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Author: W. Scott Burleson

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What is a Value Proposition?

What is a Value Proposition?


If there’s any common ground among all strategy, innovation, marketing, and new product development practitioners, it’s that we need to have a compelling and differentiated value proposition. But if we’re all aligned as to the importance of a value prop – are we similarly aligned as to what one is? (No, we are not!) So, just what is a value proposition?

Before we can even get started with this discussion, let’s define a “product” broadly to mean more than just a tangible product, but to also mean a product attribute (aka a feature), a service, a business model, etc. A “product” is any solution that helps a customer to get a job done. It’s unwieldy and bothersome to continually say “product, service, or business model”. So, let’s not do that.

According to the primary reference of our age, Wikipedia, the term “value proposition” is a recent one – originating with a McKinsey publication from 1988 in which a value proposition was defined as a “clear, simple statement of the benefits, both tangible and intangible, that the company will provide.”

In the original definition, the value prop is a description of customer benefits. A good start but not quite good enough. We need the Who, the What, the How, and the How it does it. To remember these elements, remember these initials: WWHH.

Let’s look at an example. You work for the Acme Pillow Company – and your focus is healthcare. Here’s the value proposition for your new product, the Acme Super Pillow 2000:

The Acme Super Pillow 2000 (the “how” – the product) helps patients recovering from neck surgery (the “who” – the job executor) to obtain a restful night’s sleep (the “what”- the job) by providing sufficient vertical support to minimize stress on the neck (The “How it does it” – the PI).

The PI is a mini-VP itself. It lists a product attribute and the job that it addresses.

But what if the great and powerful Acme Super Pillow does more than just minimize stress on the neck to help patients obtain a restful night’s sleep? In other words, can you have multiple PIs? Yes, you can:

The Acme Super Pillow 2000 helps patients recovering from neck surgery to obtain a restful night’s sleep by 1) providing sufficient vertical support to minimize stress on the neck, by 2) emitting healing vibrations that increase blood flow to the neck and 3) playing nature sounds to minimize mid-sleep wake-ups.

The key thing is that all the PIs must support the primary customer job, which is this case is to “obtain a restful night’s sleep.”

Let’s try another example for the “obtain a restful night’s sleep” job. Imagine that we make nutritional supplements. Here’s our value proposition for an alternate audience:

The Acme Sublingual Magnesium Tablets help business travelers to obtain a restful night’s sleep by minimizing the number of times per night that they wake up.

Here’s the value proposition template used for each statement above:

The product (How) helps customers (Who) to better accomplish a job (What) by achieving a performance improvement (How it does it).

Of course, the template is just the beginning. We have a lot of work to do to create a winning value prop. We need customer insights to understand which jobs that customers want to do better. We need to determine what area in which to improve performance. And of course, you must have the technical and creative chops to develop new products to address those needs.

Let’s review the required WWHH elements for a Value Prop:

  • The “who” – the job executor, the customer to create value for
  • The “what” – the JTBD
  • The “how” – the product
  • The “how it does it” – the performance improvement

If we have done a good job in selecting a market, if we’ve done sufficient research to understand what to be improved, and if we’ve also done a great job generating a winning concept – then we can take our value prop to the next level: the DVP – the differentiated value proposition.

For the DVP, we add a description of how our VP compares to other alternatives, that is, to the competition. For the DVP, we must add one required element. And if we choose, we have an optional element that we can add as well.

The required element is the reference competitor group (RCG). After all, if our Acme Super Pillow helps patients recovering from neck surgery to obtain a better night’s sleep. The obvious question is, “Better than what?” A regular pillow? A competitor’s pillow? Better than nothing?

Here’s the template for our original value proposition (VP): The product helps customers to better accomplish a job by achieving a performance improvement.

And here’s the updated template that includes the reference competitor group, making it our differentiated value proposition (DVP):

The product helps customers to better accomplish a job by achieving a performance improvement as compared to the chosen reference competitor group.

(Doesn’t that just roll of the tongue? Aren’t templates a joy to read!)

Let’s build a DVP off our earlier example:

The Acme Sublingual Magnesium Tablets helps business travelers to obtain a restful night’s sleep by minimizing the number of times per night that they wake up as compared to a typical multivitamin.

The typical multivitamin is our competition (our RCG) as we have defined it. Alternatively, we could have defined it more broadly as “nutritional supplements” or more narrowly as “magnesium tablets.” We make this selection based upon our chosen positioning.

Now let’s add our optional element. It answers the question “How much?” We call this the Precise Performance Improvement (PPI). Unsurprisingly, this describes in precise terms the degree of improvement:

The Acme Sublingual Magnesium Tablets help business travelers to obtain a restful night’s sleep by minimizing the number of times per night that they wake up by 50% as compared to a typical multivitamin.

And there we have it. By adding the PPI, we provide the degree of performance improvement that our customers will enjoy.

Before putting a bow on this topic, let’s take care of a little business that will help us to better understand the role of VPs and DVPs in use.

First, the DVP is very close to a positioning statement, but there are a few differences to consider before we just copy and paste the DVP into our positioning document. The positioning statement considers broader issues such as:

  • What has our brand/product identity been? What do we want it to be?
  • What trends are going on with our competitors?
  • Strategically, how does this fit into the grand plan?
  • How credible is this statement in the mind of our customer? How much distance do we have to make up for them to believe?
  • Can we own this position in the minds of our customer?
  • Have we left room for growth?
  • How memorable would this position be in the minds of our customer?

The positioning statement must consider more than just a particular innovation or new product effort, it must also take into account the broader strategic scenario. However, with this as a caveat, the DVP can often be used as a positioning statement for the product it represents.

