Silence the Voice of the Customer

Innovation is successful when it targets customers’ needs, but how sure can we be that this is something we can predict effectively? In this article Tony Ulwick argues that the traditional voice of the customer methodology is the wrong tool to determine customer needs. Tony presents an alternative methodology that makes it possible to determine all the needs of a given customer group.

Innovation is successful when it targets customers’ needs, and yet nearly 90% of those polled in a recent IIR webinar survey reported that they had never worked on a new product in their entire career in which all the customer’s needs were known. Experts in the voice-of-the-customer (VOC) innovation technique shrug their shoulders when confronted with such facts. They say that customers do not know all their needs; customers have latent needs and needs they cannot articulate; their needs change quickly over time. We beg to differ. It is possible to know all the needs of a given customer group—it’s just that VOC has a misconception about needs, and, more fundamentally, it’s the wrong tool for the job.

Over the past 20 years we at Strategyn have created and refined an innovation process with an 86% success rate—more than four times better than the 10%–30% success rate that VOC practitioners must content themselves with.

To be fair, our method does share some points with VOC. Like VOC, our method recognizes that:

  • Innovation and new product development must be guided by an understanding of customer needs.
  • To be successful at understanding customer needs, you need a structured process.
  • Customer needs are distinct from the solutions that address those needs.
  • It is not the customer’s job to come up with solutions; it is the developer’s job.

But the traditional VOC approach fails and is unsuited for innovation for several reasons:

  • It relies on an incorrect understanding of customer needs.
  • It does not have a suitable framework for capturing customer needs.
  • It holds—incorrectly—that customers have latent needs and needs they cannot articulate.
  • It holds—also incorrectly—that customer needs change quickly over time.
  • It does not offer the degree of specificity required to enable clear and actionable innovation.

But even more fundamentally, VOC is flawed as a tool for innovation because it was not designed as a tool for innovation. VOC tools, which were created in the 1980s, were intended to help engineers craft products and make design trade-off decisions after products had entered into development—in other words, after the product idea had already been generated. For years, traditional VOC practitioners have tried to persuade companies that the same tools are useful for coming up with the initial product concept, but that is simply not the case. In the paragraphs that follow, we’ll explain why not, and why our method works better.

It’s about the job, not the product

People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.

As people make their way through each day, they encounter tasks, or jobs, that they must get done. To help get these jobs done, people use products and services. Thus, from a customer’s perspective, products and services are acquired as a means to help them get jobs done. Theodore Levitt expressed it nicely back in 1975, when he said, “People don’t want a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.” That’s the realization that has driven our thinking for years, and other prominent academics are in solid agreement with this basic construct. Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen, for example, agrees that “the job, not the customer, is the fundamental unit of analysis for a marketer who hopes to develop products that customers will buy.”

But with traditional VOC, whether the goal is to devise a new product concept (innovation) or improve a product design (development), the start point is not the job but a product or service (such as a razor or a movie theater). Once the product or service has been determined, VOC then works to understand customer needs relative to that solution.¹ This makes sense for a methodology that was developed to choose from among design trade-offs, and it may, on occasion, result in the creation of a slightly better mousetrap (a sharper razor or cleaner theater), but it is highly unlikely to lead to the creation of breakthrough concepts (such as Nair or Netflix). If, on the other hand, the focus is not on the product “razor” but on the job of “hair removal,” then it’s much more likely that a concept such as Nair will be developed. Note too that while a product like the “razor” may change quickly, the job of “hair removal” remains constant over time: the customers’ need to remove hair doesn’t change over time, although the product or service that helps them accomplish that job may.

Another drawback of traditional VOC practices, stemming from its product focus, is that it tends to result in the collection of needs that relate to what we call consumption chain tasks (tasks relating to the use of the product—acquiring, receiving, setting up, using, maintaining, and disposing of a it) rather than the collection of needs that relate to the actual job the customer is trying to get done, even though the job is the reason the customer is using the product in the first place.

The framework for understanding customer needs

Our methodology requires that a company understand exactly what job the customer is trying to get done before any attempts at innovation are made. This is accomplished by conducting customer interviews or literature searches to understand the discrete process steps that comprise the job.

The breakdown of the job into these discrete steps is represented graphically by a job map. Job mapping has many benefits, all of which are discussed in “The Customer-Centered Innovation Map” (Harvard Business Review, May 2008). Its primary purpose is to provide a framework within which to capture and organize need statements and to ensure that no customer needs get overlooked or neglected. The job map’s ability to capture all the customer’s needs makes it superior to VOC techniques, which state from the outset that they cannot capture all customer needs.  If a customer has 100 or more different, detailed needs, shouldn’t you know all of them? Missing even one might mean missing a perfect opportunity for innovation.

Defining what a customer need is—with precision

One strength of our approach is that we standardize how we record customer jobs and the outcomes they use to measure success at each step in the course of getting the job done. The advantage to this is that anyone who reads the resulting statement can know exactly what the job is and what the desired outcome is. There is no room for ambiguity or misunderstanding. Here is the format in which we record the jobs customers are trying to get done:

Figure 1. The Format of a Job Statement

For example, “Determine… where your car is parked… when at a public event… e.g., theme park, sporting event, etc.”

