A business needs customers to survive. With fierce competition to capture buyers’ attention, it can be difficult to develop products and services that stand out and appeal to the market.

What makes a product unique is its ability to meet customers’ needs better than other offerings, rather than new features and a sleek design.

Whether you’d like to improve your existing products and services, or you’re looking for a new idea to expand your offerings, understanding customer needs will help you deliver the most value to your buyers.

What Are Customer Needs?

To deliver value to your customers, you must have a clear understanding of their needs.

A customer need is a problem that a person is trying to solve, which motivates them to seek a product or service to do so. There are several types of customer needs, including functional, social, and emotional needs.

Customer Needs and Jobs to Be Done

Another way to understand customer needs is to think of them as jobs to be done.

The jobs to be done (JTBD) theory was first introduced by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen. In the online course Disruptive Strategy, Christensen asserts that customers don’t really buy products; they “hire” them to get a “job” done.

According to Christensen, a job to be done is the progress an entity, customer, or business is trying to make in daily life.

In 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.”

Based on this definition, customers hire a product or service based on how well it fits their job description. If you understand the jobs your customers are hiring your product or service for, you can create a winning value proposition and drive innovation within your organization.

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

By aligning your company with jobs to be done, you can tailor your offerings to deliver value to your customers, achieve differentiation in the market, and avoid disruption.

3 Ways to Identify Customer Needs or Jobs to Be Done

There are a number of ways to learn about your customers’ jobs to be done. Whether you have an existing product or service you’d like to improve, or you’re looking for a new, innovative idea, you can gather valuable insights from several sources, including:

  • Yourself
  • Current customers
  • Non-customers
  • Former customers
  • Compensating behaviors, or inconvenient alternatives used when no product fulfills the job to be done well

Here are three ways to develop an understanding of your customers’ needs so you can better serve them with your products and services.

1. Reflect on Your Experiences

The first method for identifying jobs to be done is to reflect on your own behaviors and experiences, identifying patterns in your decision-making process. You yourself are a customer and, in the absence of other data sources, self-reflection can be a helpful starting point.

For example, if you’re working to improve an existing product offering, think back to the last time you purchased a similar item. Ask yourself:

  • What motivated me to make the purchase?
  • What other options were available to me?
  • Why did I choose this product over the other options available?
  • What goal did the product help me achieve?

It can be easy to make assumptions about why you behaved a certain way, so critically think about the factors that influenced your decision.

2. Observe Behaviors

In addition to reflecting on your own experiences, you should observe the behaviors of those around you.

If possible, look for opportunities to observe people at each stage of the buying process—from the time the job to be done arises to the final decision. Observe how people use the product or service to understand what goals it helps them achieve or challenges it helps them avoid.

Look out for compensating behaviors, or actions people take when a product or service doesn’t exist to fulfill their needs. Understanding the job to be done at the core of inconvenient alternatives can help you identify an underserved need in the market and inspire ideas to satisfy it.

3. Conduct Interviews

To learn more about the decision-making process and build on your observations, interview current, former, and non-customers.

Your current customers can explain why they chose to purchase from your company, rather than a competitor. Former customers can share insights into why they no longer use your company’s products or services, potentially highlighting opportunities for improvement. Similarly, non-customers can shed light on why they didn’t need a particular product or service, or why they chose to purchase from a competitor.

A one-on-one interview can enable you to explore the buyer’s decision-making process from start to finish. Ask pointed questions to uncover what led them to your offering, such as:

  • Tell me about the first time you thought about buying a ____?
  • What challenge were you trying to solve when you bought ____?
  • When was the first time you thought, “I need to find a new solution?”
  • What other options did you consider when you made your decision?
  • What made you choose ____ over other options?

Use these questions as a starting point. As the conversation continues, ask more questions to further explore the customer’s motivations and the job they hired your product or service to fulfill.

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Using Customer Needs to Drive Innovation

By reflecting on your own experiences, observing those around you, and conducting interviews, you can draw valuable insights about your customers and identify their primary jobs to be done.

You’ll be able to answer critical questions like:

  • What job is the customer hiring your product to do?
  • What criteria form the customer’s job description?
  • What competing products help the customer do this job?

Most importantly, discovering your customers’ jobs to be done can allow you to improve your product in ways that are important to them.

In Disruptive Strategy, it’s stated that “understanding the job to be done brings much more clarity to the understanding of why people will and won't buy products. If we understand the job that the customer is trying to do, and then develop a product that nails this job perfectly, the probability that your innovation will be successful is improved in dramatic ways.”

Harnessing the power of the jobs to be done theory enables businesses to organize for innovation and discover new ways to meet the needs of the market. By doing so, they can achieve differentiation and position themselves for long-term success.

Want to learn more about "jobs to be done" and other theories 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.

Kelsey Miller

About the Author

Kelsey Miller is a marketing specialist and contributing writer for Harvard Business School Online.