For either a DVP or a positioning statement, we must remember that we are crafting these for clarity, not for customer consumption. DVPs and positioning statements provide what we want to communicate but not how that message should be communicated. The process of creating a DVP or a positioning statement is a strategic one – usually executed by product managers and their leadership. The process of communicating the DVP or positioning statement is a tactical one – usually executed by the creative staff, marketing agencies, PR agencies, and business development pros. Once the DVP or positioning statement is delivered to the tactical marketing function, they are charged with determining how this message should be delivered. They have all media at their disposal. Print ads, white papers, videos, and whatnot. Tactical marketing will likely use elements of the DVP or positioning statement, but there is no expectation that they must use the specific language. They are responsible for communicating that message with whatever words and media work best.

Strategic marketing must trust the creative abilities of tactical marketing while holding them accountable for delivery of the correct message. This dance is never perfect but when each partner embraces their role, it’s more graceful. If tactical marketing tries to “lead” by changing the core message, toes are stepped on. Likewise, when strategic marketing tries to provide too much advice about creative decisions – like fonts, colors, chosen music, etc., conflict ensues with suboptimal results. In practice, the best outcomes are obtained when the strategic and tactical folks have worked with each other for a time and can trust each other’s abilities.

Nobody would disagree that the Value Proposition is critical to business growth and success. And yet, we have very little dialogue about what a value proposition is or how to create one. This reading is admittedly not the most interesting as we’re basically describing a template. But it provides something important – key questions to answer:

  • Who are our customers?
  • What is our product?
  • What job do we want to help our customers accomplish?
  • How does our product help them?
  • How much does it help them?
  • What is our competition?

It’s in answering these questions that the fun begins. Probably the best book on this topic is Value Proposition Design by Osterwalder and Pigneur. If you’re past that one already, note the books within the Strategic Marketing section of this reading list.

Nunc coepi.



Who is the customer?

Who is the customer?


A market is a job and a job executor. This is all we need to know to understand the answer to the question, “Who is the customer?”

To better explore this question – let’s begin with this: The goal of innovation is to help a customer to accomplish a job perfectly.

Question: Who gets to say what “perfect” is?
Answer: The customer (of course).
Question: Who is the customer?
Answer: The person executing the job.

We innovate for the person executing the job. They’ve felt the pain of the errors. They know all the irritating imperfections. They will be more than happy to fill your ears full of their troubles.

We analyze job executors as if studying a new culture. They have the information we need – and it consists of the rocks the inhibit perfection. We interview them. We observe them. We study their artifacts and do our best to understand their world.

If we want to learn what it means to prepare a meal perfectly, we must identify people who prepare meals. If we want to understand what it means to learn a new skill perfectly, we must identify people who learn new skills.

We call the person who executes the job the “job executor.” (Intuitive, no?) Though I do submit that “job executor” doesn’t roll off the tongue so easily. However, it’s much clearer than overly simple term “customer” that we kick around in our conversation like a hacky sack. Just like any technical terminology, it’s precise and beautiful in it’s clarity. You confuse me when you say “customer” but when you say, “job executor”, we are communicating.

The word “customer” could mean many things. It could mean job executor. It could also mean purchase influencer, job beneficiary, etc.

But “job executor” has only one meaning: the person who executes the job.

If we want to innovate for the job of losing weight, we must ask the question, “Who wants to lose weight?” This wonderful question spawns more: Do we want to study this job for everyone who wants to lose weight or just certain segments? Men over 40? Obese teenagers? New mothers?

But you protest still. You say, “We’re in B2B, and our markets are complex. We have to study more than just job executors.”

Yes, it is true that your markets are complex. But no, you’re still studying job executors.

Imagine you are producing hydraulic hoses for small tractors. You might identify the following stakeholders: procurement person, design engineer, product marketing manager, and manufacturing engineer. Consider the jobs that these folks will execute as they consume your product:

Procurement person: Purchase a hose.
Design engineer: Design a hydraulic system for a tractor.
Product marketing manager: Ensure that the tractor will have a valid value proposition.
Manufacturing engineer: Ensure the manufacturability of new tractors.

Some of these jobs are directly related to your hose such as “design a hydraulic system.” Others are more indirect such as “Ensure that the tractor will have a valid value proposition.”

If you are creating a new hydraulic hose, you will likely have to consider more than one job…. but don’t be seduced by the “our markets are more complex” line. Yes, there’s complexity. But so what? The markets you serve will still consist of jobs and job executors.

You might just have to work a bit to identify them.

Of course, we will still have to use the word “customer” because we can’t expect everyone to suddenly use our precise language. You are now like the scientist who sees a loblolly pine tree and recognizes it as a Pinus taeda. But with your less learned friends, you might still just call it a pine tree.

Go Slow to Go Fast: How to Speed up New Product Development

Go Slow to Go Fast: How to Speed up New Product Development


Taking time to understand customer needs reduces product development time.

Ever heard the joke about the optimistic pilot? Before the days of computers, when pilots had to use more elementary tools, a particularly optimistic pilot was flying from New York to Bermuda. To his horror, he noticed that the compass needle seemed to be stuck. Being conscientious, he felt that he should alert his passengers.

“Good afternoon. I’m afraid I must inform you that we’re having some instrument problems and we’ve been flying in the wrong direction for a bit. We’re not sure for how long and so – we are not sure where we are. But the good news is that I’ve had the throttle down the whole trip, and so we’re making great time.”

Doing our VoC work is the equivalent of checking our maps, our compass, and the GPS to know where we are, to plot our destination, and to make sure that our team is aligned. It would be a poor decision for a pilot to ignore his instruments, and it would be a poor decision to just begin NPD without preparing first.

