Read the complete discussion below or click here to listen to the podcast.
Clients can be an important source of feedback for changing and strengthening your work process, branding and marketing. Our participants share their experiences in regard to client focus groups.
Jud: This topic is has a different concept: running a client focus group. Craig, I take it for granted that you've done these focus groups?
Craig: We've not done a formal one like this before, but we just did ours a few months ago for the first time.
Jud: Bruce, do you do these focus groups?
Bruce: We did one about four years ago.
Jud: What made you think you wanted to do a focus group?
Bruce: Actually, it was a recommendation of a marketing consultant we had. She had run them for another outfit she worked with — mostly non-profits, but she made the suggestion, and we decided to go for it.
Jud: Craig, what made you decide you wanted to try this?
Craig: We wanted to deepen our understanding of what is really important to our clients — to make sure it wasn't our assumptions — and wanted to get first hand from them, after they'd gone through the process, what we did well and what we did not so well, and we could improve upon those things.
Jud: Craig, what type of set up did you have, was it done on the phone, in person, third party? What happened?
Craig: I'll go over the whole thing. We identified a group of really good key clients that we had who were really good to work with, and we wanted to get in touch with them. We printed a formal invitation, mailed it out to them and followed up with a phone call. We invited them to a local Ruth's Chris Steak House, had them on site at the restaurant for breakfast. It was a 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. event, and we included breakfast when they got there. We hired a third-party facilitator. We felt we could get more candid feedback if we weren't there. My partner, Bob Gallagher, who is also part owner, and I are so close to the business, we felt like having a third party would help. We kicked off the event and went over why they were there, our core values of the company, our goals and visions for the company, and thanked them for coming. Shortly after that, we left and left the facilitator and the scribe there to run the meeting. We had a follow-up e-mail and a follow-up meeting with the facilitator and downloaded all of the notes, outcomes, and had a debrief meeting.
Jud: How many people did you have there, Craig?
Craig: We had approximately 10 people.
Jud: Bruce, how did you set yours up?
Bruce: Our marketing consultant had run them before. We have a showroom, and we arranged a dinner. We invited six couples and found a time when they could all do it. We had catered food from a nearby caterer. I was present, and our office manager was present, but the marketing consultant facilitator, Tamara, ran the meeting. We didn't say anything; we didn't mingle with the people. We just sat there and shut up! She asked all the questions and taped the whole thing. Everyone knew that was going on. Our objective was to find out from the customers what they perceived of the company, how they view our core values, what we would be able to do better and that sort of thing. When it was over Tamara went back, transcribed the whole thing and gave us notes of the entire conversation. Also, she gave us quotes based on topics. We were actually able to get very good quotes to use in our marketing materials. It was very informative, and we should probably do another one. The people had fun, and they enjoyed meeting each other.
Jud: Bruce, Craig took a different approach from the standpoint that he didn't stay there, he left. Do you feel like you held people back at all because you were there?
Bruce: It's possible. That's very possible. But, people do open up. One person would say something and someone else would enhance that — they kind of expanded on each other. It was an amazing to listen to.
Jud: I'm not trying to get too technical here. Did you sit in the back of the room, where they couldn't see you?
Bruce: We were there, at the table. We had a long table set up with people sitting on both sides. I was sitting at the end. We were just listening and our orders were to not say a thing.
Jud: Did you prepare a list of questions ahead of time?
Bruce: Tamara did.
Jud: Craig, did you make a list of questions to start with?
Craig: We identified our goals with our facilitator, and she took the route as far as getting different information as far as the construction phase; marketing and branding, what we're doing well; additional suggestions; and things like that. We more or less hired her to facilitate and run it.
Jud: Tell us what your goals were.
Craig: Our goal was to really define our process, from the initial contact to the closeout and warranty of the project. We wanted to hear from them in their own words what their experience was like. And if there were any areas where they felt we could improve that process, and if there were things they felt we did really well, we wanted to know, to reinforce those areas also.
Jud: Bruce, what were your goals?
