Here are our top tips for hosting a useful and rewarding customer focus group.
1. Identify a clear objective
Before arranging a customer focus group, write a concise summary of what you hope to achieve. Your goal should be specific and clearly defined. A vague interest in ‘finding out more about customers’ is not going to yield actionable data.
Reach out to colleagues and other departments to crowd-source useful topics and lines of enquiry. The output of the focus group should be there to guide company policy as opposed to merely reinforcing your own ideas.
2. Arrange a diverse group of participants
The broader the range of people you speak to, the broader the range of experiences they bring with them. The group should be reflective of the customers you have or the customers you are trying to get.
Ideally, your group will include people who have previously complained about your product or service. Not only will they have particular insight into how you can improve, it gives you an outreach opportunity to change their mind about the business.
If you simply accept the first dozen people who show an interest, you will not get a representative viewpoint.
“Look at the demographics to make sure you have representation from everyone within your customer base – this includes people with special needs, and customers who have previously complained about your service.” – With thanks to Tracy Macey.
3. Set the tone at the start of the session
You will need to develop some ground rules and communicate these to your participants. Issues of confidentiality are one example, as well as some expectations around conduct towards one another.
It should also be understood that the group does not need to sing your company’s praises unless that is genuinely their opinion. Likewise, they shouldn’t worry about being too critical, as that is helpful as well. Stress that you are only interested in their honest responses, whatever these may be.
Basic housekeeping should also be covered at the start of the session, with regard to the length of the session, taking breaks, and providing refreshments.
4. Supply the questions, not the answers
The questions you ask should be simple, open-ended, and non-leading. Imagine two scenarios: in the first, a participant tells you that your product is the best in the industry. That’s clearly fabulous feedback.
Now imagine a second scenario: you directly ask participants if your product is the best in the industry. If any of them say yes, can you be sure that that is really their opinion? Or have you led them to that idea?
When you pose a question, give people time to answer. Don’t rush to fill the silence or finish their sentences; make sure you probe fully, and don’t assume you know the motivation for their opinion.
“As facilitator you are there to listen, understand, guide and enable. It’s definitely not about forcing your views on the group.” – With thanks to Jason Bartram
5. Make participants comfortable
When your contributors are at ease they will be more able to hold the kind of fruitful conversation you are looking for. Factor in time for the group to chat before the session starts.
When you want to get going, don’t start too suddenly; give them five minutes’ warning to get settled or go to the bathroom, and remove distractions like mobile phones.
Once you get started, go round the table and have everyone introduce themselves. Name labels will make it easier for you to keep track and will help to form a group identity more quickly. An icebreaker activity will also help them feel a little less inhibited.
Ultimately, you need to create an environment that is conducive to conversation. Participants should be able to see one another clearly, see you clearly, and be able to write down thoughts they might return to later.
“I find it really helps to do the session in places where you can’t hide, so move the desks away and sit in a circle. This encourages openness and participation, like a lot of counselling sessions do.” – With thanks to David Petrie
6. Don’t overwhelm your participants
When you are asking questions, start simple. You don’t want to put anyone off or make them feel like their experiences are not relevant.
Organise your questioning so that the beginning of the session is the most simple, and use easy questions as a warm up. The more sensitive or complex questions need to be saved until near the end, after group dynamics and rapport have been established.
Go over your questions before the session and check them for jargon or terms that may be unfamiliar to your audience. You might need to find different ways to frame your questions, so come up with a few variations on each one in advance.
7. Get everyone to contribute
Whatever steps you take, there will always be some people in your group who are more talkative than others. You can draw from that energy and enthusiasm, but remember that the point of a focus group is to get the mixed experiences of several people.
Try not to let a minority run the conversation. If some people are less comfortable jumping in, address them directly.
If you have difficulty with one especially dominant personality, avoid eye contact with them when you need to get other members’ opinions.
To get the most diverse set of data you can, aim to ensure that everyone has fun. Pay attention to body language and other non-verbal signals of boredom or frustration.
“It is essential that you get everyone to take part; neutralise the ‘discussion hog’ or disruptive participant. It is the facilitator’s job to ensure that nobody dominates the discussion or ‘shouts down’ others.” – With thanks to Ken Norman
8. Keep the conversation on topic
If you manage to get the group working well together, they will talk without much prompting. This is a mark of success, but it will only yield useful data if their conversation is relevant to your topic.
This may come down to a spur-of-the-moment judgement call. A conversation that moves in an expected direction might nonetheless find fertile territory that you want to explore further.
Be polite and authoritative with your guests; it’s important to be a confident presence, because nervousness and lack of direction can put them off.
Here are a few tips for getting a conversation back on track:
- Ask an individual to expand on a point they made earlier
- Take a poll on a particular subject
- Start an activity you have prepared in advance
9. Effectively capture your findings
The conversations your group have are only as good as the lessons you take from them. Recording the meeting and creating a transcript can be very useful, enabling you to study the session in detail and locate keywords.
The group leader should take notes to inform how they structure the session. It may be helpful to have another colleague taking more detailed notes on the key sentiments and how they were introduced.
After the session you’ll want to find out what participants agreed on, where they differed, and whether any opinions shifted over the course of the conversation.
Don’t forget, you’re not just performing an audit of the contributions, but also of the session itself, in order to improve your approach in future focus groups.
10. Harvest final reflections at the end of the session
End the session by asking each person in turn for their reflections, but try to be specific; a vague question will solicit a vague answer. You might want to take note of an opinion an individual held at the start of the session and ask them if they still hold that opinion at the end.
You should always finish on a positive note, especially if some of the exchanges got heated. Invite any further questions your group might have regarding how you will use their input, and reaffirm your position on confidentiality.
If your company is planning to host further focus groups, it will certainly be a good idea to hand out a questionnaire. You can then shape future meetings with the feedback you get.
Finally, hand out whatever incentive you had arranged and thank them for their participation.
With thanks to:
- David Petrie – Leadership Performance Coach at Towergate Insurance
- Tracy Macey – Head of P&L at Smart Labs
- Ken Norman – Director at Present3r Ltd.
- Jason Bartram – Head of Resource Planning at Ombudsman Services