The reason that executives insist that “they don’t have time to do market research” prior to development is that they want their new products to launch faster. But this is short sighted. If they will take the time to execute VoC properly, they will in fact be able to launch their products faster than otherwise.

Why do we think we don’t have the time?

Because we mistake action for progress. When project teams are building prototypes, this feels like “real work.” It feels like action. But doing research doesn’t feel like real work. It feels like waiting for the real work. This is of course, incorrect.

Executives are familiar with taking action that involves outputs, like business results. They don’t think of the relationship between the inputs and the outputs. Also, market research sounds theoretical, not practical…because executives don’t often have this background.

How does development without VoC slow down development?

Without VoC, every decision is difficult. It is difficult because there is no agreement on anything. Feature choices, performance levels, material options? All difficult. So many decisions to make. Should we use aluminum or titanium? Should we use polyester or cuben fiber? Should we make this app work on all iPad models? Are we building a product to hit the general market needs or just a niche? Without customer insights, there is no market strategy. No product strategy. No roadmap. Not one worth much anyway. For if we create a strategy in a vacuum, it will likely be inaccurate and even worse, our team (and company) will not be aligned around it. Development slows down due to a lack of confidence with many things: what needs should be addressed, what performance level should be delivered, etc.

Even when decisions are made, without customer insights, they will be revisited. Maybe many times. Perhaps changed or even remade. With low certainty, the team flounders. It takes time to gather data and remake a decision. It takes even more time to unmake a decision and change course.

Without good customer insights, engineers will also feel more empowered to assert their own vision of what the product should be. When the subcomponents are brought together, it’s a Rube Goldberg device that no customer would touch.  Time keeps slipping into the future with each event. And it all could have been addressed with an upfront understanding of customer needs.

How does a lack of VoC affect team productivity?

Without data-driven customer insights, team members will argue much more – again – due to the uncertainty. They take turns with statements may sound like, “If I was a user, I would want…” And it becomes a contest of the wills. One person’s opinion versus another where the most dominant personality wins. Not only does this damage team morale, but the clock is ticking while these conversations persist.

And it’s not just development productivity. With a good set of customer needs, our marketing communications and tactical marketing folks will also be faster in their work. They will have direction for their activities. They’ll know everything from which benefits to tout all the way down to the details of what demos to create.

Time? We should acknowledge the opportunity cost of building the wrong product

This will be the biggest time loss of all. We spend months, perhaps years, developing a new product. We spend time in meetings. Time with suppliers. We solve problems. We make our launch preparations and see them through – from photoshoots to website updates.

Then, the product? Uh oh. It’s a loser.

All that time is gone. Time is one thing that once lost, it’s gone forever. All we can do is try better the next time.

Do the VoC – and while we might appear to be slow now, but we’ll ultimately be more accurate and faster as well.

From the classic work by Bob King, Better Designs in Half the Time: “A relatively short time is spent defining the product. A relatively long time is spent designing the product and a surprisingly long time is often spent redesigning the product.”

Adding a bit of time for customer insights will help us arrive at destination faster. And even better, we’ll get there with a product that customers will love.

The Origin Story for Jobs-to-be-Done Thinking (JTBD)

The Origin Story for Jobs-to-be-Done Thinking (JTBD)


How did jobs-to-be-done (JTBD) thinking begin?

The cornerstone was laid way, way back in 1960 with the most famous HBR article ever written, Marketing Myopia. Ted Levitt told us us that “the railroads did not stop growing because the need for passenger and freight transportation declined. (but rather) …They let others take customers away from them because they assumed themselves to be in the railroad business rather than in the transportation business.” He further explains that the movie industry should likewise define itself as the entertainment business, not the movie business. This was 1960, mind you. (Years later, Blockbuster Video could have benefited from this idea.)

Levitt drew a distinction between customer needs and solutions. He further showed that solutions changed but that needs were stable. An important principle of what was to become JTBD thinking.

Next, we have Clayton Christensen. In the 1990’s, he wrote The Innovator’s Dilemma, a flawed but important work. The “dilemma” is really more of a contradiction. It’s this: Good companies listen to customers, invest in capabilities, seek higher margins and target large markets. These positive attributes help them to win in traditional, stable markets by improving their products with sustaining innovations.  However, a commitment to this strategy can leave them vulnerable to newer disruptive innovations.

He explains that sustaining innovations are improvements to current products. Companies like these upmarket moves because they can deliver higher performing products while staying within a technology they are comfortable with. But on this trajectory, Christensen asserts they will soon pass the performance level that customers can use. Higher performance can also make products become more complicated and expensive. It’s the new camera model with additional pixels. Sure, there was a time when extra pixels were better – but there’s a threshold beyond when customers just do not care any longer. Conversely, disruptive innovations use a different core technology – such as digital photography vs. film. They are often simpler, cheaper, and may even perform worse than incumbent products. Decision makers, biased and blind, look down upon the new disruptive innovation because they cannot imagine that customers would accept different products that may even perform worse.

Christensen was close to JTBD thinking – but not quite there yet. His definition of a disruptive innovation could be improved with this change: Disruptive innovations use a different core technology to accomplish the same job.

Still, The Innovator’s Dilemma was important because it helped us to see the dangers of continuous upmarket moves, the threat of new technologies that underperform current ones, and the traps of always pursuing the bigger market. It’s flawed with an overly narrow definition of a disruptive innovation however. His examples did happen to be cheaper, simpler, and with worse performance.  But he was incorrect in assuming that would always be the case. This error would be addressed nearly 10 years later with the publication of Blue Ocean Strategy. But that issue aside, The Innovator’s Dilemma advanced the JTBD conversation because it asked the right question – even though it did not answer it. The question was this, “What is common to sustaining and disruptive innovations?”