Bruce: What we started with was sharpening our marketing message. Also, to gather from them what they thought our strong points were and what we could do to highlight those.
Jud: Bruce, you said strengthening your marketing information. Did you do somewhat the same thing question-wise as to how production and sales went?
Bruce: We went around the table, and each person said who they were and what kind of project they did. That basically started the conversation, and opened it up for more. I'm going through the transcription now to see what else we did.
Jud: You had an idea of what you wanted to get out of them. How much of that did you achieve?
Bruce: A tremendous amount of information. Tamara summarized it for us, and preceived the general observations. Gave us the critical words that people used and focused on. It gave us some recommendations for what we could to do improve our marketing. Then gave us the broken down comments addressing areas like decision making, critical issues, the notion that we were expensive — probably a lot of discussion on that. Comments on our staff members, comments on satisfaction with the process, comments on the service, peace of mind and things like that.
Jud: Craig, what did you get out of it when it was done? Did you get to your key goals you wanted to get to?
Craig: Yes. We got a deeper understanding of our clients. We better understood what made them a raving fan and continued to build our support for our business. We also understood what was working well in our process and identified areas that weren't working very well. Ironically, it was right before the strategic 2009 planning. We were able to take that input to our board of advisors meeting and break it up by departments. We definitely got action items out of this. I felt that, going into next year, we're moving into a stronger-than-ever position in market.
Jud: Craig, you in fact did and are using that information now.
Craig: Yes. I found that by doing this advisory focus group prior to a strategic plan meeting it fit really well into taking the pieces and parts that we weren't doing so well and putting them into a work plan item for next year. Break it up into quarters, including everything from our marketing and communications to the production process and our sales and design process. It worked out really well.
Jud: Bruce, how about you? Did you, in fact use the parts and pieces?
Bruce: Yes. We created some new literature pieces and used the quotes. And we're still using them. We have some of them posted by our front door. That was the solid piece we were really able to get. We got a lot of good feedback about how our jobs run and what people are thinking about our company, which was very useful for us.
Jud: Bruce, do you feel like you have something you can measure — a result that you can measure from this in any way, shape or form?
Bruce: I don't have numbers I've applied to it; I can't say such-and-such increased by a certain amount or anything like that. In terms of achieving what we wanted, and getting good information from our customers, we definitely got that! The one thing about it, though, like Craig, we picked A+ clients. We didn't pick anyone we had issues with.
Jud: Bruce, about one comment you made. You said that one of the things that came out, you already knew or asked a question about was if you were high-priced. Do you think anything from this focus group helped you to be able to overcome that?
Bruce: It helps with your confidence level when you hear people say they know the price is high but they got good service and were pleased with the result. When you hear that you don't worry about it so much or have to defend it. You feel good about the price, people feel they're getting a good value for it. It was reinforcing for me. Here is a quote: “It's peace of mind, quality and the ability to work with them is worth the additional money. We wanted A work, and it comes with an A price”.
Jud: Craig, did you use the information?
Craig: Yes, absolutely. As you know, it was just a few months ago. We were started 20 years ago as a more or less sun room and general contractor, and transitioned into a design/build firm doing high-end kitchens and bath remodels and tops. Obviously, they noted some of the disconnects. We hired a rebranding company to look at our logo, advertising material, Web site and everything. There are other things. The one thing they said is to continue to respect the sanctity of their home. They felt that Sun Design did that really well. Also, the team approach, design, sales and construction all under the same roof was a huge benefit to them. Things they suggested were little things like the lead hazard sign off sheet for prior to 1978 homes was a little off-putting, and they wanted more explanation of what that was. Setting current expectations for wrap up of projects; setting timelines and communicating with them about the next steps. Trades in their homes being brought up to the same level as Sun Design as far as their respect for the sanctity of their homes. We send the homeowners a weekly report card and ask them to give us some feedback. Sometimes they put comments on there that we hadn't gotten back and acted on. They felt like we didn't close the loop with them; when they write comments, they want to hear back that we've heard it and that they were being addressed. And, just better communication about that. There was definitely a lot of items out of that. We'll get a lot more because of the initial things I have on there.
