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Last updated on 4/7/20

Uncovering Customer Needs

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Uncovering Customer Needs

Harvard professor Theodore Levitt explained that:

 People don't want to buy a quarter-inch drill, they want a quarter-inch hole.

It is important to remember that customers do not buy features - they buy benefits. Sometimes a company focuses on the features of a given product. It is more important to understand what job the customer is trying to accomplish and is using your product to achieve it.

Henry Ford, the pioneer of the first mass-produced automobile, once recalled that if he asked his customers what they wanted, they would have replied, "a quicker, faster, cheaper horse." The problem they had was getting from A to B in the cheapest, quickest, most comfortable way possible.  Understanding this would have made an automobile an option if it could have been produced cheaply enough.

Asking customers about their underlying problem (or discovering what job they are trying to do) is an important part of uncovering their real needs.

Interviewing Customers is a great way to uncover their needs
Interviewing customers is a great way to uncover their needs


Author and Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen describes the Jobs-To-Be-Done theory in the following way:

Most companies segment their markets by customer demographics or product characteristics and differentiate their offerings by adding features and functions. But the consumer has a different view of the marketplace. He simply has a job to be done and is seeking to 'hire' the best product or service to do it.

The video below is a nice introduction to Jobs-To-Be-Done from Christensen himself:

Job statements

Author Anthony Ulwick suggests it can be helpful to write down the job the customer is trying to do as a "job statement." Job Statements are written in the following format:

Format of a job statement

The job statement has several parts:

The Verb - what it is the customer is trying to do (e.g., search, purchase, review)

The Object of the Verb - what they are "doing" this verb (e.g., searching for a new hosting solution)

The Contextual Modifier - the job often depends on the context the customer is in (carrying water is a different job in the desert compared to driving across town)

Examples of Object of the Verb - often there are several examples of what the customer is trying to do with the same verb

For example, an accountant has been given the travel expense receipts for a large company. He has to submit refund requests to the various tax authorities in order to reclaim the sales tax or value-added tax (VAT) that the employees paid while traveling. Their job could be formulated as a statement in the following way:

Formulating a job statement keeps the focus off of features and helps clarify what the customer cares about and the solutions and outcomes they desire. Once this is clear, you can then formulate solutions (and themes for the roadmap!).

Customer Journey Maps

You arrive at the office for work and turn on your computer. If you were asked to write down all of the steps it took you to get there, what would you list? Write a list starting with waking up and finishing with your first destination of the morning.

It might look like this...

  • Wake up

  • Turn off alarm clock

  • Get out of bed

  • Drink a glass of water

  • Have a shower

  • Dry off

  • Get dressed

  • Prepare breakfast

  • Eat breakfast

  • Feed the dog

  • Brush teeth

  • Get in car

  • Drive

  • Park car

  • Enter office

The point is that the process of getting up and going to work involves many smaller steps. A key to uncovering customer needs is to understand the steps. You may be able to observe someone doing a task or working to gain a better comprehension.

Here are the steps to creating an experience map:

  1. Create a customer journey map (also called a customer/user experience map) which describes the chronological steps through which a customer experiences your product or service. It details how things are currently. Use a large whiteboard or a wall and post-it notes to create a physical representation of these events moving left to right over time.

  2. Now add some information in a row underneath that describes the customer's thoughts and feelings. For example, waiting to check out of a hotel might lead a customer to feel stressed. Receiving a free bottle of wine in a hotel room might lead a customer to feel both surprised and delighted.

  3. Identify where there are areas for improvement.

Opportunity Solution Trees

Product manager Theresa Torres suggests that you can structure your thinking in terms of:

  • Desired Outcomes

  • Opportunities

  • Solutions

This yields a tree - called the Opportunity Solution Tree - that lets you brainstorm how you might approach your desired outcomes. It also gives a visual representation of your assumptions that certain solutions will address a given opportunity and that certain opportunities will help you to achieve the desired outcome. Because you can see a visual tree, it makes it easier to understand the contributions your solutions make.

If you are working with OKRs (Objectives and Key Results), then you might choose to take a key result as your desired outcome and brainstorm the opportunities and potential solutions.

The Opportunity Solution tree
The Opportunity Solution Tree


  • Discovering customer needs through understanding their Job-To-Be-Done is an important task to do before you start crafting a roadmap.

  • Writing job statements, creating experience maps, and drawing opportunity solution trees are all excellent ways to discover such needs.

  • High-level needs can be represented as themes in your roadmap. 

Additional Links

In this chapter, we discussed how to uncover customer needs. In the next chapter, we will look at how to uncover the needs of internal stakeholders.

Example of certificate of achievement
Example of certificate of achievement