In last December's issue of Advisor Today, I explained how focus groups can help you understand how your value proposition holds up in the marketplace and can assist you in developing a business built on trust. In this article, I will describe what you need to do to conduct successful focus group meetings. I learned the hard way—it's all about the details.
Step No. 1: Develop a compelling topic.
Developing a topic for a focus group is not as difficult as you may think. Chances are that your greatest business challenges could be an excellent topic for your first focus group meeting. What services can you add to improve your practice? What do your clients value the most about your services? When they refer you to someone, how do they explain your services? What would they think if you moved from commission-based to fee-based service? How can your seminars become more effective? You may not have the answers to these questions, but your clients and prospects do.
Step No. 2: Invite participants.
A well-planned invitation process is crucial to a successful focus group meeting. People who say that focus groups don't work probably failed to put time into the invitation process. You must first identify your target population by outlining the characteristics of the clients you wish to attract. Some advisors choose to invite current clients in the hope of engaging them more fully in their practice. Others choose to replace or supplement seminars with focus groups. Rather than a doing mass mailing and conducting an expensive seminar, they call the people directly and invite them to attend a smaller, more intimate discussion group. They invite only those clients or prospects who meet their criteria of a target population. Think about it—would a car company host a focus group that included people who don't drive?
When it comes to inviting people, there are no shortcuts. As a business owner desiring to improve and increase business, you have to pick up the phone and invite people. Handing this task to a disinterested assistant will not convince anyone of your interest in their opinions. When you call, be honest about what you hope to accomplish. The call can be as simple as:
"Hi, this is Dan Allison, and I own a small financial firm here in town. I am conducting a series of focus groups of about 10 to 12 parents who have college-aged children. I'd like feedback from you on some of the college-planning concepts my industry offers. Before I begin promoting the concepts, I am conducting focus groups to see what parents really think of the concepts. I am paying $50 cash for the hour and will have refreshments. Would you and your wife be willing to attend?"
This approach is simple but effective. People will pleasantly decline the offer, accept the offer or ask you to place them on a list for the next focus group meeting. A few hours of calling should yield 10 to 12 individuals in your targeted population. And it is essential to call the evening before the event to confirm attendance. This will significantly increase participation. With the proper steps in place, you can expect anywhere from an 80 percent to a 90 percent participation rate.
Step No. 3: Host the focus group.
You should hold the meeting in a place that has a professional atmosphere—an office setting is ideal. A conference room that will accommodate 10 to 12 people works well to encourage communication. If you don't have access to a conference room, use a private room at a local restaurant. The room should be set up in either a circle or a U shape. This is conducive to open discussion and keeps people from feeling as if they're attending a seminar.
When participants arrive, they should be greeted by the business owner who extended the invitation. Personally welcoming them and handing them a folder with a copy of the topics to be covered, a questionnaire, and compensation for their time will eliminate any skepticism. No marketing material should be in the folder. Remember that they are not there to be sold; they are there to participate. If they are a targeted market, you can include a few articles to read as they wait for the event to begin.
The meeting should begin with an explanation of why they are there and how the meeting will proceed. Again, honesty is essential for an effective event. You can say:
"I want to thank you for attending. My name is Dan Allison, and I spoke with you on the phone about attending this meeting. I want to begin by explaining why we are here and what we will be doing. One of my greatest challenges as a small-business owner is to stay on top of what is important to the people I serve and the people my service was designed to help.
"I will spend the first 30 minutes explaining what I feel is valuable about my firm's service and what I think sets us apart. Then, we will have some open dialogue on what is and is not valuable to you. You will not be asked to buy something today. This is not about selling you something—it is about me becoming better at what I do."
After that introduction, you can present your topic while your profiled clients take notes and ask questions. Rather than delivering a sales pitch, you can have a meaningful discussion to understand what they think about your service. Focus groups will naturally yield more business, but building a better business needs to be the purpose for the group.
After the presentation, the participants should engage in about 15 to 20 minutes of open, free-flowing dialogue. This is initial feedback on your presentation. Providing them with nametags will allow you to address everyone and pull them into the discussion. After a while, you can ask them to fill out their questionnaires.
When composing your questionnaires, remember that open-ended questions will yield the most information. Good questions include:
- Which portion of my service did you find the most compelling and why?
- Which portion of my service was not appealing and what is your suggestion for making more appealing?
- What is important to you when you choose a financial advisor?
About 10 minutes after participants begin to complete the questionnaires, the food should arrive. If you are in an office setting, pizza or sandwiches are great because your guests can take them home or stay and socialize. Serving food at the end of the session encourages participants to linger and discuss your services or their needs. And people do linger. It's during this time, as you handle questions about their specific concerns, that you can engender trust. Often a topic might be too complex to discuss in this setting, so you can suggest they arrange time to talk with you individually. At the end of the meeting, 10 to 12 prospective clients will give you their honest feedback. Or at the very least, participants will leave knowing that you are honest and concerned about providing valuable service.
Step No. 4: Follow up.
Once people have attended your focus group meetings, they can become part of your ongoing marketing efforts and future focus group meetings. If they mentioned concerns or noted unanswered questions on their questionnaires, you should follow up. Use the opportunity to continue to educate them and to add value without selling. They know you are not going to pounce on them and ask for business because you had that opportunity and did not take it. Build a reputation as an advisor who can be trusted to preserve and protect your clients' interests. Ask participants to suggest individuals who might appreciate being part of future focus groups. Past participants can sell new participants on the idea by mentioning how informative the session was. Over the years, filling up my focus groups has become easier.
Dan Allison is the founder of The Money Code, a consulting process designed to help business owners incorporate focus groups into the marketing mix. Allison coaches individuals through the process of understanding what is important to their desired client base. Contact him at 402-505-5454 or email firstname.lastname@example.org .