Jud: Have you tried to measure the results in any way?
Craig: For us it's too new. Next year probably. We just had it a few months ago. Our strategic plan for 2009 is cleared and we just finalized it a couple weeks ago. We just hired a rebranding firm last week. Some of these work plans are going into new projects going into production and design. I don't know if we'll really be able to see the results until probably six months from now or so.
Jud: It may be longer than that just because of the economy.
Jud: Craig, tell us of one specific item that you've implemented from that, in production, sales, design, or other.
Craig: The rebranding effort.
Jud: Bruce, how about you?
Bruce: We have used the quotes in our marketing pieces.
Jud: Bruce, if you had it to do over again, what would you change?
Bruce: I have a different marketing consultant. She's actually more professionally experienced in working with businesses. I would mix up the client pool a little bit. Maybe I'd come in and leave in the middle, that might be worth following up. I think the dinner format worked really well: it loosened people up. A breakfast meeting would go faster, or people are going to be more motivated to finish up. I would stay with the format. It did work well for us.
Jud: Craig, how about you?
Craig: We are going to do it again. For us, I felt this was a huge commitment for my clients, and it said a lot for them to take time out during the day and come, be open, and have this dialogue. I felt like there was not closure in that we weren't there at the end. We opened up, and we felt that was the best thing to do. Next time, we've talked about coming back in at the end, and thank them for their time. Just thank them for going out of their way to help us and support our growth. Our coming back in might put some closure to it. The other thing is travel schedules. With some of our clients, between business travel, sports, or things, we'll probably look at the time of the year we'd do it. It would allow an easier time for people to make it. I'd definitely say one thing I'd do again is make sure that it's prior to our strategic planning for the following year. There's a ton of information you get from this. There's not really a method of breaking it down, putting it into a plan, and putting it into action. I'm just afraid it would be put on the shelf.
Jud: Craig, did you give them a gift when they left, or send a thank-you or anything?
Craig: We did follow up with a thank-you. We have intentions of basically closing the feedback loop as far as communicating back to them what were the actual items we did. They would feel like they were heard, we listened to them and put into place some things from their recommendations.
Jud: Feedback is a cool idea. Bruce, did you give them a gift or anything afterwards? I know you gave them dinner.
Bruce: I don't remember. I know we thanked them for coming. Most likely we sent them a follow up letter, that would have been our style, a “Thanks for using us!”
Jud: Bruce, and you put a handle on the money it cost?
Bruce: I believe our marketing person charged us between $500 and $1,500. She did this whole thing afterwards. Going through the tape, I think she hired someone to transcribe it. Then, she took it and sorted it. It took a lot of work to create the report we got. If you'd like one, I could get you a copy of it.
Jud: Is this a $6,000 to $8,000 deal then?
Bruce: No. We probably spent a couple hundred dollars on food and beverage, and the facilitator's time. I would say $1,000 to $2,000.
Jud: Craig, can you put a dollar amount on it?
Craig: I don't remember. I will say I would put a number of approximately $3,500.
Jud: Realistically, it isn't all that bad if you stop and think about it. Craig, you said you'd want to do it again. How often do you think you should do this?
Craig: I would go with a minimum of once a year prior to our strategic plan meeting. Possibly start doing it two times a year, about every six months to get a cross-sample
Jud: How about the size of the group? Was 10 a nice number?
Craig: Ten is a good group. Whether it's five couples, or if not both parties came, maybe a couple more; but I'd say 10-12 is probably a really good group, to get a lot of feed back and really good questions.
Jud: Bruce, would you want to do it again?
Bruce: Yes, it's worth doing. It's not in our plan for this year, but I'll make note of it and imagine how we could do it again. I think it was a good exercise. I'd recommend it to anyone. I've gone to a few that were run by manufacturers. I thought it was a really good exercise.
Jud: I'm like you, I've been to the manufacturers. I've never really thought about doing it in this particular way. Your group size, did you like 12?