The answer is of course: the customer’s JTBD. It would be spelled out in Tony Ulwick’s 1999 work Business Strategy Formulation even though this book does not use the term “customer job.” However, other than not using the word, he describes the concept well. For example, Ulwick describes a customer need as something that is:

  • Stable over time
  • Independent of technology (or any solution)
  • A statement of benefit sought

Even though the phrase “job-to-be-done” isn’t used – the book’s definition of a need fits well a modern job definition. Additionally, it addresses many innovation myths of the day such as:

  • Customers do not know what they need
  • Customer requirements change quickly over time

Customers may not know what solution they want, but they do know what they are trying to accomplish. And where technologies certainly change over time, needs are stable. In the book, Tony builds upon the idea with this example: for the task of “Quickly communicate with others that are in a different physical location” he points out that from 1820 to 1999, the solutions changed from the horse to satellite communications. In my view, this book truly articulated the concept of a JTBD for the first time.

In 2003, Christensen’s book The Innovator’s Solution was more explicit as it spelled out JTBD using language that we still use today. Christensen spoke about the common practice of segmenting markets based upon demographics or even product categories. Christensen pointed out that this was flawed because these characteristics were not good predictors of what a customer would buy. The real segmentation should be around getting a job done. Customers “hire” products to accomplish a job – and gravitate towards the product that will do it best.

JTBD had graduated. The awkward teenage years now in the rear-view mirror. In 2005, it officially arrived with three important works:

  • Blue Ocean Strategy – Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgne
  • Marketing Malpractice – HBR article by Christensen
  • What Customers Want – Tony Ulwick

Blue Ocean Strategy did not actually use the words “job-to-be-done.” But it did correct errors in thinking from The Innovator’s Dilemma and The Innovator’s Solution. Christensen had an overly narrow view of disruptive innovations – only considering those where a new value curve was created because of the novel solution was simpler, more convenient, or cheaper. Blue Ocean Strategy simply described the concept of a new value curve where some elements of performance might be higher and others lower.  It uses the example of Cirque du Soleil which, when compared to more traditional circuses, delivers higher performance on artistry, lower performance on animal shows….and at a much higher price. Blue Ocean Strategy’s concept of the new value curve was a revolutionary idea. It was quite “disruptive” itself. It challenged Michael Porter’s idea that to succeed a business had to be either a low-cost provider or a niche-player. It torched the main idea from the popular strategy book The Discipline of Market Leaders – which stated that a business had to commit to operational excellence, customer intimacy or product leadership. Such commitments are not necessary. In the end, perhaps the most interesting thing about Blue Ocean Strategy is that it’s one of the most useful books for applying JTBD – and yet – it does not refer to the concept.

Christensen doubled down on the JTBD principle in his 2005 HBR article Marketing Malpractice, sharing the same alliteration with Levitt’s Marketing Myopia.  This article contains the famous “milkshake” example which goes as follows. He was consulting for a restaurant chain that wanted to increase milkshake sales. He observed an increase in milkshake sales during the morning hours. The breakthrough was that some customers hired milkshakes as their breakfast. As such, the milkshake would also provide entertainment during an otherwise dull commute. Provide breakfast. Provide entertainment. A customer hired the milkshake to do these jobs – and from that understanding, new solutions could be created– such as adding bits of fruit. This would help the milkshake to accomplish those jobs better.

Finally, Tony Ulwick’s What Customers Want completed the JTBD story with his Outcome-Driven Innovation process. It goes like this. A customer hires a product to accomplish a job. Customers use metrics to evaluate how well a solution performs to get that job done. WCW gave us something that we didn’t have before: a process to put JTBD into practice.

In the end, Christensen made huge contributions to JTBD thinking. Kim and Mauborgne’s Blue Ocean Strategy cleared the stage for new thinking with the value curve. And in the process, exposed flaws in two popular strategic models: Porter’s Five Forces and Value Disciplines. But it was Tony Ulwick, a veteran of the practitioner ranks rather than the academic ones, who completed the JTBD puzzle. With ODI, we had more than JTBD theory.

We knew how to put it into practice.

We knew what to do next.

For better understanding, consider reading these works referred to within this article:

 Then afterwards, to solidify JTBD in your noggin, I have two more for you:

What is Win/Loss Analysis?

What is Win/Loss Analysis?


“I never lose. Either I win or I learn.”



Why did your customer buy your product – or your competitors? This basic tactic is used by less than 20% of companies. (

Why is this? This riddle can take a seat alongside “Why do companies have such a short-term focus?” and “Why does CEO pay skyrocket even as performance declines?”

Rather than ponder the mysteries of the irrational, let us focus on something more useful – understanding this great and powerful tool, the Win/Loss Analysis.

What is Win/Loss Analysis?

It is a market research event that occurs as part of the sales cycle. As previously stated, its purpose is to determine why a deal was won or lost. In practice, it’s like any qualitative interviewing process. There’s an interviewer. A respondent, a discussion guide driven by objectives, etc.

What can we learn with Win/Loss Analysis?

We learn the perceptions that customers have regarding our entire offering. From the product itself to everything that impacts the customer experience. From purchasing, to actually using the product, to obtaining support. If customers have previous experience with our product, then those experiences would heavily weight their assessment. In addition, they will rely on many things such as:

  • Experience with our sales process
  • Reports from other customers – testimonials, reviews, etc.
  • Case studies
  • Our reputation

If we lost the sale, then our competitors bested us in their performance for certain evaluation criteria. And if we won, then we bested them. For the Win/Loss itself, our focus is on learning, understanding these criteria, and how well we performed compared to others.

