Hiring a Milkshake - A Jobs to Be Done Business Story | Compass Point Skip to main content

It’s not about the product or service you sell. It’s about the problem you solve.

And the milkshake proves it.

I spend quite a bit of time working with my clients around the idea of a core customer – the person who ultimately purchases whatever it is that your business creates. No surprises there.

So, once the core customer is defined, the clients are ready to run to market and offer their products and services to those very customers, right? Not so fast. According to Peter Drucker, a customer rarely buys what the company thinks it’s selling. Wait, what? That’s right – what the company had in mind when first creating the product or service is likely NOT the real reason a customer will buy it.


Understanding Jobs to Be Done and Purchasing Behavior

This is where I want to introduce the concept of jobs to be done and the star of this story, the milkshake. This business story comes from Harvard Business School professor and innovation author, Clayton Christensen, who wrote about the Jobs to be Done theory in 2016. Christensen put it simply, “We hire products to do jobs for us.”

Iconic fast food chain McDonald’s wanted to increase milkshake sales so the company did the classic market research, brought in tasters, held focus groups, and asked how they could change their milkshakes so a consumer would buy more. They used the research and feedback to make improvements to the milkshakes. The results were astounding, or should I say dismal.  The changes had absolutely no impact on sales or profits of the milkshakes. NONE. What did they miss?

This revelation led a researcher to go with a different tactic, leveraging Christensen’s question, “What ‘job’ arises in people’s lives that causes them to come to this restaurant to ‘hire a milkshake’?”

McDonald’s has different groups of core customers. The milkshake does a different job throughout the day for each – from the driver taking a long journey to work in the morning to a mother and child swinging through the drive-thru after school.

Using the “job to be done” question created a shift in the market research. Instead of asking focus groups what they could do to make the shakes better, researchers observed restaurant visitors and took careful notes on questions such as:

  1. What time were customers buying milkshakes?
  2. Were they alone?
  3. What were they wearing?
  4. Did they buy other food with it?
  5. Did they eat it in the restaurant or take it to go?


Here’s what they learned…

  • More than half of the milkshakes were sold before 8 AM. I don’t know about you, but when I picture breakfast food, a milkshake is not included in that vision.
  • The majority of the morning milkshake buyers were always alone. They purchased only a milkshake and then immediately got into their car after purchasing their morning beverage.

After asking the morning milkshake drinkers some pointed questions about their breakfast of champions, the milkshake’s job became clear:

  1. The morning customers all had long drives to work and they needed something to do on the drive that could take the banality out of their long commute.
  2. The milkshake would also do the job of filling their empty bellies and could be consumed easily with one hand while driving with the other. Donuts were hired for the same job but didn’t perform as well as the milkshakes. The donuts got crumbs everywhere and didn’t satisfy hunger for more than a few minutes. Bagels tried to fill the job as well, but they weren’t easy to eat with one hand and were really, really dry.
  3. Milkshakes were the perfect hire because they fit perfectly in a car’s cup holder, unlike donuts and bagels, or any other breakfast sandwich for that matter.

Conclusion: The milkshake was the BEST hire for the job of occupying a long-distance commuter while providing belly-filling nourishment that easily fit into a cup holder and was easy to consume with one hand.

The moral of the story is that if you truly understand the job your product or service is hired for by your core customers, it’s easier to innovate and make a good thing better. Even a milkshake.

If you’d like to get clear on your core customer or understand the Jobs to Be Done theory more, reach out now.

Cheryl Doll profile picture
Cheryl Doll

Cheryl’s 20 years in higher education honed her passion for teaching, strategic planning and organizational development. Raised by entrepreneurial parents, she pivoted out of higher education to work with family business owners, providing the guidance, structure and tools required to build thriving companies and families.

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