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Researcher Rebecca Titman monitors two-year-old Jakeson Bowlby as he undergoes a free viewing exercise designed to assess brain function at Hotel Dieu Hospital in Kingston, Ont. April 21, 2010.
Researcher Rebecca Titman monitors two-year-old Jakeson Bowlby as he undergoes a free viewing exercise designed to assess brain function at Hotel Dieu Hospital in Kingston, Ont. April 21, 2010.

Grow: Mark Healy

The right time to deploy focus groups Add to ...

In my business, the pendulum swings from year to year when it comes to how clients want to approach growth problems.

In 2010 it was all about maximizing revenue through pricing and product design decisions, supported by deep quantitative approaches. Pricing is still a hot topic, though more clients want to build bundles with quantitative work, then test them, and explore other growth issues in focus groups.

I have written about the advantages and drawbacks of quantitative research – namely surveys. As with qualitative research, there are situations that call for this type of approach, and proven techniques to carry out the research, which is particularly the case for focus groups.

When should focus groups be deployed?

There are a few ways to think about the question. The first is the business problem, not the research problem, under consideration.

If customer feedback is sought and the problem is technical – such as how to package components to produce a product consumers want – or quite straightforward, such as whether to go to market with option A or option B, quantitative research is likely to play a big role in the overall solution effort.

If the problem is more conceptual – such as a branding or a customer experience issue – or quite nuanced, such as behaviour-based decision making, then qualitative research should be emphasized.

Good customer research follows a sequential qualitative-quantitative-qualitative process. Qualitative research could be somewhat unstructured and close to the customer or transaction (such as intercepting customers in a store), or more formal (focus groups) at the start.

That data informs a survey, and then curious results from the survey, or areas to explore further, are pursued on the back end, in focus groups. The point in the problem-solving sequence is important in deciding whether or not to employ focus groups.

A final way to think about their appropriateness is to consider the speed-specificity tradeoff. Quantitative research almost inevitably leads to greater specificity, but it can take six to 12 weeks to execute, while qualitative research typically yields directional or reactionary results, and it can be executed in three to six weeks.

How to maximize the return on focus groups

Once a decision has been made to pursue focus groups, either as part of a larger research and consulting exercise or as a stand-alone effort, some care should be taken to ensure the groups will lead to meaningful insights.

A baseline step is to double-check the problem type, the specificity required and that the problem-solving sequence timing is appropriate. If not, it is worth stepping back and re-evaluating the approach.

MAY 3: The three Ps of focus groups: participants, preparation and performance. Look for it on the Your Business website.

Special to The Globe and Mail

Mark Healy, P.Eng, MBA, is a partner at Satov Consultants – a management consultancy with practice areas in corporate strategy, customer strategy and operations strategy. Mark’s focus areas inside the customer strategy practice include consumer insights, customer experience, innovation and go-to-market strategy. He is a regular speaker and media contributor on topics ranging from marketing to strategy, in telecom, retail and other sectors. Mark is known as much for his penchant for loud socks and a healthy NFL football obsession as he is for his commitment to Ivey and recent Ivey grads. He currently serves as chair of the Ivey Alumni Association board of directors. Mark lives with his wife Charlotte and their bulldog McDuff in Toronto.

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Follow on Twitter: @healymark

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