Of course, we are measuring customer perceptions. If our product is superior in some way that the customer did not perceive, this “reality” did not help us. Similarly, if our business really has capabilities that the customer does not think that we have, then this “reality” likewise did not help. Though, learning this does help. At least with the next deal. We can act to fill the gap. Perhaps we need a new demonstration, a white paper, altered positioning, better advertisements, etc. to address this problem.

Think of your own experiences as a customer. Why did you choose one company/product over another? Was the sales presentation poor?  Were they late? Were there technical issues with a web conference? If in person, how were they groomed? How about the proposal itself? Were there misspellings that were bothersome?

Who should we interview?

Should we focus on the lost deals or the won deals? The answer is “yes.”  We need to learn from both. Each will have a bias that will infect the reliability of our insight. Those who bought from us will be positive, happy, and will reflect upon “what a wise decision it was for us to do business together!” They will be more loose-lipped about the deficiencies of the competition and will alternatively pat us on the back for having such an amazing product as well as themselves for having made such a wise decision.

Those who did not buy from us might dread the interview. A tinge of guilt. A need to placate and make us to feel better. They may craft a palatable story for our ears to digest. We must help them to get past these obstacles so that we may learn the truth. We need their help to learn about our gaps and deficiencies – no matter how painful the conversation may be.

What should be in the interview itself?

This will use the normal phases of a qualitative interview:

  • Introduction
  • Rapport & Reconnaissance
  • Objectives
  • Conclusion

During the Introduction, emphasize three points. First, an extreme appreciation for the person’s time. Second, that the goal of the interview is to learn the truth. Of why they bought or did not buy. To not worry about offending or insulting us, that it’s really nobody’s “fault” per se. The customer made the best decision that was in their interest, just as they should have.

Finally, the interviewer should emphasize that this will not be a sales call. Along those lines, we must counsel our interviewing team to never enter salesy conversations. For example, we will not overcome objections as we might normally do. In fact, we want the objections – and as many as we can get. Set a mood that is friendly, affable, and non-threatening. Throughout the interview, continue to smile, to be curious, and to encourage the customer to speak freely.

The goal of the Rapport & Reconnaissance (R&R) is the same as with a typical qualitative interview – to build rapport and better understand the customer’s context. Especially when interviewing customers who did not buy from us, continue to reaffirm that “it’s ok”, that we’re not offended. Stay in the R&R phase as long as required to get the customer comforta
ble, chatty, and in a mood to be truthful. Five to ten minutes is plenty.

The Objectives section is the heart of the interview. The “heart” because this is when most of the learning will occur. Create a discussion guide to keep the conversation on point. As you ask each question, keep in mind that it’s not just the “answer” that you’re looking for. Go beyond. Listen intently. Probe for clarification. Seek to understand. When you feel that you understand a point well enough, use the “What else?” question.  This gives the customer permission to provide a different answer or elaborate on a previous response. Another good follow-up probe that you can use at almost any time is, “Can you tell me a little more about that?” Here are some question lead-is to consider for your discussing guide:

  1. What were you seeking to accomplish with this product?
  2. What alternatives did you consider?
  3. What would the ideal product (or features, attributes, etc.) be? (As a follow-up to this: what would that feature/attribute help you to accomplish?)
  4. What criteria were you using to evaluate this purchase?

From those questions and similar, you can develop criteria. Prior to wrapping up Objectives, it’s a good idea to quantify the customer’s thoughts using benchmarking questions.

Benchmarking within the Interview

This is a simple exercise that will help you to understand your relativestrength to competitors. Ask your customers, “with our product as the reference, how would you score the following alternatives? Is this about this same as ours, a little better, much better, a little worse, or a lot worse?”

The product is a logical place to begin – but don’t stop there. Ask about your reputation. About the sales process. Support – anything. Use the items that came up in the earlier part of the discussion.

Continue to probe for “why?” Why each is one better, worse, etc. Don’t hesitate to make sure that you understand the reasons fully enough.

When it’s time to move to the Conclusion phase, when your time is at an end and you have learned all that you are going to – you only need a couple easy questions to leave on good terms. With your data obtained, you transition into a relationship-building mode. Here are three questions – any of which can serve this purpose:

  • Out of everything that we’ve discussed, what should we focus on to improve?
  • What do we need to do differently to earn your business?
  • If the president of our company was here right now, what advice would you give them?

These questions signal that the interview is ending while leaving the door open for more commentary.

Who should conduct the interviews?

If the sales person conducts the interview, it provides an opportunity to build the relationship even from the wreckage of lost business. A conversation between peers without the stress of sales negotiation, a nice segue for future goodwill. But truthfully, most sales people struggle to refrain from selling – it’s too natural for them to slip into that comfortable habit. Also, since the sales person contributed to the experience, the customer may be reluctant to share anything that the sales person did poorly. The result? Our data will likely seem to support the case that the business was lost due to everything other than the sales person: product, competition, delivery time, price, etc. Of course, when the sales person is our moderator and notetaker, they are likewise unlikely to record anything negative about their own performance.

Consider what you might do instead. You could have someone who wasn’t involved with that project as moderator. Perhaps product managers could take turns conducting interviews for each other’s products.

The best practice is probably to outsource the Win/Loss interviews. When speaking with a third party, the customer is more likely to provide an honest response. There is no doubt that this will provide the highest quality, least biased data.

When should the interviews be conducted?

The interviews should be conducted within three months of the deal, whether won or lost. The purpose of the interview is to learn, and we cannot get data from customers who cannot remember it.

