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Voice of the Customer through Focus Groups

by Connie Steele on January 19, 2011

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Have you ever wanted to dig deep into your customers (or prospective customers) head to understand what they think about your company, why they shop with you and not someone else or even to get reactions to new innovative ideas that could help drum up new business?

In the corporate world, we use many research techniques to address these type of questions but one that is quite often employed are focus groups.   Focus groups are interviews with a group of people who are asked about their perceptions, opinions, beliefs and attitudes towards a product, service, concept, advertisement, idea, or packaging.  Questions are asked in an interactive group setting typically in a designated facility, where participants are free to talk with other group members.

You may think that you don’t have the money to implement anything like this.  The reality is that you CAN actually employ this type of approach and it DOESN’T have to be expensive at all.   Keep in mind that with focus group studies, there are several controls and procedures that ensure the unbiasedness and richness of feedback of which is typically managed by a trained moderator.  However, the fundamental idea of having a direct dialogue with your audience is not something that should preclude you from doing it even if you aren’t trained at moderating.

So how would you go about doing it on a shoe string budget?  Here are the key elements that you will need to consider in order to conduct a focus group:

  1. Participant recruitment and Incentive
    1. First you need to determine who your specific audience is that you want to get feedback from and this could be done using some of the approaches that Amishi mentioned in her post (i.e. surveys, polls, etc.).  Or an even simpler way is to just ask them if they want to participant in a focus group by reaching out to them using your current communication and marketing vehicles.
    2. In order to encourage sign-up, you’ll need to reward potential participants with some incentive for spending time with you to share their thoughts.  The easiest thing to do would be to offer some of your products/services for free or at a substantial discount rather than incenting them with cash.  (i.e. coupon for a free meal, free products, discounted services).  The key thing is to make sure your incentives are broadly appealing enough to get them to want to come and participate.
  2. Moderator’s Guide
    1. It’s very important that you create a “script” around what you want to ask your participants in the discussion you will have with them. This will keep you on task particularly as you may have folks that go off topic or you end up spending more time on one of the many areas you are looking to get learnings on.  Your guide should include all the key questions and desired answers you want to get.  Determine how much time you want to spend on each question up front and prioritize what learning is most important to you.
  3. Session Timing and Logistics

Before you start recruiting, there are some critical logistics you should consider.

  1. Focus group Location -  Determine where you are going to hold this.  Look no further than your own establishment if you happen to have a physical presence.  If you happen to just operate online, you could actually do a focus group via the phone.  While you may not get to see them face to face, you could certainly try to do this through a conference call and get input that way.
  2. Session Time – Most people are pretty busy these days so doing a focus group that lasts longer than an hour is probably going to be tough. Also small businesses aren’t trained moderators so it’s best to not overextend yourself by trying to facilitate a discussion with people longer than it would naturally go particularly if you don’t have any experience.
  3. Logistics – If you are doing it in a physical location, then it’s best to have your participants sit around a table where they can see each other and have you at the head of the table.  Also this allows you to be able to see everyone as well.  Also, definitely provide some refreshments and snacks otherwise you may have some cranky folks.  And if you happen to do it during mealtime, certainly provides some real food.   If you are virtual then that of course isn’t an issue.
  4. Feedback documentation -  You’ll probably be so engrossed in the conversation that you don’t have any time to take notes.  If you happen to have a partner in crime that could sit behind the table and taking notes for you that could be ideal.  Other things you could do is tape record the session or even videotape it.  You’ll need to tell your participants up front that you are doing this up front.

In the end the benefits and strengths of having this type of dialogue with your customers are the following:

  • The discussion from your audience will produce data and insights that would be less accessible without the interaction found in a group setting—listening to others’ verbalized experiences stimulates memories, ideas, and experiences in participants.
  • Group members discover a common language to describe similar experiences. This enables the capture of a form of “native language” or “vernacular speech” to understand the situation
  • Focus groups also provide an opportunity for disclosure among similar others in a setting where participants are validated.

So the next time you have important questions you want to have answered from your customers and you want to go in depth to hear what they think, consider doing  a focus group.

Image: Flickr via ihtatho (Creative Commons)

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