When it comes to customers, it pays to get emotional


Stephen Wunker: “Even in markets like office supplies or medical devices, emotions make a significant difference.”

Stephen Wunker: “Even in markets like office supplies or medical devices, emotions make a significant difference.”


As many failed businesses can attest, simply asking customers what they want doesn’t work. As Henry Ford famously observed, if he had asked his customers what they wanted, they would have said a faster horse.

Innovation is not a precise art but Clay Chistensen protégée Stephen Wunker believes a clear path can be found to successful innovation by looking at the jobs customers need done.

Wunker has developed a method for determining what’s most likely to work .

Among his key ideas are that research is too superficial and self-serving and that innovators typically only look at function, rather than the wider reasons why people adopt solutions. He believes it is the framing of the problem that often leads to breakthrough ideas.

“Decision making gravitates to where there is data but that is problematic in markets that you don’t well understand such as future markets or emotional markets. It’s easy to analyse functional buying criteria but that’s not how people operate. Even in markets like office supplies or medical devices, emotions make a significant difference,” he says.

Offering more

Take the purchase of a car. For potential purchasers the requirements for the vehicle can range from safety and power to the ability to transport heavy equipment. It might well be a need for status where the car is used to show off to the neighbours just how well its owner is doing.

Solutions must of course address functional concerns, but that only takes you so far. Successful innovators offer more.

Uber is a classic case. It addresses many of the classic pain points associated with taxis, from ordering the taxi, to charting its arrival and charging the fare to a pre-determined credit card. But it also addresses other problems. “Uber focuses on the emotional jobs that the taxi industry ignored, offering a sense of certainty and control that you otherwise don’t have if you stand out in the cold trying to hail a cab,” Wunker notes.

He gives another example: US gym chain Planet Fitness. It offers a gym that appeals to casual consumers who want to achieve a basic level of fitness and don’t want to be “gymtimidated” by being surrounded by buff athletic types. Its offering, which includes $10 a month memberships and pizza Mondays, has made it one of the US’s fastest growing franchises.

Less-is-more is a common theme. Snapchat works for millennials because of its stripped-down offering. Unlike other social media platforms users of Snapchat don’t have to look glamorous. There’s no archive of old photos and no “like” buttons. There’s none of the envy or boasting attached to posts on the likes of Facebook.

Even something that may appear to be a poor product can have its place. Colgate’s Wisp is a flimsy, single-use toothbrush with a minted pearl in the centre of minuscule bristles. It cleans a modicum of plaque but little else. However, it narrowly targets a precise job; cleaning your mouth when you are outside your home, without having to spit. A classic case of something that “does the job” it’s a successful and growing brand in the company’s portfolio.

Coming up with ideas such as these involves taking a step back.

“People get excited by great solutions rather than great questions. When attempting innovation, people fall in love with the first solutions which is tempting. When you don’t understand the market or when you are trying to break out of old ways of doing things, you need to think about the contexts. Breakthroughs come from reimagining problems, not from creating an incrementally better solution to a well understood challenge,” he says.

Product innovation is notoriously difficult, Wunker notes, with only one in 100 products successful enough to cover development costs.

Confirmation bias and incrementalism are approaches that need to be resisted or “old approaches chasing old markets”. Instead, he favours starting with detailed qualitative research to see the world through customers’ eyes and only then using quantitative research to validate those ideas.

As Wunker notes, figuring out more about the “why” of customer behaviour is more important than simply observing the “what”.

Wunker’s Jobs Atlas

- Discover the jobs stakeholders are looking to accomplish and prioritise them

- Determine the current approaches and see where pain points lie

- Identify the success criteria stakeholders use to determine their interest in new solutions

- Investigate the obstacles to overcome for the new solution

- Assess the value that your organisation can offer

- Beat the competition by defining the playing field broadly and using your advantages

Jobs to be Done: A Roadmap for Customer-centred Innovation by Stephen Wunker, Jessica Wattman and David Farber is published by Amacom.


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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