Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Hire a milkshake??

A recent New Yorker profile (5/14/12) of the prominent management expert Clayton Christensen, Harvard Business School professor and author of the widely hailed book “The Innovator’s Dilemma,” described an interesting approach to how a business, profit or nonprofit, can better understand its customers.

One of the big fast food chains hired his consulting firm to help improve its sale of milkshakes. The company marketers had previously done thorough research on the profile of the typical milkshake consumer and made improvements accordingly. But sales did not increase. Christensen decided to take a different tack, summarized, in his words, in finding the answer to the question: “I wonder what job a customer is trying to do when he hires a milkshake?”

Now, please stay with me. You have first to digest (sorry…) the novel concept of hiring a milkshake. Christensen sheds some light when he quotes another marketing icon, Professor Theodore Leavitt who advised his students that “A person doesn’t want a quarter-inch drill, he wants a quarter-inch hole.” In other words, consumers don’t necessarily search for a product but rather a solution to a problem or a need for a certain job to be performed.

Back to the milkshake: Christensen and his crew spent 18 hours in a restaurant observing milkshake- buying behavior- who bought them, what time of day, alone or with someone, consumed on premises or off. They discovered that almost half of the shakes were sold to a single person, in the very early morning and consumed away from the restaurant. The next day they asked the people as they were leaving with their milkshakes to go to their cars: “what job were you trying to do when you hired that milkshake?” Not, why did you buy one or what flavor? The phrasing of the question got their attention.

The answers had to do with the purchaser having a long, tiresome drive to work. Because of their consistency milkshakes take a good while to drink, they are not messy or tricky to handle, like crumbly muffins. You can answer your phone when it rings. So the job that needed to be performed was occupying a commuter’s time along with providing some nourishment and the milkshake filled that bill. The recommendation to management was to make the shake even more viscous (add fruit), move the dispenser to the front of the counter and allow for quicker payment method. Sales went up.

Ok...so what’s the lesson, you may ask. Not everyone has 18 hours in which to observe customer/client/visitor behavior. Nor might they have a crew to conduct in-depth interviews. But stepping back, what the milkshake story suggests is that nonprofit marketers or leaders need to look beneath the surface of ordinary consumer activity and think about what their organization can do first to identify for its users the job they see at hand and then to help them accomplish it. You can easily ask a museum or performing arts visitor questions that reveal demographic information; more difficult is to discern the deeper motivation for attendance or, in the case of donors, for their gift. What Clayton Christensen offers is a unique format for phrasing the question that in its provocative way might offer up previously buried jewels of information. Try it, and in the process, why not give yourself an excuse to enjoy a milkshake.

Comments always welcome: see below.