Hadley Associates, Inc - Business Consultants

--- Conducting Focus Groups ---

- Getting Customer Input and Feedback -

Getting "decision-making" information is greatly improved with the use of "customer focus groups" whether they are your end-use customers or distributors.

New Product Development - A Success Story

Hadley Associates recently completed three focus groups in the new home construction industry for a major new construction vinyl window manufacturer. The effort resulted in accomplishing significant results. The client had four objectives:

  • Define the ideal product line for the New England market
  • Use market feedback to change an imbalance in production capacity
  • Test the feasibility of upgrading to a premium product line
  • Understand how distributors made product selection decisions

The client was immediately impacted with the results during the first group's discussion. Management saw the advantage of getting customer input into product planning to resolve their manufacturing capacity issue. The window manufacturer was able to develop both the product specifications and customer features for the upgraded line by asking basic questions, listening and then seeking clarification.

The use of visual models allowed homebuilders and building material salesmen to see the features of a premium product line as the footprint for future product development. Touching, feeling and critiquing current products made all the difference in understanding how the building trade made decisions about new construction vinyl windows.

The second group focused on physical features. The participants concluded that the opportunity for vinyl windows "option kits" was significant. It would allow the builder to create unique designs and without changing the selection of the basic premium vinyl window. In other words, builders told the client how to turn a commodity item into a valued-added product line.

The third focus group helped the client learn that a "window protector" made of scrap material was a tremendous tool for drywall contractors. Another participant said, "Your product looks too new; homeowners want products that look like they have been around for a while." This "out-of-the-blue" statement caused the client to question their design approach. The ease-of-maintenance was an important buying factor, but colonial aesthetics was a design consideration. Blended together with maintenance-free, the window manufacturer could be in an ideal position with a multi-functional product line.

Customer Services - More Positive Results

Hadley Associates completed a series of focus groups for vinyl-clad wood window manufacturer. The first focus group was composed of ten distributors dealing new product development questions, the second discussed product preferences and the third dealt with negative customer service ratings from the $50.0mm multi-location building products customer. Selected results were:

  • Distributors did not want a new product line to be introduced at the national homebuilders show; distributors simply wanted very specific product improvements to the current line. As a result:
    • The manufacturer changed their strategy
    • The new product launch was postponed
    • Engineering quickly improved the current line
    • Marketing identified 20% in "new sales" growth

  • A multi-location distributor rated the client 12th in Customer Service, but the client ranked 3rd in vendor purchases. The focus group uncovered a number of resolvable issues, including ease-of-order-entry, custom order lead-time, field service calls procedures, shipping damage and response time on quotes. Results included:
    • Universal order form was developed
    • Electronic order entry and confirmation was instituted
    • Protective packaging added on the sku representing 70% of the claims
    • Location and print size of sku codes were changed on shipping cartons
    • Developed a product catalog of lines available to the distributor

In another assignment, the largest distributor of a wood window manufacturer organized a joint focus group with their window supplier and twelve new construction builders; results were:

  • Builders described the "best practices" for window door and accessories deliveries at the construction sites resulting in:
    • Manufacturer developed a "quick-ship" delivery program
    • Modified labels on "non-standard dimension" windows
    • Warehousing management system to assigned order location
    • Separate ship schedule for window and trim accessories
  • Entry door millwork issues arose that presented additional opportunities for the distributors, resulting in:
    • Integrated supplier relationship program
    • Expanded "selected" inventory coverage
    • Special millwork package for door-window entry systems
    • Trim kits developed to solve onsite issues
    • Four day turnaround time for fabricated entry systems

Using Focus Groups Effectively - What To Do

Focus groups are managed like any other project; they require defining the objectives, creating a work plan, conducting the group discussions and, most important, completing insightful analysis and developing recommendations. There are several lessons-learned, namely:

  • Complete detailed background research on what you need to learn from the groups. The facilitator must understand the group participants to be able to draw out the essential information the client needs to learn and understand.

  • Involve the end-user in the design of the group so he/she can verbalize and visualize success. This is an opportunity to expose the end-user to the process and to discuss what they should expect.

  • The physical layout needs to encourage participants to feel free to express themselves and interact with each other. Free dialogue starts with the arrangement of chairs and tables. Assigned seating with first-name tags can encourage discussions.

  • Follow-up a week after the event allows the facilitator time to think over what he/she experienced and to draw better conclusions. It is important to leave a period-of-time for the wonderment of focus groups to wear off.

Consulting Suggestions - Creating an Advantage

Focus groups will uncover underlining thoughts, preferences and perceptions that never come from quantitative studies and surveys. The dialogue with participants, while limited to just a few hours, is still essential to understanding the market place and the motivation to change behavior. With these types of discussions, you can often increase your customers' level-of-expectations.

Group facilitators, like Hadley Associates, know how to uncover market data to help clients achieve their objectives. Information is a strategic advantage, but you have to have that knowledge, insight and know-how to develop appropriate strategies and programs.

Drew Hill, the principal consultant of Hadley Associates, is a Certified Focus Group Director (CFGD); he has made a significant commitment to professional training and development. He has over fifteen years of extensive experience in facilitating "in-house" groups and "customer focus groups". Focus groups facilitated include automotive parts, building materials, welding products, pet supplies and host of other products and services.

In addition to facilitating focus groups, Hadley Associates is experienced in integrating customer requirements into the strategic planning process, market management and coaching managers during implementation. We are available to assist you, whether facilitating the discussion groups or assisting you learn to facilitate yourself.

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