Bruce: I thought it was a very good number. It was balanced, there weren't too many. There were six couples, it wasn't like we had 12 individuals. I wouldn't have gone many more than that. More would have been unwieldy, I think.
Jud: Bruce, with you being there, were there any negative comments made in front of you while you were sitting there? Like, “I didn't like the electrician.”
Bruce: Nothing that stood out. If there was, it wasn't anything that had a big bomb in it. I'm capable of hearing that stuff. Tamara was trying to pull things out of people. No one said they hated the project manager or that we did not respond to something. We didn't have any of that.
Jud: Both of you had picked double-A customers, I understand that but still, occasionally. Craig, you weren't there, and received a report back. Was there anything negative in it? I'm not talking about, “we wouldn't hire them again!” Just something that didn't work well for that.
Craig: Absolutely. That was the point of having the facilitator there to keep it like a 50/50 situation. If all the clients were doing was giving positive feedback our goal was to find out from them because there's always something that could be done better. I think to have the spouses there is really nice from at least some perspective. What was or was not important is different for each spouse, even though it was the same job. One might feel like a piece of the process worked for them, but the spouse might say that another piece of the process was really important to them for the way they live. It's really good to have that dialogue, even though for the same project you're getting two different things back. We got a lot of things that we could improve upon, things they felt didn't fit our standards of quality, service, expectations, communication. That was definitely the drive for that.
Jud: Bruce, that's what I was thinking with you being there that maybe they didn't give you some of the negative feedback, but they were more than happy to tell the good parts. I can see both sides of the story. I think it would be interesting to do it both ways for both of you just to see what would happen. We've had clients send us back our questionnaires, and they would check everything as being great. Then they'd put a line down at the bottom where they'd make a comment like, “We really didn't get along well with the electrician”, or whatever. That's really the feedback we want! I'm trying to figure out why that didn't happen. Bruce have you thought about sending them something that said “we've changed our advertising program” or whatever?
Bruce: No we did not do that.
Jud: Craig, you thought that would be a big help or at least a little more of a “thank you” to prove that their help did pay off for the time they spent.
Craig: Yes. I think if there is a piece of the process that they felt could be improved, and we communicate that to them what we did in those areas, I think it would make for a stronger referral.
Jud: Craig, did you have any singles?
Craig: Yes, we did.
Jud: Did you get different responses from the singles than you did from the husband and wife teams?
Craig: I can't say for sure. Typically from what I could tell from the feedback is that the spouses had different comments. If only one spouse showed up, we got their side of it. I felt that the other spouse would have some additional comments.
Jud: Bruce, since you were there, did you have any disagreements between the husband and wife where one would say one thing and they would disagree or change it or something?
Bruce: Nothing really substantial. Maybe one of them would talk more than the other.
Jud: If we have two different personalities, for instance if you have someone who likes detail and someone who doesn't like detail, those to people can live together but when you get into this type of situation, they got into a discussion because one of them wanted all of the detail and the other one didn't care! That certainly would make a difference in the whole thing. Craig, did you say you had a showroom?
Craig: I do not. We have offices and a design center with samples and things like that and conference rooms. We don't have doors, windows, or kitchens.
Jud: The reason I asked was Bruce had his at the showroom and you had yours at a restaurant.
Jud: That's a good mix for the people who will be reading or listening to this. Is there anything else either one of you would like to ad? Craig?
Craig: Ironically, I just got an e-mail earlier today that one of our couples called just the other day to do the second phase of their project. That, in itself, could be a measurable outcome, I guess!
Jud: Bruce, anything else you can think of?
Bruce: Nothing comes to mind. I can't say that we got immediate work from it but we did get some repeat business afterwards, which is not uncommon from our customers anyway.
Jud: Craig, are you known as someone who's expensive?
Craig: We've never been beat on value!
Jud: The reason I say that. I don't think Bruce is expensive.
Craig: No, I don't either. It's the terminology and what that relates to.
Jud: You can buy cabinets from the “big white box” for less money, the same cabinet. But you don't have the service to go with it or guarantee to back it up. I think that's part of it!.