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How to use focus groups to gain a competitive edge

Successful managers are always looking for ways of gaining and maintaining a competitive advantage over their rivals. One of the best sources of information about those advantages are your customers or clients - existing, potential, or lost - and those of your competitors. If you want to discover the views of customers so that you can transform those views into a winning edge for your organisation, you should consider using focus groups...

1. Decide on the focus for the group.

They’re called ‘focus groups’ because they allow you to assemble a select group of people to investigate a specific issue - and there are many issues to consider: customer service, product reliability, responsiveness, company image, communication, promotion, and so on.

2. Target a specific group.

Focus groups can be conducted successfully for all categories of clients or customers. Different customer groups can provide different inform-ation for you to transform later into specific actions. So consider inviting your participants according to your focus: for example, potential clients might be invited to participate in a group assembled to discuss ways that the organisation can attract new clients; or former customers could be invited to contribute so that ways the organisation can retain its customers can be identified; or current clients can identify ways to improve services.

3. Plan to maximise the group's effectiveness.

Your planning should consider:

  • Who should be invited? That often depends on the focus.
  • How many should be invited? The ideal individual group size is considered to be 7 to 9 members.
  • When is the best time for the meeting? Its duration? After work, for no longer than forty-five minutes, can be a good time.
  • Personal invitations. First contact should be by telephone, followed up with a letter or fax confirming the meeting.
  • Should employees be invited? If so, which ones? This is your choice, but the guests must outnumber staff.
  • Networking. Allow time to welcome guests and make sure they get to know one another.
  • Who will act as facilitator?
  • Seating arrangements. A round table configuration is best.
  • Refreshments. Certainly.
  • Record keeping. Arrange to have a scribe who does not participate in discussions.
  • Follow-up. Contact every participant personally to express your appreciation and to provide a brief outline of the results of the meeting.

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