Learning what your customers think

A focus group can give you insights about your products and services

Businesses often declare in their mission statement they will “meet or exceed customer expectations.”FocusGroup1small But, how do businesses know if they are accomplishing what they have set out to do?

It’s all a matter of understanding your customer, says Nancy Ulrich, owner of Ulrich Research Services, Inc. And that understanding comes from getting in touch with customers.

“There are a number of ways to do that,” she says. One of them is through focus groups.”

A focus group is a small group (usually from eight to 10) of selected individuals that explores potential issues and opportunities or tests concepts before a product or service is fully launched. “Whereas a quantitative study—such as a survey—tells you what people are likely to do or how many feel a particular way,” says Ulrich, “findings from qualitative research often explain why people do what they do. The ‘why’ may include motivating factors such as personal experiences, emotional insights, cultural influences, or even peer pressure.”

Qualitative research includes individual in-depth interviews and small group (two or three individuals) interviews as well as focus groups led by a moderator.

Although findings from a focus group are not considered statistically reliable nor can they be projected to represent the entire market, they are helpful to business owners because they provide insights into customer behavior.

Convening a focus group

Engaging an independent outside consultant to do the research has its benefits (it provides anonymity and encourages people to speak more openly), but a business owner or manager can do the research in-house by using internal resources. The key is proper research structure, including:

• Goals and objectives. This is the most critical step. “We tell our clients, ‘Do not do research just for the sake of doing research.’ Have your goals and objectives clearly defined,” says Ulrich.

• Questions. If you employ a researcher, the two of you will work together to develop questions based on your objectives for the group to discuss.

• Selection criteria. Your goals and objectives help identify who should be in the focus group—for example, current customers, lost or former customers, prospects, or customers of competitors. Other criteria you might consider include gender, age, number of children in the household, income bracket, level of education, type of work or job position, or even marital status. “You don’t want to blend too many criteria into one session,” cautions Ulrich, “or you may lose the ability to segment your audience or findings effectively.”

• Recruitment. If you engage a market research firm, you will work with the consultant to design a questionnaire that will help the recruiter screen potential participants to make sure they are placed in the right group. For example, you would not necessarily want to mix current customers with former customers.

• Compensation. It is not unusual to compensate participants for their time, says Ulrich. Typically, consumers are paid from $60 to $100 for a two-hour session. Small business owners usually received $125 or more; corporate executives, $150+; and specialty groups such as physicians, $250 or more. “Sometimes small business owners offer something in lieu of cash, such as a coupon to their restaurant, a free hour of legal advice, or something else that has a universal appeal to the targeted audience,” explains Ulrich.

• Venue. A research company that specializes in focus groups will have a facility with specially designed room having a one-way mirror and audio and video technology to record the session. However, a focus group can be convened at your place of business or at an outside facility, such as a restaurant or country club. A word of caution: If you convene your own focus group, never try to use it make a sales presentation or solicitation.

• Use of a moderator. Whether you conduct research yourself or hire a research consultant, the moderator should have training in how to facilitate a group without influencing individuals in their discussion. “Impartiality is important if you want to get honest opinions from the group,” says Ulrich. “The moderator has to remain unbiased.”

Format of the group

When the group is convened, the moderator welcomes them, asks for brief introductions, and then outlines the structure and time frame of the meeting. He or she also alerts the group if it is being observed and recorded.



A focus group will give a small business owner a lot of food for thought, but qualitative findings should be considered directional, says Ulrich. “They are not necessarily definitive. They provide insights into the emotional side of the customer. Entrepreneurs often solicit feedback from friends and family. Unfortunately, those are the people most likely to kill a great idea or encourage a bad one! Focus groups conducted by a professional trained consultant bring independent objectivity to the scene.”

Whatever a business owner learns from a focus group should be considered a first step, says Ulrich. “If important issues and opportunities surface, the next step might be to test or measure them quantitatively. Just because a good idea does not play well with a particular audience does not mean it will not work in another geographic market or with another demographic. Keep exploring and be willing to change and modify. Don’t be afraid to try different approaches.”

Nancy Ulrich is president of Ulrich Research Services, Inc., ( located in Orange Park, Fla. She can be reached at 904-264-5578.



Other ways to get customer feedback

Qualitative research, such as convening a focus group or doing individual or small-group in-depth interviews, is one way to get customer feedback, but it is not the only way. Consider:

• Customer comment cards. Put them in easily accessible locations.

• Postpaid comment cards. Mail them to customers after a transaction or service.

• Online surveys. Solicit input and suggestions.

• Telephone calls or short telephone surveys.

But don’t neglect the obvious: Talk to your customers! Ask them about your products or services. Ask your sales reps to conduct a brief survey after giving a presentation. And when you lose a customer, conduct a brief exit interview to find out what you could be doing better.



The Advantage experience

The value of facilitated focus groups has long been established, so Jacksonville Small Business Advantage decided to experience the process itself.

“We knew focus groups provided great feedback,” said Brian Barquilla, publisher of the magazine and Web site, “so, we decided to find out if we were on the right track with our magazine.”

The process

Before the focus group could be convened and facilitated, Barquilla worked with the facilitator to understand:

• Advantage’s goals in conducting the group—how small business owners perceive the magazine, broken down into specific areas, such as design and content;

• The intended readership of the magazine;

• Who should be included in the focus group—current readers or those who had never seen the magazine before?

Once the information was collected, the facilitator worked with Barquilla to develop questions and activities based on the magazine’s goals. The staff then recruited small business owners for the focus group, which was convened at her company’s location, to take advantage of the facility’s one-way mirror and recording capabilities.

In one of the research activities participants were asked to select from a pile of local and national magazines a business magazine that appealed to them. “Watching them make their selections was more stressful than I thought it would be,” said Barquilla. “I kept thinking, ‘What if they don’t select Jacksonville Small Business Advantage?’ But, a number of them did. I felt like cheering!”

Later, each member of the group was provided copies of the magazine and asked specific questions about the design and content. “That was very telling,” said Barquilla. “The facilitator gave them a minute to look over the magazine before guiding a discussion. We were able to watch facial expressions and body language. It was interesting to see the response of individuals as well as to listen to their suggestions and comments.”

Barquilla considered the overall experience: “Anyone who does this has to be prepared to hear negatives. Not everything said will be good. But it was a good experience. We learned some things and are considering some changes to better meet the needs of our readers. I would definitely recommend the process to anyone in business.”

Mirrored room used for focus groups

Mirrored room used for focus groups


Observation room for focus groups

Observation room for focus groups

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