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Several years ago, McDonald's decided to increase their milkshake sales. They had a lot of data and profiles for their core target audience of milkshake buyers. They invited people who fit these profiles into their offices, explained that they wanted to improve the sales of their milkshakes and asked them to give them guidance. The customers had a lot of guidance in terms of flavors, colors, and viscosity of their milkshakes. The marketing people from McDonald's would then go back and turn their suggestions into reality. The result? There was no significant improvement on sales or profit.

Let us look at how McDonald's managed to turn it around. They employed a research team, who would go to a McDonalds store, watch and take notes about the people who bought milkshakes. What time was it that he bought the milkshake at? What clothes was he wearing? Was he alone? Did he buy other food? Did he eat the milkshake in the restaurant or get in the car and drive off with it?

From their research, they found out that half of all milkshakes are sold before 8:30am. The typical milkshake buyer was always alone and the milkshake would be the only thing they get. They would always take the milkshake with them and drive off with the car.

The research team then started to confront people outside of the McDonald's and ask questions regarding their behavior. As it turned out, they all had the same problem. They needed something they could consume on their boring morning commutes. A milkshake was making their life a lot easier in contrast to other food (bananas would be eaten too quickly, bagels and cream cheese too messy) as it was something they could drink for a longer period because of the thin straw and viscosity and would not create a mess while driving. The shakes keep people full and they can even put them in the cupholder of their car.

Caught this photo walking around after work. Streets were packed with cars and the sun was setting and it made me so glad that I was driving and could just be taking pictures.
Photo by Max Bender / Unsplash

As a result, McDonald's launched a marketing program around these insights and made their milkshakes even thicker, swirling in tiny chunks of fruit to introduce unpredictability. They also moved milkshake machines in front of the counter to help customers avoid drive-thru lines. The results? They saw the great bump in milkshake sales they’d hoped for.

McDonalds’ first initiative failed to produce more sales because they didn’t ask their customers the right questions.

Your customers are eager to share their stories of pain and success, however, what they will actually tell you depends entirely on how they are prompted. This is where the underlying problem exists. Before research has even begun, your organisation has likely identified and proposed a problem statement. This statement will become the focus of research and is therefore fundamental to solving the problem, yet this work tends to be rushed and filled with unvalidated assumptions.

For McDonalds’, the initial problem statement might be summarised to look something like this:

“By understanding what customers desire in milkshakes we can improve the quality of our milkshakes and increase sales”

With this problem statement in mind, researchers have directed their interviews towards identifying popular flavours and textures, but they would be unlikely to dedicate significant time to other customer needs. Even if qualitative research techniques were used, it’s likely that they would be designed based on the assumptions made in the problem statement.

McDonalds’ was able to turn this story around by employing a research team that ignored these previous assumptions. Their updated problem statement might look like this:

“By understanding why customers buy milkshakes we will identify the opportunities that will result in increased sales”

It’s possible that for another brand, this research would have concluded that customers want tastier milkshakes, which could have increased their sales. At McDonalds’ however, the conclusion was that customers wanted their milkshakes to be more practical towards their “jobs to be done” of fulfilling a commuters breakfast.

It is important that you check each word of your problem statement for all the assumptions you make before you go and talk to your customers. If you have the wrong problem statement, it will focus you in the wrong direction.

Photo by Austin Distel / Unsplash

Furthermore, don’t ask your customers to innovate for you. They are not experts for your product. You are. However, customers are the experts of their own pains and daily struggles and it is up to you to really listen, watch and understand the underlying problem they are trying to solve with your product or service. Be empathic.

Put yourself into the shoes of your customers. Never assume you know what your customer’s problems are until you actually went and talked to them. Once you have understood their problems, challenges, or pains, you can start formulating robust problem statements and test solutions together with your customers.

by David Gattig & Theo Allardyce