Running your own focus groups is a bit like doing your own tax return – it all depends on how complicated the job is and what kind of results you want. If your most complicated deduction is your retirement savings deduction, you may do just fine. If you have complicated investments, it can get tricky quickly.
But clients have asked me for guidance in this area from time to time. I generally explain why running focus groups is not as simple as I try to make it look. But I know they are just going to look for advice online. And maybe run do-it-yourself focus groups.
Truly, there are reasons why businesses take the do-it-yourself approach to marketing research. Lack of budget is only part of it. In larger firms, no one is going to authorize local offices to run their own independent research agendas. But few experiences are as riveting as hearing honest feedback from your customers, and there’s a lot of appeal in giving it a try.
Results-oriented managers want to better understand their customers and might decide to run a few focus groups on their own. If you are thinking about going down that road, here’s a checklist of things to consider.
1. What do you hope to achieve?
When marketing professionals run focus groups, they are looking for things they have the power to act on, whether it’s product design, pricing or advertising. Anything else is interesting, but not useful, and therefore a waste of time and money. You should set the same standard for yourself.
Having a clear idea of what you want to find out and how you are going to use it is an essential part of planning.
Best case: you pick up a few actionable insights that you put to use immediately with great results.
Worst case: you spend hours of your time and your customers’ time meandering around on generic topics such as better parking or why prices can’t be lower on your product; things you probably can’t easily change.
2. Be prepared to act on what you learn
Be careful not to get customers talking about topics that you either can’t or don’t plan to change. Today’s consumers are very marketing savvy individuals. If they know you by name and spend two hours telling you what to fix, they are going to reasonably expect you to act on that input.
Best case: your customers feel great about having been asked, and then happy to see that their input made a difference.
Worst case: people wonder why they bothered, when you obviously don’t care and didn’t implement any changes.
3. Figure out who you need to hear from, and why they would spend their free time with you
You need to talk with people who can shed light on the issue at hand. Maybe it’s new customers. Maybe it’s customers who hardly do any business with you now, but used to do a lot. Determine the profile of this customer, and get participants who fit that profile as closely as possible. All opinions are not equally valid or valuable.
Participants in formal research are usually paid for their time, as well as being motivated by the opportunity to have their opinions heard and discuss interesting topics. If you aren’t paying your customers to attend, perhaps you can offer another incentive, such as a gourmet meal, or the chance to expand their professional network.
Best case: you learn more about an important customer group, their needs and challenges.
Worst case: you act on opinions and input provided by people who have little in common with the needs and concerns of your target customers, but they came for the free snacks.
4. Keep it small
Set up reasonable expectations for the event by calling it a group discussion, a customer feedback meeting, or a voice-of-our-customers event, not a focus group. If you call it a focus group, people attending might be expecting a skilled facilitator to be running it.
Those Internet how-to guides will tell you to put seven to 10 people in each group: four to six is a much more manageable number, especially if you have no formal training in leading discussions like this.
Best case: everyone got to be heard, and you got to listen.
Worst case: half the attendees spent the event on their mobile device, and the rest were frustrated because one person dominated the whole discussion.
5. Who is best equipped to lead the discussion?
Your group discussion should feel like a kitchen table conversation, not a serial Q & A. Setting up this friendly environment, encouraging people to talk freely, and gently guiding them to stay on topic is what professionals work hard at while making it look easy.
If you are the senior person in this operation, whether it’s a web design company or a hair salon, you are in a position of influence with your customers. They won’t want to risk their relationship with you as the price of offering their honest opinion.
Best case: you bite your tongue and say “tell me more” during the awkward moments.
Worst case: you start defending your opinions and policies and the discussion shuts down.
6. Listen for emotions as well as facts
We humans are very good at rationalizing our behavior and finding logical reasons for the things we do. But a great deal of understanding customers has to do with listening between the lines, to the feelings that are often the real drivers of behavior. Business procedures or practices that can seem reasonable or even trivial to management can create huge irritation on the part of customers. And the reverse is also true – small courtesies can have an amazing positive impact on how your service is perceived.
Best case: you learn that people are irritated by small behaviors that you and your staff can easily change.
Worst case: you completely miss the emotional drivers that are affecting the experience and influencing loyalty.
7. Don’t take the opportunity to sell something
Selling under the guise of research, also known as SUGGING, is considered unethical by the professionals. You’ve experienced it yourself if you’ve answered a survey that was followed by a sales pitch or request for funds, and unfortunately, you probably have experienced this.
Do not, under any circumstances, convert your Voice of the Customer discussion group into an opportunity to gather customer needs that you then sell into. People will feel abused, and rightly so.
Best case: you get a sale you probably would have landed anyway, but your customers no longer trust you.
Worst case: your customers are disgusted and feel you abused their trust.
8. Use extreme caution when interpreting what you hear
In addition to rationalizing, most of us are pretty good at presenting a certain image to the world. There can be a huge discrepancy between self-reported and actual behavior.
Strong opinions expressed early in a discussion can sway what others say. People may agree out of politeness. You yourself may be unduly affected by the first thing you heard, rather than considering the full range of opinions expressed.
You are only hearing from a few people, who may or may not reflect the views of others. Be careful about generalizing. Pros spend as much time on analysis as they do on the discussion, and usually more.
Best case: you proceed with caution, acting only on the things that really make a lot of sense based on everything you heard and all your management experience.
Worst case: you make some big changes that people seemed enthusiastic about, and then it’s a flop, leaving you wondering what you missed.
The bottom line
There is no such thing as knowing too much about your customers, and few substitutes for the power of hearing that feedback directly. A do-it-yourself approach may make sense when the stakes are low and so are your expectations.
It’s unlikely that you’ll wind up in court if you don’t run a good group discussion, as you might if you mess up your tax return too badly. In my own business, I’ve found that I can spend several days on matters that my accountant can deal with in a five-minute phone call.
Ultimately, you are the one who has to make the trade-offs between budget impact, business risk and potential payoff. If you decide to take the do-it-yourself route, be realistic in your expectations, take the time to plan carefully, and then listen.