Commercial Strategy

When engaging professional services – know the job to be done

One of the most common complaints heard from clients after engaging professional service firms is that the output of the project didn’t live up to their needs or vision.

Sure, the output met the terms of reference, was of a high quality and looked fancy – but all too often the underlying client need (the one that isn’t spelled out on the engagement letter) is missed.

Clearly articulating and delivering against this underlying need is of critical importance, and is the responsibility of both client and delivery team.

Where this need is missed, both parties can suffer as a result of stakeholder dissatisfaction, damage to relationships, internal frustration (in both camps) and increased costs as a result of re-work.

Articulating the underlying need however is not quite as simple as having a meeting and writing it down. It requires considered analysis of personal motivations, the organisational dynamic and the challenges faced by the person responsible for commissioning the work.

The theory of ‘customer jobs’

Clayton M. Christensen et al recently articulated the theory of ‘jobs to be done’ (HBR September 2016). This theory can be extended to suggest that when customers buy products (such as a loaf of bread), they are not purchasing a ‘thing’ in as much as hiring someone to do a service (job) for them, in this example, someone to bake the bread.

This is a gross over-simplification, however, can provide producers with useful insight as to why customers buy in the way they do. For example, by asking this question of one buyer of bread, we may discover that he buys a particular type of bread which is pre-sliced (over non-sliced bread) as he is unable to cut bread evenly.

Accordingly, in order to best serve the customer’s needs (and by extension increase purchases of bread), the focus must shift from the easy question of what he wants, towards the more complicated question of why he wants it – this will give us an understanding of the ‘job to be done’.

This theory is particularly relevant to the professional service industry, where clients quite literally engage firms to perform a service (job).

Accordingly, the key question for both buyers and sellers of professional services should therefore be ‘what is the job that needs to be done’.

The Underlying Job Matrix

The matrix articulated above sets out a mechanism to identify and explain the core customer needs in professional service engagements, these are: functional, tactical, operational and strategic, which sit across six primary spectrums – we discuss each quadrant and spectrum in more detail below.

Utility spectrum

The utility spectrum articulates the level of value, impact and importance a project has to the organisation; ranging from operating at the fringes of utility (low value and low importance) to high utility (high impact and of significant use). This gives an indication of the degree of client satisfaction following a successful project and the usefulness (perceived or actual) of the activities.

Need spectrum

The needs spectrum distinguishes between projects which serve ‘organisational needs’ versus ‘personal needs’. The distinction can be easily blurred, and sometimes difficult to identify – but although subtle, it is key to understanding the underlying motivations for the project and ultimately, identify the arbiter of success.

For example, delivering an efficiency report that discusses multi-departmental opportunities may not meet the buyer’s needs if the engagement was motivated by a ‘personal need’. In such an instance the report would be much better received if it focused primarily upon matters within the buyer’s sphere of control of influence.

Asymmetry spectrum

Asymmetry forms the basis of supply and demand, indeed, professional service firms could not exist without client-side asymmetry. However, this asymmetry comes in many forms, such as: (i) knowledge – whereby the client has a skills gap or requires the transfer or application of knowledge and expertise in some area, (ii) time / capacity – whereby the client doesn’t have the time or volume of available staff to complete a task, this is typically manifest in co-source or resource augmentation projects, and, (iii) perspective – whereby the buyer doesn’t have the appropriate position to complete something, such as the requisite independence to conduct an audit, or brand within the organisation to be heard by the leadership on a particular matter.

There are many forms of asymmetry which produce a need for services, the key however, is to ensure that the correct point of asymmetry is identified and addressed by the seller.

Identifying the Customer’s ‘Job’ 

All too often professional consultants fail to take the time to properly get to the heart of what the buyer is really trying to achieve by engaging the consultant. Equally, buyers can be guilty of failing to sufficiently articulate the complete scope and context of the work. Taking the time to do this is of critical importance, and should be the responsibility of the consultant in order to avoid that familiar complaint from clients that the output ‘didn’t really do what I needed it to do’.

The ‘jobs-to-be-done’ model provides a simple starting point which consultants and buyers of professional services alike can use to help articulate the underlying ‘job-to-be-done’ leading to better understanding and certainty of what ‘success’ (from the project) looks like.

Summary

The purpose of the above model is not to codify all buyer objectives or required outcomes, but instead prompt a discussion between parties as to the buyer, their objectives, their output, delivery expectations and ultimately – the ‘job to be done’.

If both parties are aligned as to the primary quadrant and content of each domain, then they are far more likely to walk away from the engagement satisfied, leading to better relationships and future opportunities.

It is clear that the amount of value (utility) derived from an activity is relative to the extent to which the provider’s supply aligns to the recipient’s needs. In an age where the delivery and extraction of value is paramount, identifying the buyer’s ‘job to be done’ should be the first step in any professional service engagement, whichever side of the fence you sit on.

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