What is a customer focus group?

A week ago, at this exact time, I was in Toronto facilitating an advisory board with a group of medical advisors.

Outside my industry, these sessions are better known as customer focus groups or consulting panels. When properly designed, developed and delivered, these meetings can produce valuable insights about the behavior, attitudes, work methods and preferences of a company's target audience.

The Business Development Bank of Canada says it best - advisory boards are an untapped resource. And every business should have an advisory board. Both newly marketed and mature products can derive a benefit.

Some of my clients prefer to run their own meetings with back end support to design the meeting and to develop content. Engaging the group and allowing time for extensive interactions are two imperatives. Break-outs, plenary discussions, diads, triads and gallery walks are just some of the techniques to build momentum.

Other clients like to be observers at their own meetings, preferring to sit back and be entirely focused on the discussions (rather than feel pressure to prompt their key clients or lead the groups in dialogue).

In both cases, an external meeting facilitator is a great resource for leveraging some of the hot buttons and teasing out insights at every opportunity.

As a professionally trained facilitator, I approach every meeting as a neutral party - clinically detached from the subject and from the meeting outcomes. That may seem harsh or counter-intuitive. It's actually not.

A facilitator should never be biased nor partial to any one particular outcome. It is vital that a facilitator set aside any personal opinions or connections to the subject matter.

As a professional, I can do all that. Admittedly, it has sometimes been very challenging.

I have run almost a hundred sessions over the last 10 years. My most difficult (potentially emotional) mandates stand out among all others:

  1. A discussion panel with the oldest known survivors of a previously fatal illness (the oldest participant in the room was 21 years old)

  2. A patient focus group for persons with early-stage Alzheimer's and their care givers (the youngest patient had been diagnosed at age 35)

  3. An advisory board with medical oncologists discussing the challenges of finding the right combination of life saving chemotherapy amidst options that are not even available in this country (their private torment was almost palpable)

When meeting with medical specialists, my job is to encourage them to be candid about their treatment algorithms, therapeutic approaches and novel experiences - any information that can help my clients to understand the evolving realities of the healthcare sector.

When hired to facilitate, I leave nothing to chance. I study. I prepare. I interview subject matter experts way beforehand - sometimes as much as 6 months before the meeting happens. I allow myself to ask a range of questions from basic to complex. I prepare a complete session guide the likes of which my clients have rarely seen anywhere else.

I give credit to training I received from a graduate level research methods course with Sébastien Dallaire of Ipsos Public Affairs.

I was also fortunate enough to attend a rigorous certification program with Sixsense Strategy Group, an agency with whom I am affiliated since 2013. With offices in Toronto and Boston, SSG works with pharmaceutical and biotech companies around the world.

You may have seen their recent postings on LinkedIn. The latest one is about getting more out of advisory boards - when process doesn't match the outcomes.

If you have not seen their white paper on industry advisory boards, it would be worthwhile to request it. It's quite an interesting and provocative read.

What are some of your tips and tricks for meeting facilitation? Are you getting the outcomes you need?

Happy Friday!

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