by the coronavirus has brought widespread economic turmoil, it’s also provided opportunities to organizations willing to pivot to address the needs of customers.

Related: Resource Roundup: Tips & Lessons to Help You Navigate Through the Coronavirus Crisis

For example, consider Zoom, which offers videoconferencing solutions to businesses. The company has experienced substantial growth as its traditional customer base—businesses across the US—has shifted to remote work.

Zoom has expanded its business even further by identifying and fulfilling the jobs to be done of a new, emerging customer base: schools forced to embrace virtual learning. Specifically, educators and school districts have sought a solution that enables them to interact with students in a safe, secure, and engaging way.

Zoom has tailored its offerings to those needs by:

  • Improving its security and compliance measures
  • Building dashboards designed to track student engagement
  • Creating a means of integrating Zoom with various learning management systems

As a result, daily Zoom meeting participants have increased from an average of 10 million in December of 2019 to more than 300 million in April of 2020, partially driven by the more than 90,000 schools in 20 countries that have adopted the software.

Related: Jobs to Be Done: 4 Real-World Examples

How to Know It’s Time to Reassess

It can be difficult to know when it’s time to reassess the jobs your product fulfills. There are several signs, however, that may indicate you need to take that action, including:

  • If your product design, marketing, and sales processes all revolve around internal assumptions about how and why customers purchase your product, it may indicate you haven’t embraced the customer-centric approach dictated by the jobs to be done theory. Begin incorporating customer insights and observations into your strategy to better understand jobs to be done.
  • If you learn customers consistently use your product or service for something other than what it’s designed to do, it may indicate a new job has emerged that your product can fulfill. That, or the original job your product was created to satisfy was the wrong target. Understand which case is true, and determine how you might shift your strategy to align with the appropriate job.
  • If market conditions have rapidly shifted in favor of a different solution, it may indicate customers have found a product that better performs the job they previously “hired” your product for. Look for ways to either improve your product or seek new jobs it may be capable of performing.

Identifying Jobs to Be Done

Developing a thorough understanding of customers’ jobs to be done has tremendous benefits. If you’re seeking to identify your customers’ jobs to be done, you can follow a number of steps to reach that understanding, such as:

  • Reflecting on your own experiences: Understand that you yourself are a customer. By deeply reflecting on your behaviors and experiences, you can identify patterns in your decision-making process that apply to your company’s broader customer base.
  • Observing the behaviors of those around you: After gaining initial insights about yourself, turn to those around you. Seek to validate and build on your initial personal observations.
  • Conducting customer/user interviews: Do you have an active customer base? Interviewing current and former users, as well as individuals who didn’t ultimately purchase your product, can be incredibly insightful.

Types of Customer Jobs

Often, when a company or organization sets out to identify the various jobs a customer might hire its product to do, the focus is often on the functional problem that must be solved. For example, a customer might hire a protein bar to perform the job of satiating their hunger.

Although functional jobs to be done are important to understand, they’re not the only type of job. There are also social and emotional jobs, which are harder to measure in quantitative terms, but reflect the feeling one gets from owning or using a product or service.

While many professionals typically think of jobs to be done as functional problems to solve, social and emotional jobs can also be powerful causes of customer buying behavior.

Returning to the protein bar example: What other jobs might a customer hire that product to perform other than the functional job of satiating hunger?

If the customer purchases the protein bar because they’re working toward an aspirational goal of losing weight, that might be considered an emotional job to be done. On the other hand, if the customer purchases the protein bar because they’re heavily involved in the bodybuilding community and the brand carries prestige, that might be considered a social job to be done.

By understanding the customer’s job to be done, the company that manufactures the protein bar can establish a customer profile and marketing strategy around each discrete job.

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Applying the Jobs to Be Done Framework

Once you’ve identified the functional, emotional, and social jobs your customers are seeking to accomplish, you can tailor your business around them. Through this evaluation, previously unseen opportunities or threats can come to the forefront, offering you the chance to embrace them fully.

According to Christensen, everything from research and development, to product planning and design, to marketing and sales can be integrated around a targeted job to be done. Following this strategy, it’s possible to achieve market differentiation and avoid disruption by leaning into factors that help you stand out from your competition.

By understanding the jobs to be done theory and using its framework to orient your business practices around customer needs, you can put your business in a position to succeed during times of stability and uncertainty.

Want to learn more about the jobs to be done theory and other concepts from Professor Christensen? Explore our six-week online course Disruptive Strategy, and learn how you can acquire the skills and techniques needed to organize for innovation and craft winning strategies.

Tim Stobierski

About the Author

Tim Stobierski is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Harvard Business School Online.