What do we do with the data?

As soon as we have finished all our interviews, we are ready to study the cumulative findings. Store, code, and compile the data for analysis.
Use Excel to create tables and charts to present the insights graphically. Be bold! With the conclusions in hand, it is not the time to worry about hurting people’s feelings. Everyone should embrace the process as an opportunity to improve for the good of the entire business. Make sure that any specific findings are routed to those who need it most. Product deficiencies to the product managers, presentation issues to the sales managers, positioning misfits to the marketing managers, and so forth.

For more information on Win/Loss Analysis, consult the following sources:

What’s the difference between positioning and branding?

What’s the difference between positioning and branding?


Positioning is the process of associating a something (product, brand, company) with a desired concept. In other words, the strategy.  It’s deliberate. A process of choosing the association that you want. Volvo = safety. Harley-Davidson = the loudest, most American motorcycle. Walmart = low prices. The brand is the “thing” that you want to position.  That’s why it makes sense to say that you position the brand, but it does not make sense to say that you brand the position.

If positioning is about strategy, then branding is about execution. It is the act of communication. And what are you communicating? The desired position!

Ah, but alas. These are words. Words! Unfortunately, some people will occasionally use the words positioning and branding interchangeably.  I don’t know that I would get into any bar fights to defend my “position” (sorry, couldn’t help it!) but as a bigger issue, we want to be clear on whether we are selecting and defining a position, that is, positioning, or if we’re are communicating, i.e. branding.

Thinking about the bigger picture of product development is helpful to keep the distinction. The positioning process actually begins when we do our initial market research, prior to even designing a product. Our discoveries will guide us to determine the place we want to occupy in a customer’s mind by the benefits that we want our product to deliver. We then develop that product to deliver those benefits. It’s no accident that the template for a value proposition statement and a positioning statement are the same. (Ever noticed that?)

From there, the branding process begins. Our tasks are no longer to select a position – but to communicate it to the target market. If the positioning has been done well, and therefore the value proposition is clear; this is simple. During the branding process, we develop the vehicles for communication …. The normal collateral and artifacts that we think of. These will be visuals for sure, but also the means, the message, and the delivery.

Here’s my favorite way of keeping this straight: Positioning is about what should be communicated while branding is about how it should be communicated. Positioning is executed by strategists, branding by creatives.

What’s really different about B2B market research?

What’s really different about B2B market research?


From the book, New Product Blueprinting, we know that the B2B customer is generally more knowledgeable, more interested and more objective, which has implications for the quality of insight that we can learn from a customer interview. However, the most important  difference, and the most meaningful for B2B market research has to do with the markets themselves: they are more concentrated.

This simply means that there are fewer customers. Fewer customers for mining shovels than toothpaste. Think about it…packaging equipment, chemicals, computer chips, oil platform mooring systems, industrial HVAC units – concentrated markets all. If your customers are OEMs or B2B firms themselves, they are likely concentrated.


What are the implications for market research?
What should any Voice of the Customer (VoC) process deliver for market research? It should provide customer needs. We call this customer insight. We need to know our customers’ problems, their goals and objectives. In modern innovation parlance, we need to understand their jobs-to-be-done…just as the B2C marketer does. However, with a concentrated market, we have an additional consideration. We need to nurture relationships with the purchase decision makers. We call this customer engagement. Our process should gather customer needs while also inspiring trust. It should demonstrate competence, responsiveness, professionalism – inspiring confidence and even likeability. If we have positive “customer engagement,” then our customers will see us as partners in a common pursuit for collaboration and mutual benefit.


How do we obtain both customer insights and engagement with a VoC research process?

Finding a system that delivers is not easy. Strategic selling programs have been implemented for years with success because they are effective at selling while building engagement.  However, they do not provide the customer insight, data, and analysis needed to feed the front end of the New Product Development (NPD) pipeline with impactful ideas. On the other hand, some B2B firms have committed to generic “off the shelf” Voice of the Customer research methods. In this case, they obtain the insights for growth, but they miss an opportunity to use the process as a vehicle to engage customers and build relationships. To get both within, B2B marketers need a system that is designed to deliver both.


What are some practical ways that a B2B customer insight process for VoC research can also deliver engagement?

The process should use the fundamentals of VoC while delivering a professional and engaging experience. First, the interview should keep the customer’s objectives in the center. The interviewer probes to truly understand the customer’s problems – resulting in a customer that feels “heard” and appreciated. Although this is also a B2C process attribute, it has more usefulness in B2B. When an interviewer deeply listens to a customer, this endears the interviewee to them. It’s an antidote to any concern that the interviewer secretly is using the session as a selling opportunity. Meanwhile, the interviewing team respects the moderator’s role so that the session itself feels like an engaging conversation amongst peers.  Next, the interviewing process itself should deliver a professional experience. For example, with the flagship product of New Product Blueprinting, Blueprinter 5.0 software, the customer will see a professionally designed layout which features digital sticky notes, an agenda, multiple views, multiple languages (if applicable), even multiple colors to categorize customer data types. It is a simple and elegant display: attractive for the customer – and simple for the interviewer. Next the process should provide an attractive, professional account to recap the interview. Also within Blueprinter 5.0, the Blueprinting team can export the notes to an official report. As a PDF, the report will become a digital business card –  circulating amongst many decision makers within the walls of the customer’s business.  

Finally, a B2B-focused VoC process should be designed to maintain contact with the customer throughout development. To support this, Blueprinter software allows interviewing teams to capture tasks and assign them to team members – visible for all to see. This helps them to stay accountable for any promises made.


