The Milkshakes Bring All the Customers to the Yard

Before this, if you had only heard of one Jobs to Be Done concept, it was probably Harvard Business School professor Clayton Christensen’s milkshake story. Christensen, author of the Innovator's Dilemma and Competing Against Luck, uses a deceptively simple story about milkshakes to perfectly illustrate the theory of Jobs To Be Done.

In a nutshell, the idea is this: A colleague once came to Christensen to discuss a fast food chain’s project to sell more milkshakes. The chain had tried interviewing customers and asking them what they’d want in a milkshake. According to customer suggestions, they fiddled with flavors, size, and price -- but to no avail. No matter how accommodating the restaurant was to the customers’ stated wishes, sales remained steady. But as it turns out, the researchers were looking at the problem all wrong.

Christensen had an idea to look at the issue through a different lens. He surmised: “I wonder[ed] what job arises in people’s lives that causes them to come to this restaurant to ‘hire’ a milkshake.” Armed with this fresh perspective, researchers for the fast food chain began to look at the problem in a different way, and they found out something interesting: A lot of people bought their milkshakes before 9 am. Researchers dug into why this was so, and they discovered that these folks were buying their milkshake to drink on their long boring commute to work. They knew they’d face mid morning hunger if they didn’t eat, but they wanted something that would last for the duration of their commute and would stave off hunger until lunchtime.

As Christensen writes, “They all shared a common job they needed to get done in the morning. ‘Help me stay awake and occupied while make my morning commute more fun.’” The thick milkshake, consumed through a thin straw, lasted an entire commute, it fit in the cup holder, and it kept people satiated until lunch — much better than other products people may have been hiring: think messy bagels, unsatisfying bananas, or unwieldy cups of yogurt... It was, in other words, the perfect product to hire for this particular job.

Of course commuters weren’t the only people buying milkshakes. In different sets of circumstances, other people were hiring it for very different jobs, the researchers found. Parents, for example, hired milkshakes in the afternoon after school both to placate their child with a long lasting treat and to feel like a good parent.

And when you understand this crucial concept -- the job to be done -- you can then understand what products you’re actually competing against. In turn, you can then gain insight into how to better help your customers make progress in their lives using your product. Or to put it another way, armed with this knowledge you can become the product they’ll want to hire above all others.

In the case of the milkshake-drinking commuters, for example, the milkshake isn’t competing against other beverages, or even other milkshakes -- it’s competing against other breakfast foods that could be consumed on a commute -- bagels, muffins, or fruit. In the case of the parent buying their child a treat, the milkshake is competing against other ways to distract a child and make themselves feel like a good parent. In both cases, in that particular set of circumstances, the milkshake was doing the job better than any other product.

The Missing (Milkshake) Link

Jobs to Be Done theory, as outlined by Christensen, is an effective way to see how your own product fits into the lives of your customers. But it’s missing one thing -- it doesn’t really take into account the subscription economy. Software purchases are not a one-and-done proposition; to be profitable, the customer doesn’t just buy and use the product to make progress once. Unlike Robbie Kellman Baxter’s erroneous contention in The Membership Economy that “one purchase is a forever purchase,” subscribers must actually continue to actively “rehire” the product over and over again -- otherwise they’ll abandon the product and move on.

Although he is referring to more traditional one-time purchases, in Competing Against Luck Christensen talks about the idea of a “Big Hire” and the “Little Hire.” The Big Hire, he says, is that first purchase; say, when you buy a dress is a department store. The Little Hire is when you actually tear off the tags and wear it. In software terms, customers make a series of Little Hires every time they use your product. For customers to become loyal, they should be making these Little Hires regularly.

And so, with that idea in mind, let’s revisit the milkshake story.

Milkshake Monthly

What if we reframed Christensen’s milkshake story through a Jobs to Be Done lens that accounts for the subscription economy? While the fundamental principles would remain the same, we would uncover some important additional factors to keep in mind when creating products people will hire -- and rehire.

Let’s say you have a brick-and-mortar business called Milkshake Madness which sells -- what else? Milkshakes. You’d like to boost business and create a loyal base of lifetime customers by offering a subscription component called Milkshake Monthly. For a monthly subscription fee, people can choose from home delivery packages, get a swipe card for a set number of monthly milkshakes to pick up, or take advantage of some combination of pickup and delivery. A milkshake subscription might sound silly at first, but just think about all the other things people subscribe to in order to make their lives easier -- Bark Box for pet products, Trunk Club and Stitch Fix for men’s and women’s fashion, and Blue Apron for weeknight meals, to name a few.

Once your Milkshake Monthly service is ready to launch, your first order of business is to get people to adopt it. But it doesn’t end there. To retain your customers and drive adoption of your milkshake subscription, you’ll have to gather actionable metrics and behavioral data to see how quickly people are adopting your new subscription service. You’ll have to monitor their engagement, and also understand any areas of friction -- such as struggles or obstacles  -- they encounter when taking advantage of their subscriptions.

Obstacles are one-time challenges your customers may encounter. This could translate into things such as a long wait to receive their subscription card or an overly long or confusing sign up form. Struggles, on the other hand, happen consistently, each time a customer has to deal with a frustrating experience. A struggle your customers might face with the milkshake subscription could be that their deliveries are consistently late, or they regularly receive the wrong flavor milkshake. Struggles like these can lead to disengagement, churn, or workarounds. 

A workaround in this case could be that your customers start ordering their milkshakes to be delivered earlier than they actually need them to ensure they get delivered on time, or perhaps they feel they have to do the extra work of placing a phone call to confirm that they’ll be receiving the correct order. Being aware of these struggles -- and the ensuing workarounds -- is important because they represent an opportunity for you to tweak the process and improve your customer’s experience.

It’s important that you have a feedback loop in place and monitor how and when people use their subscription so that you can recognize leading indicators of activity churn. That way you’ll be able to intervene before it’s too late. Gathering the right kind of data throughout every stage of the adoption cycle will help you acquire and retain active customers.

To see how a Milkshake Monthly subscription might break down by adoption stages, check out Part Two of this series.