Starting with Customer Outcomes

As entrepreneurs, product developers, and innovators, we tend to get caught up in the technical functionality of our solutions. As I have stated before in this blog, founders tend to be enamored with their conception of the customer’s solution rather than the problem itself. Many innovators begin by thinking about the functionality of their proposed solution before profoundly understanding the problem at hand. This situation is common among innovators, from startup founders to corporate product developers. Known but rarely acknowledged.

When I first meet founders, I ask them to write a problem statement that addresses the problem to be solved, who experiences the problem the most, and what outcomes the customer hopes to achieve by an effective solution. In the majority of cases, they write about the solution they have in mind. Then, they pre-suppose their solution into the problem statement. Sometimes the solution reference is subtle, but most times, it is pretty explicit. Customers are looking for an “app” to make their job easier, as an example. Unfortunately, by pre-supposing the solution to the customer’s problem, you create a cognitive bias that may very well send you down the wrong path towards what the customer wants and needs. This condition will inevitably lead to poor problem-solution fit.

While there are many challenges to consider during the early identification of the customer’s problem and designing a solution that provides the desired value, a starting point to consider is how the innovator defines concepts as outcomes, benefits, and features. These terms are easily bantered about in the world of new venture realization. They are often used simultaneously to mean the same or similar concept, commonly lumped into the vague term – value proposition. However, I think it is vital to put a stake in the ground and define each one of these terms in a way that helps you to understand your customer’s problem. What are they hoping to accomplish? How will your solution meet their needs and provide the desired overall value (the value proposition)?

A clear definition for each of these terms is essential throughout the venture realization process, from the first iteration of your business model to the customer discovery phase to designing early iterations of your solution to creating the brand message for customer acquisition. In addition, the importance of understanding the differences between outcomes, benefits, and features is vital.

As a starting point, take a cue from my good colleague, Matt Wallaert, who wrote a wonderfully insightful book on how innovators need to start from behavioral outcomes they hope to achieve through the final product design. His model is highly beneficial as a starting point. However, I tend to view it from the perspective of the customer. What outcomes are the customers hoping to achieve by using your product or service? From either perspective, starting with outcomes is a wise choice. Let’s explore further.

Outcomes: The Customer’s Why (with a capital W).

Early in the venture realization process, as you begin to define the customer’s problem and its associated context, you want to discover why is it essential for the customer to solve this problem? Why this problem? Why now? Why do they want to change their behavior? Why do they want to change how they feel?

Let’s face it everyone wants to thrive and survive. Customers, at the deepest level, have needs associated with surviving and thriving. It is a continuum, and you need to ascertain where your customer and their problem resides between the two poles. Much of this determination will depend on the specific customer’s problem and the associated context. 

Once you determine where your customer fits within the survive-thrive continuum, you can explore what needs they are hoping to fulfill. Psychologist Rick Hansen suggests three core needs that every human being desires – Safety, Satisfaction, and Connection. From an evolutionary perspective, these have always been critical to survival and growth (thriving). For each of these core needs, you can identify associated behavioral, social, and emotional areas essential to the customer. Next, you can categorize the expanded list under these three core need areas and prioritize them based on the survive-thrive continuum. For example, we can think of a customer’s need to feel safe. Depending on the context, this might include feeling secure in one’s home or their job, providing a sense of stability in their current life circumstances. The context will help you to understand the degree of the customer’s motivation to change. Is it about basic survival or a higher level of aspiration?

When your customer feels a conscious and sometimes an unconscious concern about any of these need areas, they will be motivated to act and make a change. As you identify which need areas are your customer’s concern, you can begin to determine the level of perceived deprivation, degree of pain and suffering, and overall motivation to solve the problem and fulfill the needs in question.

Once you understand the customers’ deeper needs, you can consider what they would like to do differently in the current situation. For example, how will behavioral change help satisfy their needs? This line of thought will help you define what behavioral outcomes are essential to the customer. Similarly, you want to assess how the customer would like to feel if they could do things differently and satisfy their needs? I see these as the customer’s social-emotional outcomes.

Benefits: The Customer why (lower case w). 

Once you have the customer’s behavioral and emotional outcomes identified, you can consider how your solution will lead to these outcomes. You start by looking at how a potential solution can improve the customer’s current situation. Next, you focus on what the customer will do differently, enabled by your product. Benefits are not about what your product can do functionally but what the customer can do with it. Benefits are the reason that customers decide to purchase your solution over other options. The customer why at this point; Why they want to buy your solution?

At this point, you want to consider the relationship between the benefit to the customer and the resulting outcome. The product benefit enables the customer to change their behavior and fulfill their need areas. In a future post, I will discuss prioritizing and quantifying these benefits in the service of the product design specification.

By articulating the product’s benefits, the customer can see the relationship between the product feature and the need area. This understanding will become especially important when developing your marketing and branding strategies.

Solution Features

Once you understand what the customer wants to accomplish, you can begin designing a solution to facilitate the “job to be done.” The solution’s features are the functional elements of your product that deliver the benefit to your customer. What attributes does your product have to possess to work effectively for the customer? In a future post, I will explain how founders can prioritize benefits and link to associated product features.

A Simple Example

Outcomes: Customer wants the “freedom” to go on outdoor “adventures” whenever possible.

Benefits: The customer is looking for a vehicle the enables them to travel to remote locations for a month or more, carrying everything required for outdoor activities and camping.

Features: Vehicle includes extra internal cargo capacity, flip-down seats, wide rear door, four-wheel drive, etc.

Prioritizing and Quantifying Outcomes

As you collect information about the customer, it is crucial to gauge how important the identified behavioral outcomes and product benefits & features are to them. A simple starting point is to ask them to rank the importance of specific, measurable outcomes and associated benefits, from “essential” to “nice to have.” Another way to codify potential customer expectations of a solution’s outcomes and benefits is to cluster them into various types, such as expected, desired, unexpected.

One method I have founders apply is a matrix that looks at the relationship between the importance of specific solution benefits and how satisfied customers are with competitive alternatives. This approach is just one of many variations of an Importance-Satisfaction Matrix Analysis. This type of analysis helps founders prioritize which benefits to focus on and design associated features early in the product testing phase. Prioritizing the product benefits will help identify the essential features. In addition, there are many ways to solicit customer feedback on features. 

Next Up

The following post will discuss how understanding customer outcomes facilitates early solution design and testing efforts.

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