Jobs-to-be-done eCommerce Jobs-to-be-done eCommerce

Using jobs-to-be-done with your eCommerce store

There’s a timeless marketing truism that goes like this:

People don’t buy products. They buy better versions of themselves.

(Who knows who said it at this point, but it’s incredibly poignant.)

Why do your customers buy your products? Do they just like buying things? Do they love your brand so much they can’t help spending money?

No. They buy your products to achieve something. They want the benefit.

They might need a solution to a problem. Maybe they want comfort, convenience, or entertainment. Or maybe they want to look good.

[bctt tweet=”Your customers want their lives to be better in some way. They buy products to help them move toward that better life.” username=”jilt”]

Your customers have jobs-to-be-done.

The jobs-to-be-done paradigm

Jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) is a framework for understanding what motivates your customers to make buying decisions, coined by Harvard Business School Professor Clayton Christensen. It’s based on the idea that people “hire” products for specific “jobs.”

For example, a woman might hire (buy) a dress to make her look good at a party. She may have other requirements too. She might want to look slim, but not reveal too much skin. She might want a comfortable fit.

[content_upgrade cu_id=”1260″]Download this free guide to learn how to apply the jobs-to-be-done framework to your store.[content_upgrade_button]Click Here[/content_upgrade_button][/content_upgrade]

If she buys a dress that doesn’t meet her requirements, it won’t perform the job, which leaves her unfulfilled. In this example, buying the product wasn’t sufficient to satisfy her needs.

Similarly, if someone buys a skateboard, they may buy the deck, trucks, wheels, and hardware, but that’s not the job they’re hiring for. They’re hiring for the job of skateboarding.

Jobs-to-be-done eCommerce

As esteemed Harvard Business School marketing professor Theodore Levitt put it, “People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.”

[bctt tweet=”People don’t want to buy a quarter-inch drill. They want a quarter-inch hole.” username=”jilt”]

Another term for jobs-to-be-done is outcome-driven innovation. That is, it’s the process of focusing on what the customer tries to achieve.

In some cases, the outcome your customers want to achieve is binary. The umbrella blocks the sun or it doesn’t. The wrench turns a nut or it doesn’t.

In other cases, the desired outcome is more refined. They want a degree of tinting on their sunglasses or a specific amount (not too little, not too much) of bling on their jewelry.

Once you understand what job the customer needs to complete, you can design products and an eCommerce experience that meets their needs.

Zappos and jobs-to-be-done

Zappos is one of the largest clothing and footwear eCommerce sites on the web. In 2009, they were acquired by Amazon for $1.2 billion, but they still operate as an independent retailer.

Zappos is known for its totally free shipping and generous return policy. A customer has 365 days to return an item as many times as they want, as long as it’s in its original condition. The policy applies to any item and it has been intact since the company was new and all it sold were shoes.


Jobs-to-be-done eCommerce

Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh admits this isn’t cheap:

“In the United States, we offer free shipping both ways to make transactions risk free and as easy as possible for our customers. A lot of them will order five different pairs of shoes and then send back the ones that don’t fit or that they simply don’t like—free of charge. The additional shipping costs are considerable for us, but we view them as a marketing expense.”

Why such a long returns window? Because shoes are hard to buy without wearing, and some people have trouble making up their mind.

“Originally, our returns policy was only 30 days, but we kept increasing it at the urging of our customers, who became more loyal as we lengthened the returns period,” Hsieh says. “Our returns run high—more than a third of our gross revenue—but we’ve learned that customers will buy more and be happier in the long run if we can remove most of the risk from shopping at Zappos.”

Even though more than a third of its products come back as returns, Zappos continues the policy.

Why? Because Zappos’ customers have a job. They need shoes for a particular purpose. Maybe they want support for work, durability for hiking, or sexiness for cocktail parties. People buy shoes for hundreds of reasons.

If a customer buys a shoe, but it doesn’t serve its purpose, then the job never got done. The customer still has a need. Even though Zappos fulfilled its end of the bargain (shipping out the shoe the customer ordered), the customer isn’t happy with the experience until the job is complete. So Zappos helps them complete that job by taking the shoe back and sending them a new one. Customers can quickly print a shipping label through their account on Zappos’ website and slap it on the same box. No complex steps. No calls to customer service.

This greatly increases the chance customers will complete that job. If the shoe doesn’t fit or doesn’t serve its purpose, they get another one that does.

Of course, Zappos doesn’t want customers to return multiple products. Returns cost the company money and lengthen the purchasing experience. So they offer tools like measurement guides, size conversion charts, and extensive product videos to help customers complete those jobs.

