Focus Groups – through the looking glass

Recently I organised a full day’s worth of focus groups, to meet with Sage Accountants’ Division customers. A chance to meet those who buy the products we write about, who receive the marketing material we send and (hopefully) read our flagship magazine – Sage exchange.

Steve Porter

A 10-hour day. 5 individual sessions. Around 50 customers in total, all of whom would probably prefer to be on billable time. I must be mad!

Me and my colleagues on one side of the 1-way glass (a little twitchy, wondering whether we were going to like what we heard), the customers sat in the plusher room and comfier chairs on the other (presumably ready to sock it to us). One plus for us though: we had wine in our fridge!

We’d hired a mediator via a local agency, the discussion guides were approved and ready to go, the first group now all sat in their chairs, intros done, the lights dimmed on our side of the glass, the final True Lies impression done by one of my co-workers, so we hit ‘record’ on the video camera.

Turns out, the sessions were extremely insightful.

Not everyone waxed lyrical about us, that’s never going to happen; but we certainly had plenty of advocates and when they came up against the odd person who disagreed, it was genuinely interesting to see people argue over the pros and cons of our work.

It’s reassuring that the majority of people want to be nice, although you’ll always have to accept that not everyone is going to say what you want to hear. Expect to see someone literally jumping around on their seat, sprouting disgruntled feedback before the mediator has even done the intros round. And why not? They’ve given up their time to be there!

Still, I know I adopted a somewhat puckered posture when someone took a pop at my magazine (labelling it “just a piece of marketing!”); and just maybe I found myself approaching the glass, climbing up on the shelf below the viewing pane, ready to flip through it.

Okay maybe I exaggerated that last point, but it does rather force you on the defensive (or attack??) when you’re not hearing a ringing endorsement of what you currently offer.

Thankfully, I remember my über-defensive stance wasn’t needed for too long, as customers started to give examples of what they genuinely liked about our products, our marketing and, thankfully, our little magazine. My arms loosened, hands slipping casually into my pockets, I stepped back from window.

10 hours and 5 sessions seems like a heck of a long day when you think it’s going to be an endless upper and downer, between smiling serenely at warm praise one minute, and then curling up in a ball the next.

But once you’ve decided mentally that you’re just going to sit and listen, take the rough with the smooth to try and form an holistic and objective summary of what customers perceptions truly are, you really do get a lot out of them.  And of course you don’t have to do 5 sessions, but the more you hear and the more you see, the more solid your interpretation is, and you’re not allowing one or two people to skew your summary either way.

Okay they may be tough at times, but I say the more focus groups the better. Blissful ignorance gets you nowhere…

Steve Porter, Sage Accountants’ Team