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Don’t Do It! You Can’t Replace Buyer Interviews with Focus Group Panels

Focus Group Panels are Great and All, But They Don’t Get the Full Story

We recently chatted with a prospective client who said that they do their own win/loss and churn analysis in-house. Great! They told us that they see the value in hiring a third party as an additional source of honest customer feedback. Even better! They then said that they were considering doing focus group panels as an alternative, to which we felt a pang of discontent. While there is no refuting the benefits of having focus group discussions with buyers, there is a firm argument against it being an alternative to win/loss buyer interviews. The two research methods are very different.

Buyer Mindset versus Group Mindset

Every buyer is unique. When we talk to buyers, we want their full story. We don’t want the summarized version or the version that gets diluted by another’s input, to which we average out what the overall buyer experience must look like. We want to know the specific experience of the individual buyer.

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In a focus group setting, sure, you get individual input. Everyone contributes to the group discussion to some varying degree. However, how much detail are you getting from every contributor? Maybe a few sentences? Maybe a lot more, if that person is content with taking the spotlight for an extended period of time. Others sit and listen, some nodding their heads, while they are steered in a direction that they themselves might not have wanted to go. Some are thinking, “Why are we talking about this? I have no idea how we got here. I’ll just smile to make it seem as though I’m in total agreement…” 

Think back to a time when you were involved in a focus group. How much did you speak up? To what extent did you feel you were able to fully reveal your own insights on the topic at hand? Focus groups are great for getting a lot of information from a fairly large group of people at once. They’re not so great for gathering particular insights on individuals’ experiences and reflecting on those experiences. Focus groups aren’t meant to tap the individual mindset; they’re meant to tap insights at large.

Want to Know Your Buyer? Then Get to Know Your Buyer

It sounds facetious, but I’m serious. If you want to understand your buyer’s behavior, you need to talk to that particular buyer. Not all buyers are the same. They may share similarities, experience similar problems, and choose similar products, but they all have their own individual factors that impact their buying decisions. Clumping them into one big data set works in some cases, but if you want to know your buyer, you need to listen and get to know the individual – who they are, what their role is, what their challenges are, what fundamental change they are trying to achieve at their organization, what they care about, and so on. You need to talk to and understand the real evaluator of your product/service, the one who made the actual decision.

Speaking with the actual buyer means you aren’t talking about hypothetical assessments of messaging or concepts. You’re talking about the product or service that was right in front of them, and why they chose in favor or against it.

When speaking with buyers in this way, you get a raw, unfiltered story of what actually happened in that buying decision: what they actually thought of you, your salespeople, your service, your brand, and how you measure up compared to your competitors – all the gory details. You simply don’t get that kind of detail when you run group panels, try as you may. 

Nothing Against Focus Groups, Per Se

Don’t get me wrong, I understand and fully respect that focus groups play a significant role in research. I myself have conducted and taken part in many focus groups over my career. My point is that focus groups do not replace the individual interview. They perhaps come later down the pipe, once you have identified the themes and trends emerging from your individual buyers, and want to take it to a different level. But if you want the buyer’s perspective on their buying decision, you need to understand the buyer’s mindset specifically. Get the story right, then get a group together later.

Buyer interviews and focus group panels. View them as supplemental to one another, if you will. But focus groups do not replace the buyer interview for win/loss and churn analysis.

Do you disagree? We’d love to hear your thoughts!

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