When the process builds engagement, it improves relationships. When it provides insight, it fills the pipeline with new ideas. But with both together, there is a third benefit: higher ROI for new products. How so? When customers are engaged from the beginning, they will buy not only because the product addresses their needs but also because they were included along the way. The respectful peer-to-peer conversations positioned the B2B marketer as a partner rather than a vendor. Also, during the selling process, the marketer won’t have to bore them with the 75 features the product has, but rather, they can just speak to the handful that matters. As everything comes together – the right product – pitched by a valued partner –  provides perhaps the biggest benefit of all to the B2B company: shorter sales cycles – “and there was much rejoicing.” Shorter sales cycles mean that the “time to money” will be much less.


For B2B, it would be hard to overstate the importance of a VoC system that drives both engagement and insight.

It’s the difference between opening a new manufacturing plant or closing an old one. The difference between maxed out bonuses versus watching the best employees leave. It’s the difference between having to justify poor EPS growth as opposed to reading about your latest stock upgrade. All B2B firms would certainly be wise to assess their VoC process for both engagement and insight.


Your Best Will Always Be Good Enough

Your Best Will Always Be Good Enough


One of my favorite podcasts is “The Wolfpacker” – where the host, Matt Carter, recounts the recent highs and lows of my beloved NC State Wolfpack. Sports energizes the competitive side of me. It also fills our family calendar with games – both in-person and on television. It Carter happens to have a speaking impediment. When I first started listening to the show  – it was quite noticeable. I wonder how he can host the show through that?

This is very relevant to me because I am from the American south. This means, that yes – I have a noticeable accent. Listening to me, you’ll hear a diphthong, a drawn out vowel here and there, perhaps something that sounds like slurring – that you won’t hear from American newscasters. This does not create an issue with comprehension – but it does create an issue with the southern stereotype: uneducated, rural and simple. I wasn’t really aware of how strong this perception could be until joining the corporate world in earnest at John Deere. Though it was not a huge issue there because at Deere, as you might imagine, has a lot of employees who were once farm kids and it was common to hear rural accents up and down the organizational chart.

However, when stepping out in the the world of innovation and business consulting – it became apparent that my southern accent was a “thing.”  Endearing and useful at Deere – I realized this could become a liability. I also realized that it would not be productive to blame others for their ignorance. The stereotypes are out there, and they are just responding to their hard wiring. Not their fault. Not anyone’s fault.

Still, this created a situation. Do I work on this accent to change it? Or do I say “this is me, deal with it!” On one hand, I did know folks from my home town who eliminated their accents and could slip through the most urban of social circles undetected. It could be done…not easy, but possible.

On the other hand, you know who else speaks as I do? My parents and grandparents. Were they uneducated and simple? Both my paternal grandparents were college educated in an era when that was uncommon. They both became teachers and school principals – saving enough money along the way to purchase a cattle farm. They never owed any money in their lives – never even had a credit card. On the other side, both my maternal grandparents were also college educated – and together – they began a company that still exists today as one of the largest private businesses in North Carolina. My maternal grandfather, Horace Carter – even won a Pulitzer prize for his editorials in the Tabor City Tribune as he illuminated the vigilante activities of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1950s. A PBS special, narrated by Morgan Freeman, tells the story of his battles versus the Klan. Within that documentary, there is some footage of him from a national news report by Edward R. Murrow – and you can bet that his accent was thick in that piece. My father is a successful surgeon, and was one of the first urologists in the US to be able to perform lithotripsy for kidney stones. After successfully raising three boys, my mother became a real estate agent in our small town – and in short order – became the most successful agent there by a large margin. Ride through the neighborhoods, her signs are everywhere.

Why is this family history relevant? Because these people also spoke like me and were not uneducated, simple, or unsuccessful – and if anything – their accents would be more noticeable than mine. I’m proud of their accomplishments – and they all set great professional examples for me.

So now I return to Matt Carter, host of “The Wolfpacker” podcast. I wonder how he thought about his speech impediment as a host? Did he work on it? Did it worry him? As for my reaction as a listener, I soon forgot about it. Why? Because he knows what he’s speaking about. He has the enthusiasm for the task – and his confidence and skill comes through. The thing that was initially distracting soon became part of the uniqueness that I look forward to with “The Wolfpacker.” He does the best that he can – and his best is fantastic. It works, and it works well.

It reminds me of something that I noticed at John Deere. The dealers were also quick to stereotype women in marketing roles – and assume that these ladies couldn’t possible know much about farm equipment – or the marketing realities of a dealership. However, you can bet that that those stereotypes were quite false….the women were competent and knowledgeable.  They stood on their own two feet, presented their case and knew their stuff. They also didn’t shed their high heels for boots – they kept their femininity – but kicked ass in this so-called “man’s world.” And here’s the funny thing that happened next. Not only did the dealers learn to quickly respect the skills of these ladies – they became even more respected in some ways. It was like they had a superpower because they were proficient in different languages.

So what do I do with my little situation? Yes, I do sometimes work on some of the major accent offenders that people seem to notice. Not in a major way, but…a little bit. Also, when giving a talk to a large audience, I tell a particular joke that addresses the accent right away so that we can then move past it. But beyond that, I’ll be proud of who I am and how I speak. My parents and grandparents spoke this way – they did just fine – so I’ll be proud of that part of me and my heritage, thank you.

Still, comments will come my way that could be interpreted as insults. These give me opportunities to remember the words of Marcus Aurelius, “Choose not to be harmed – and you won’t feel harmed. Don’t feel harmed – and you haven’t been.” Also – as Tyrion Lannister told Jon Snow in the novel Game of Thrones, “Let me give you some advice, Bastard. Never forget what you are. The rest of the world will not. Wear it like armor, and it can never be used to hurt you.”

