Practice Management

Bring your practice into focus

Insights from a frank and unguarded discussion among your top clients can be helpful

Jan 16, 2011 @ 12:01 am

Want to find out what really is on your best clients' minds? Can their ideas improve your business?

Sometimes the best way to find out is just to ask.

In addition to listening intently to what clients say in one-on-one meetings, a great vehicle for gathering valuable client input is to conduct a focus group.

When conducted well, a focus group increases clients' satisfaction, because participants feel that they have been given a more powerful opportunity to be heard. Financial advisers find that in addition to the suggestions that participants offer, focus group attendees usually develop a stronger bond with their advisers, resulting in more referrals.

STEPS TO TAKE

Here are six steps to conducting a successful focus group:

Develop a strategy. Have an idea of what you want to get from your research. What do you wish your clients would tell you? For example, if your firm has a client retention problem, questions should be about the service provided, communications and the way that you and your staff conduct business.

Select attendees. Determine who will be invited. Should it be your best clients, new clients, clients who are the most likely to leave or some other group? Although you want to encourage a diversity of opinions, including negative ones, just remember that there is truth to the old saying that one bad apple can ruin the bunch. Don't invite any of your perennially angry or negative clients, who are likely to sour the air for everyone. Limiting the group to eight to 10 clients works best, giving everyone a chance to participate.

Use a facilitator. The best focus groups are led by an independent third party. Sure, advisers can conduct a focus group themselves, but the truth is that clients are more likely to share their views freely with someone impartial whom they don't know. That person should ask both qualitative and quantitative questions such as, “What do you think of the service?” and, “Can you rate the service on a scale of 1 to 5?” The facilitator should never goad participants into responses. Leading questions, such as, “Do you think the service is great?” for example, typically elicit more positive responses than a question that is neutral, such as, “Can you tell me how you feel about the firm's service?”

Determine a budget. A focus group can be conducted for a few hundred dollars if done in-house, but it is better to hire a facilitator or research firm. Invitations, coordination, the formulation of questions, refreshments, meals, off-site meeting space, data analysis and thank-you gifts all together can cost a few thousand dollars — quite modest when compared with other marketing or client appreciation expenses.

Make it comfortable. Create a relaxed environment. A roomy conference room works best, and it is wise not to use a room at a market research facility that has one-way mirrors, which make participants feel as if Big Brother is watching. Video recorders can help capture the information, but some individuals may be hesitant about being taped. Fewer people object to audio recordings. It is often helpful to have someone in addition to the facilitator in the room to take notes, as well as to monitor participants' facial expressions and body language.

Analyze the responses. After the focus group, the facilitator or his or her company should analyze the data and create reports on what took place. Because we often hear what we want to hear, it is best for advisers to use a neutral party's analysis and findings before drawing conclusions from the focus group responses. Once an action plan is developed, based on the final focus group report, the results should be shared with those clients who participated in the group to let them know that their voices had been heard. Also, invite them to continue to express their views in future one-on-one meetings. Finally, update clients about when changes are made that came as a result of the feedback gathered at the focus group — thanking them every step of the way.

A final thought: When conducting focus groups, it is important for advisers to be open-minded. Too often, advisers think that operational logistics are what matter to clients.

They are surprised to find that relationship aspects are what count most.

Mike Byrnes helps advisers with business planning, marketing strategy, development, client service and management effectiveness as president of Byrnes Consulting LLC. He can be reached at mike@byrnesconsulting.com.

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