Admittedly, jobs-to-be-done raises the bar for what it means to provide a quality eCommerce experience. You don’t just have to send the customer a good product at a reasonable price. You also have to design the product and/or the purchasing experience to fit their needs.

Jobs-to-be-done and buyer personas

If jobs-to-be-done tells you what your customers need to make a purchase, can they replace your buyer personas?

No. JTBD is just one piece of a robust buyer persona. In our guide on creating buyer personas, you’ll recognize JTBD as section number four (labeled “before and after”). The customer’s “after” state describes them after they’ve hired a product to complete a job.

For instance, a man whose car won’t start is in a “before” state. Not only is his car broken, but he’s probably annoyed at the inconvenience and worried about getting to work on time.

Once he buys the right part, he’ll transition into his after state, where his car works, he’s free of stress, and he has no problem getting to work.

If the man bought the wrong part and couldn’t fix his car, he would still have a job to complete. He wouldn’t be satisfied with his shopping experience until the car worked, even though you did exactly what he asked (shipped him the product he ordered).

How could you help him complete the job quickly and reliably? By completely understanding his needs and preferences.

Maybe the man in our example wants YouTube installation videos or how-to blog posts. Maybe he wants you to carry obscure parts for older cars. Maybe he wants you to recommend a different part if you don’t have the one he wants.

There are a million possibilities as to how you can help customers complete their jobs, but you have to know your customer really well.

In some cases, understanding your customers’ jobs-to-be-done isn’t enough to give you a clear picture of your customer because some jobs can be completed in different ways.

For example, if someone wants to edit a photo, should they use Photoshop or Instagram’s editing features? Both platforms will edit photos, but they appeal to very different kinds of people. Without a deep understanding of your customer, you wouldn’t know how to help them complete the job.

So don’t neglect your buyer personas! 🙂

Apply the jobs-to-be-done framework to your store

Ready to apply the jobs-to-be-done framework to your store? Follow these steps:

Step 1: Identify your customers real jobs

Study your customers and have real conversations with them. Identify the real problems they need solved. Pay little attention to the things they specifically ask for. “I need new shoes” isn’t a job-to-be-done. If you dig a little deeper, you might learn the person needs relief for aching feet, a protection from work hazards, and the ability to stay dry. Understanding those jobs help you design an experience to meet your customers’ needs.

Step 2: Define your customer segments around jobs, not people

Traditionally, businesses would define their market according to the people they typically sell to, like “parents,” “college athletes,” or “marketing directors.” Instead, try defining your segments around jobs (that is, problems) like “needs to make quick meals,” “struggling to pick a major,” or “don’t know their ROI.” This helps you find ways to help your segment get the job done.

Step 3: Help customers complete the job

It’s not enough to get your customers part of the way. They don’t want to stitch together different products and services to get the job done. They’d rather make one purchase to satisfy the job, even if they have to pay a little more. Make sure you’re taking your customers all the way to the end of their problem.

Step 4: Design your business around the job-to-be-done

Over time, products become obsolete as people and trends change. Instead of finding markets and customer segments to sell products, find products to satisfy jobs. Then continually ask yourself if your products still fulfill those jobs. Once your products no longer become a valid way to solve those problems, change your products.

Step 5: Focus investment on jobs-to-be-done

When you make improvements to your products and services, don’t arbitrarily improve features without connecting the improvements to the jobs your customers need done. For instance, there’s no need to make your trendy street shoes more supportive if that’s not what your customers need them to do. Instead, invest in what they care about: styles, trends, etc.

Step 6: Identify new jobs-to-be-done as often as you can

Use your analytics, surveys, and customer interviews to identify jobs your customers need done. Use these as opportunities to add new products to your store (or push existing products) that solve their problems. Keep in mind that your customers change over time, so their jobs-to-be-done may change, too.

Adopt a customer-centric attitude

At its core, jobs-to-be-done is an important framework to make your company customer-centric.
Stop thinking of your eCommerce store as the focal point of your relationship with your customer. Instead, think of your store as a tool to help the customer achieve their needs (their jobs).

[bctt tweet=”At its core, jobs-to-be-done is an important framework to make your company customer-centric” username=”jilt”]

Where do you get the information to understand your customers’ jobs-to-be-done (and for their overall buyer personas)? Through analytics and customer interviews.

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By focusing on the customer, you can create an eCommerce experience that boosts your conversions and builds long-term, positive relationships with your customers.


  1. This idea is the same as Desired Outcomes originally published in 18. Chatterjee S. 1998. Delivering desired outcomes efficiently: the creative key to competitive strategy. California Management Review, 40(2):
    a. Reprinted in, Competitive Strategy: Business Fundamentals, Harvard Business School Press 2002 Jun 18, HBP has taken down this website. However, the reference is still available here.

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