Research: Don't Try Strategic Planning Without Focus Groups

The parent company of a fast-food chain requires its senior executives to work in one of the restaurants for a week to learn the business first hand and get in touch with customers. For credit union management, often detached from the impact of its decisions, focus groups present a similar opportunity to reconnect with members and hear what they really think. After all, it's not the credit union that defines your brand identity; it's the perceptions of your members.

Focus groups are facilitated discussions among up to 12 homogeneous consumers, with my recommended preference of eight. They are most reliable when conducted in pairs-two distinct groups of participants with the same demographic characteristics-since similar findings from two groups must be taken seriously.

Focus groups render qualitative information-feelings, ideas and words-and bring the biggest ROI when they test ideas and concepts rather than merely seeking open-ended solutions. For example, asking participants to generate a list of 10 actions to improve service would be an overwhelming task. But testing 10 suggested improvements developed by management is an effective way to narrow down the list.

Focus groups are also a great bonding opportunity for executives who observe the proceedings from a viewing room or via real-time video. Make it an event to remember with a catered dinner, and prepare to be shocked, amused, disappointed or excited. Above all, be prepared to learn. One financial institution tested the introduction of a women's division with a focus group and learned that the women who were most interested in discrete women's services were those least likely to be profitable.

Futurist Alvin Toffler states, "The illiterate of the 21st century are not those who cannot read and write, but rather those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn." Focus groups are a unique opportunity for in-depth learning about and from the very people the institution serves. Don't try strategic planning without it.

Neil Goldman is President of Member Research. He can be reached at 310- 643-5910 or by email at ngoldman<at>memberresearch.com