And here is the format in which we record the outcomes they are looking for at each step in getting the job done:

Figure 2. The Format of an Outcome Statement

For example, “Minimize… the time it takes… to verify the accuracy of a desired outcome with a customer, … e.g. its meaning, completeness, exactness, etc.

(See “Giving Customers a Fair Hearing,” Sloan Management Review, Spring 2008 for details.)

Those outcomes are the metrics by which the customers measure how well they are accomplishing each step in the job they are trying to get done, and it is those metrics—those outcomes—that we collect as customer needs.

There is one other important factor that traditional VOC practitioners fail to take into consideration when thinking about customer needs: sometimes the best way to help customers is not by addressing the job that you have traditionally helped them get done, but other jobs, or additional jobs, that they are also trying to get done. Our method, by contrast, seeks to understand those other jobs when capturing customer inputs for innovation. During a typical research effort, we will capture the outcomes customers use to measure the successful execution of a core job of interest and also a list of other jobs that customers are trying to get done in that situation.

Figure 3 shows how we organize customer inputs. You will see that certain ancillary sorts of jobs—emotional jobs (the way customers want to be perceived or feel when executing the core job) and consumption chain jobs (the secondary jobs that customers must get done as they purchase, use, and take care of a product or service)—are also considered. This is the level of specificity at which a market must be analyzed to ensure success at innovation and at marketing. The inputs collected during this research effort serve to guide and align a company’s product, branding, communications, selling, R&D, and M&A strategies.

Figure 3. The Customer Input Hierarchy

Click to enlarge

Not “why,” but “what”

In traditional VOC interviews, the interviewer will often ask a subject why a particular solution or characteristic would be or is a good one. But starting with a potential solution and asking customers to defend it is a backward way to approach the problem and may simply annoy them. Once the job the customer is trying to get done is understood and a job map has been created, a far superior interviewing approach (which will keep the conversation away from premature talk about solutions and specifications) is to ask, for each step in the job map, what makes that step time-consuming, unstable, unpredictable, inefficient, challenging, or problematic. This will result in statements that can be captured as outcomes.

Advancing the innovation process

So, if not VOC, then what? The strategy and innovation process we have been describing as an alternative is Outcome-Driven Innovation (ODI). It is built on the theory that people buy products and services to get jobs done. It links value creation activities to customer-defined metrics. Over years of work on innovation projects with leading companies, we have arrived at eight basic principles that summarize and guide the ODI methodology:

  1. When it comes to innovation, the job, not the product, must be the unit of analysis.
  2. A job map provides the structure needed to ensure all customer needs are captured.
  3. When the job is the unit of analysis, needs take the form of customer-defined metrics.
  4. ODI’s “jobs-to-be-done” principles apply equally well to design innovation.
  5. The opportunity algorithm² makes it possible to prioritize unmet needs.
  6. Opportunities (unmet needs) dictate which growth strategy to pursue.
  7. Scattershot brainstorming doesn’t work; sequenced and focused idea generation does.
  8. Concepts can be evaluated with precision against customer-defined metrics.

These principles and other discoveries are the result of taking a holistic view of innovation and building an end-to-end innovation process. And the results speak for themselves: when ranked against other methods, ODI received the highest customer satisfaction scores.

It is time to silence the voice of the customer as an innovation practice. The customer does indeed have insight into the jobs they are trying to get done, but you need to think from a different perspective in order to turn that insight into valuable customer inputs. Strategyn’s ODI methodology does exactly that. Armed with that knowledge, you can tackle the challenge of innovation knowing that you will be successful: you will generate growth, and you will maximize your ROI.

By Tony Ulwick

About the author


Tony Ulwick is the founder and CEO of Strategyn Inc., and the author of the best -selling book, What Customers Want. He has published numerous articles on innovation management in the Harvard Business Review and the Sloan Management Review. Founded in 1991, Strategyn has worked successfully with companies such as Microsoft, Chiquita Brands, Hallmark, IBM, Johnson & Johnson, WellPoint, Motorola and Pfizer, helping them establish effective innovation strategies and driving them through implementation.


[1] See, for example, Abbie Griffin, “Obtaining Customer Needs for Product Development,” in The PDMA Handbook of New Product Development, ed. K. Kahn, G. Castellion, and A. Griffin (Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2005), 211–27. Griffin says, “VOC indirectly discovers wants and needs by walking customers through the ways they currently obtain or acquire and use products and services to fulfill particular needs.”

[2] The opportunity algorithm is a calculation that depends on how important a need is to customers and how well satisfied (or unsatisfied) they are with their current ability to meet that need.

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  • Clarence U

    Interesting argument. I think adapting the 5-whys technique (used traditionally for root-cause analysis) to understanding customer outcomes would be useful too.

  • RobinGoldsmith

    Thank you for articulating the elaborating-a-product-prejudgment VOC weakness I’ve been conscious of for
    a long time, but which unfortunately often is not politically correct to point out. VOC also often is actually the voice of marketing or other internal role purporting to speak on behalf of the customer.

    My book, Discovering REAL Business Requirements for Software Project Success, describes a more fundamental approach that’s not just limited to software and lays the
    groundwork for the still-product-focused methods Tony describes.

  • paul4innovating

    Tony,

    Without doubt the importance of the job-to-be done cannot be emphasised enough- thanks for the constant reminder of its importance and place in innovation

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