December 5, 2019

What Job is Your Customer Hiring You to Do?

My friend George, one of our co-founders at Return Path (according to him, the best looking of the three), has a wonderful and simple framing question for thinking about product strategy:  what job is your customer hiring you to do?  I am increasingly turning to that question as I work with our team on developing a new strategy for my new company, LRN. Even though LRN is in a different space, solving different problems for different buyers, I am finding George’s wisdom as relevant as ever, maybe even more so since I am still learning the new context.

Why is this a useful question to ask?  It seems really simple – maybe even too simple to drive strategy, doesn’t it?

It’s very easy in technology and content businesses (maybe other spaces too) to get caught up in a landslide of features and topics. In a dynamic world of competition and feature parity, product roadmaps can easily get cluttered. They can also get cluttered by product teams who have their own view of what should be the next feature, module, or content widget. Sometimes looking at product usage data is helpful, but sometimes it produces more noise than signal because it can easily miss the “why” or change day to day.

And once a product is mature, it can be very difficult to understand which of its many elements — even if they are all used — are the ones truly driving the most value for customers. It’s easy to assume it’s the newest, the slickest, the ones that are generating the most buzz. It’s even easier to assume that when it comes to content. But sometimes it’s now. Sometimes it’s the legacy part of the product. Sometimes it’s a small side feature you don’t focus on. Sometimes it’s something you used to do but don’t really do any more!

By asking customers the simple question — what are you hiring us to do for you? — you can start to get to the heart of the matter, the heart of what your strategy should be.  Peeling the onion once you understand that and getting into the specifics of the different tasks or jobs your customer does that derive from your main point of value, as George would say, “jobs to be done,” is much more straightforward. When defining a Job to Be Done:

  • Focus on a functional job (not an emotional one, e.g, “I need to look smart to the boss”)
  • Try to ensure that you are looking at the whole job, not just a piece of the job. It’s easy to get too narrow in your definition
  • Make sure it is the customer’s definition of the job, not yours

There’s always a role and a need for innovative product owners to help define a space, define value, demonstrate it for customers.  This framework is meant to be additive to a high functioning product owner’s job, it can never replace it.

(As a small post-script, Friday December 6 marks 20 years since we started Return Path…a fitting day to post a bit of a tribute to George!)