Credit: Stay

Ever wonder what customers really think about your company? Or, if they didn't buy from you, just why they didn't? Last January Bert Lebhar, president of The Atlantic Remodeling Corp., in Baltimore, decided to get answers to these questions by holding a series of focus groups.

Thomas Greenbaum, an authority on focus groups and author of The Handbook for Focus Group Research, says focus groups are "probably the single best way to talk to your current customer as well as your prospect. It's not anecdotal, it's real live questioning, in depth, that you can probe and watch happen."

Looking for Answers

Lebhar had a specific reason for using focus groups: Atlantic Remodeling had its best revenue year in 2009, but profitability was below expectations. The owner wanted to find out why. "We were looking for ways to drive bottom-line growth," he says. So Lebhar outlined the company's selling and production process, and the marketing operation that conducted the focus groups developed the questions. "We asked the people who bought from us how they heard about us, why they had us out, why they bought, and what they thought about the installers, the product, and the service department."

Lebhar says that he was "pleasantly surprised" by the amount of praise directed to company installers and the job they did. That, he says, "told us we are setting the table with our communications in terms of what to expect." And what Lebhar suspected was a weakness ? response time and response manner ? did indeed turn out to be a problem. Too much time elapsed between sale and installation and there wasn't enough company communication in between. Another realization, Lebhar says, was that "we weren't sounding the way we should on the phone." He says he realized he needed to hire someone ? a customer service rep or an external operations manager ? to serve as a liaison between customers and the company and between the company and its suppliers.

"People make mistakes," Lebhar says, "and we try to learn from them and try to make them right."

Focus-Group Success

Greenbaum offers these suggestions for successful focus groups:

  • Have a professional conduct your focus group. Any focus group you do on your company is pretty much worthless because you can't be objective and the group won't be forthcoming.
  • There is no licensing requirement when it comes to focus groups, so do your research before hiring someone to conduct your group. Make sure they are experienced and have a track record to prove it.
  • Screen for the type of people you want, based on demographics, head(s) of household, income levels, end user, etc. Plan for the kind of meeting you are going to have and distribute an outline so everyone in the session knows what you want to talk about and for approximately how long.
  • Never hold just one focus group. A minimum of two groups is necessary to begin getting a sense of what you're doing right or wrong and, Greenbaum says, a typical focus group project uses four groups."Market research is a kind of insurance," he says. "The more you do, the better the information you have and the better decisions you'll make as a business owner."