We all have challenges. Overcoming them will add to your power – will add to your identity – will add to your uniqueness. Create a strategy to address it, do your best and then rest in that. Your best will always be good enough.

And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared

And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared


apple-1752434_640“And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared” is the name of Genrich Altshuller’s book which illustrated a large collection of his problem solving principles through riddles and stories. He had a crazy comb-over, wrote children’s books, personally insulted Stalin, went to prison, invented the best known system for solving technical problems – and owned a pile of patents as a kid. Other than that, he pretty lived an ordinary life.

Altshuller is best known as the inventor of TRIZ – which is an acronym for this longer Russian phrase: теория решения изобретательских задач,” which literally means “theory of the resolution of invention-related tasks.”  In English, this is sometimes referred to by “the theory of inventive problem solving”, but most often just referred to with the acronym “TRIZ” (even though English speakers would have no chance of articulating the Russian phrase). 

Altshuller’s life was as colorful and interesting as the TRIZ principles which he developed. As a child, he invented a rocket, a flamethrower and a spacesuit – earning multiple “inventor’s certificates” (similar to patents). He joined the Soviet army in the midst of WWII – studying aviation. Shortly after the war, Alshuller began devising his problem solving rules – largely on the observation that most successful inventions were the result of resolving a contradiction. Something must be light but strong. Flexible, yet durable. Solid, yet fluid. Seeing these and other patterns, he began developing the greatest accomplishment of his life’s work: TRIZ.

Full of enthusiasm about his new insights, he wrote a letter to Stalin to criticize the current state of inventiveness in the USSR. Somehow, Stalin neglected to see the humor in the note – and our hero ended up in prison as a political prisoner – though fortunately was released after just a few years – rather than the 25 years that he was sent away for.

As he found it difficult to find employment, by application of his own TRIZ methods, he became convinced that the “invention” he needed was to earn income by writing. He became a successful science fiction writer under the name of “G. Alto.” He continued writing – and eventually returned to being the TRIZ champion that we all know and love. From the 1970’s on,  he became highly involved in teaching TRIZ, speaking – and continuing to write.

In the US, Altshuller’s legacy lives on through those who were personally trained by him. Many of them are of Russian descent, and tend to be centered in consultancies in either Boston or Detroit.

His book “And Suddenly the Inventor Appeared” lets us see how this genius ticked. He frames up many problems as little riddles – giving you, the reader, the opportunity to solve it before reading the answer in the back of the book. For example, party goers are admiring a chocolate candy with a fruit-flavored gel at the center. How could you get the gel into the center since it was a solid? If you heated it to a liquid, it would melt the chocolate when inserting it. (Give up?) The answer, is that you first freeze the gel, then dip it into molten chocolate – and of course the gel will eventually settle at room temperature as the chocolate hardens.

The book is full of fantastic quotes:

Everything changes over time, but the method of trial and error remains the same. 

If it cannot be done now, it should be done in advance.

At the heart of every technical contradiction is a hidden physical contradiction. 


TRIZ is a well-known method that every decent innovator should be familiar with. But Mr. Altshuller is an interesting cat in his own right. I cannot help but think that if we can understand the man himself a bit better, we’ll gain greater insights into his greatest invention – TRIZ.

Boldness Wins the Day

Boldness Wins the Day


mad-dogAs a New Product Dog, you are the closest to the customer. You will understand the markets better than most around you. However, you also know to keep a holistic perspective – focused on what is best for the business long term.

You find yourself surrounded by the myopic masses. Trying to maximize one metric at the expense of all else. The director of product safety would require all your users to wear a helmet, gloves, ear protection, eye protection, soccer shin guards and a condom. Your finance director will demand proof of return on investment if you’re lucky – and will slash all costs – which materializes as a travel ban (canceling all your customer visits) if you are unlucky. The director of operations will insist on fewer SKUs. The director of sales will demand more SKUs. Don’t look to the C-level folks to bring order to this chaos. There are some good ones of course – who will drive better decision making – but don’t count on it. It’s pretty common that they will be carefully maximizing the variables which will get them paid the most. (And before I sound too judgmental, those are big bucks – that can meaningfully improve their lives – and I can’t say that I wouldn’t act the same way in that situation.)

These are the headwinds that you face. But don’t fear them. Face them. Golly gosh darnit, you’re a New Product Dog, and you will make the best decisions for the company as a whole. First, you must earn this right in the form of …. your homework. You must have done enough work, whether hired out or executed yourself, to understand your market, your company’s operations, your company’s capabilities so that you can make an informed recommendation. Generally, you’ll know the market the best – and you can work with all the parties above to understand how your decisions might affect them.

For example…if you add a SKU to address a new market, what development investment is required to bring this to life? Is this a one time event, or likely to really address an unmet market need?

If you do recommend increasing you prices, have you estimated what the difference in profitability would be? If this causes a loss of market share, have you considered how this might embolden competitors – or the additional impact of the loss of add-on sales?

Do your analysis, then make your recommendation and defend it boldly. You may be worried about a “career-limiting move”, but in the long run, people will begin to understand that you’ve done your homework. As to any negative consequences for holding your ground, let’s consider the words of Marcus Aurelius (from Meditations):

“The speed with which all of them vanish – the objects of the world, and the memory of them in time. And the real nature of the things our senses experience, especially those that entice us with pleasure or frighten us with pain or are loudly trumpeted with pride. To understand those things – how stupid, contemptible, grimy, decaying, and dead they are – that’s what our intellectual powers are for.”

In other words, this too shall pass – and the negative consequences that you imagine are unlikely to take place.

Do your homework – then be bold.