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“One of the most important jobs for the owner is to be constantly getting input and feedback on how to improve your products and services,” he said. “You must have an ongoing dialogue.”
To help achieve this goal, owners can turn to focus groups. Focus groups allow you to discover new ideas, improve your marketing and learn more about what your existing customers (and potential new ones) want.
Experts share how best to conduct a focus group and how it could benefit your small business.
Hiring a professional
Owners have two choices: They can go with a professional company that specializes in focus groups or do it themselves.
“Professional moderators can help you develop a discussion guide and are skilled in leading focus group discussions that avoid ‘group think’ and get the most out of each respondent,” said Sarah Faulkner, a consumer research specialist and principal of Faulkner Strategic Consulting in Cold Springs, Kentucky. “They can also help small business owners interpret the answers and learning, using their professional experience to go beyond surface responses.”
In addition, a professional researcher can help determine the right type of people to talk to and design a screening survey to identify high-quality respondents, she said.
However, at approximately $18,000 to $20,000 a day (this usually includes several sessions and a facility rental fee), formal sessions can be cost-prohibitive for some small businesses, said Mattimore, who has moderated more than 500 focus groups.
“Some focus group facilities are willing to do just the recruiting for you (and send the participants to your HQ or store location for the focus group), although they don’t like this because they make money on their facility rental,” said Mattimore.
DIY focus groups
To bypass recruiting participants professionally, owners can leverage existing customers as focus group respondents, said Faulkner. “Who better to give you feedback on your business than your own customers?”
Lenique Louis, who runs a small jewelry company in London, England, frequently conducts focus groups among her customers, using her store’s newsletter to get the word out. To sweeten the deal and get people interested in dedicating a few hours of their time, she offers a goodie bag with a 20 percent off coupon, jewelry cleaner, a cupcake and a branded velvet jewelry bag.
“It’s a long session, so we want to make sure we thank them,” she said. While there, customers enjoy food and wine, “so they can let their hair down and give us some honest, real feedback,” said Louis.
Even dubbing it “a party” and serving pizza creates an atmosphere for a productive conversation, noted Mattimore.
What questions to ask?
Once you have the group together, start broad with your questions — seek to understand the customer’s life and how your products or services fit into it, said Faulkner.
Ask open-ended questions rather than yes-or-no ones, Mattimore advised. For example, don’t say, “Is this priced right?” Instead inquire, “How do you feel about the pricing?”
Then, you can gradually drill down to more specific questions. This stepwise approach gives you the context in which to understand the answers and may generate new questions you didn’t think of in advance.
“Remember, you are there to learn, not to sell,” advised Faulkner. “Don’t try to explain or defend if you get negative feedback. Instead, stay open-minded and try to understand it so you can learn from it and improve.”
Also, make sure the respondents don’t just say what you want to hear, she said. Tell them there are no right or wrong answers. You just want their honest opinions.
“When I receive negative feedback, I try not to take it personally,” said Louis. “With focus groups, you’re going to hear the good and the bad. I want them to lay everything on the table.”
If you’re concerned your participation may make participants uncomfortable or create bias, you could have an employee or a trusted friend conduct the session and pass along the crucial notes, said Mattimore.
“This is all about learning,” he stressed, “not validation.”