Running Effective Customer Focus Groups


Unlike questionnaires and other forms of quantitative research, customer focus groups provide useful insights into customers' views and feelings about the service experience.  In this article from her forthcoming book, Measuring Customer Service Effectiveness, customer service specialist Sarah Cook discusses:

• The benefits of customer focus groups
• Recruiting customers to focus groups
• Tips on running customer focus groups
• Follow-up action
• New media focus groups

The benefits of customer focus groups

Customer focus groups are investigative research events where up to ten customers meet under the guidance of an expert facilitator to discuss their service experiences, their views, feelings and opinions in an open forum.

Customer focus groups are a useful way of establishing a comprehensive range of opinions on customer values, assumptions and beliefs about the service you provide as well as looking at future service offerings and improvements. They are particularly helpful amongst consumer markets and can also be used in business to business environments. (However, in some business to business environments they are not appropriate because of the potential of conflicts of interest amongst those customers attending).

Recruiting customers

It is normal practice to recruit customers for focus groups from amongst your existing customer base. Customer focus groups can also be conducted amongst lapsed users or those people who have never used your products or services.  When recruiting for a focus group it is best to include customers who represent a wide range of opinions e.g. those who are delighted, indifferent and disappointed about your service.  It is also helpful to consider whether you need to run a series of focus groups with homogeneous groups e.g. some with light users of your service, others with heavy users etc

There are three methods that are most used to recruit customers to a focus group:

1. Recruitment of customers on a volunteer basis e.g. advertising for customers via in-store posters or on the web site where appropriate.

2. Recruitment via personal invitation e.g. letter or personal invite.

3.  Recruitment via a market research agency. Often useful where the organisation does not have a physical presence in the marketplace that is accessible to all customers.

When recruiting, there are some general rules that apply:

Recruit customers three to four weeks before the expected customer focus group meeting so that they can put the date in their diary.

The optimum number of customers to recruit is 10.  Any more than this and it is difficult for people to express their opinion

Send a letter to all those attending - see example below

Expect one or two customers not to show up in advance.  It is worthwhile calling customers before the event to ensure that they are able to attend

Allow one and a half to two hours as the duration of the focus group

Select a venue that is central for customers to attend - some organisations hold customer focus groups in their own units. Other organisations hold the groups in hotels or specially fitted out focus group centres where two-way mirrors allow members of the client organisation to view the proceedings without taking part. It is also possible to video focus groups with customers' permission so that members of the organisation can see the customers expressing their opinions.

Provide refreshments. It is important that customers feel at ease throughout the session.

Select a start time that is most suitable to your customers. For example we have held business to business focus groups as 8.00 a.m. breakfast meetings, we have held focus groups at 6.30 p.m., 7 p.m. and 8.00 p.m. for consumer groups.

Offer customers an incentive for attending (at the time of writing the average incentive is £35 per person for consumer groups). Explain that you will issue this at the end of the focus group (to save paying those people who do not turn up).

Dear xxx

We are constantly striving as an organisation to improve the quality of service we provide.  As a valued customer, I am delighted to invite you to a Customer Focus Group Meeting at xxx on Tuesday 13th November at 19.00.

The purpose of the Customer Focus Group is for us to listen to your honest opinions on our service - what we do well, what we do not so well and where we can improve.

You will be joined on the evening by nine other customers.  The Focus Group will be facilitated by an independent consultant and will last approximately one hour. Refreshments will be provided.

Please return the form below in the reply paid envelope to indicate whether you are able to attend.

I hope to see you on 13th November.

Figure 1: Example of focus group letter of invitation

How many focus groups should you run?

The number of focus groups that you run will be dependent on the size of your audience and the geographical distribution of your customer base. In practice we find that once the number of focus groups reaches between 8 - 12, the same generic themes emerge, though often with regional or unit specific variations. Focus groups are a tangible way of demonstrating to customers at a local level that they and their opinions are important to the organisation. Consideration should also be given therefore to how beneficial it will potentially be to run focus groups in each location (or clusters of locations).  We have trained regional and area managers in facilitation skills for example so that they can run customer focus groups in their own and others' regions.

Running a focus group

Key to the success of a focus group is careful preparation and effective facilitation by an independent moderator.  Organisations such as my own specialise in facilitation.

It is advisable to use a neutral facilitator to run customer groups in your own area. In practice it is difficult to remain neutral when customers are commenting on an area of operation in which you are directly involved.

When preparing for the group, consider the topics you wish to cover, the running order and how much time you have. Focus groups last on average between one to two hours depending on the number of topics to be covered. 
Remember to turn up at least half an hour before the start time as some customers tend to arrive early.

Start the session with easy, non-controversial topics to get people to open up. It is better to cover general/generic issues before coming on to specifics.  Throughout the focus group the facilitator should use open questions to encourage the focus group participants to speak.

It is wise to have one or two representatives from the organisation present at the focus group meeting itself.  If there are people from the business present their role should be to meet and greet.  They then need to sit outside the group, observe and take notes.  If there are any specific questions they can speak to the relevant customer after the focus group to answer these.  Importantly representatives from the organisation must be briefed not to participate in the focus group - it is the customer's views that count!

Typical Customer Focus Group discussions centre around what is important to customers, what is going well, frustrations and annoyances and areas for improvement.  As customers who attend focus groups can sometimes be outspoken, the facilitator needs therefore to ensure that there is a balance of views and that what is going well is addressed as well as what should be improved.   This involves making sure that everyone is included and summarising regularly to show that they have actively listened.

Questions should be asked about what customers expect of the service so that the organisation understands the desired service levels.

Following up the results of focus groups

Once the focus group has finished, there are a number of actions the facilitator needs to take:

• Write up notes from the customer focus group and circulate these to the appropriate people. Include key phrases and verbatim used to express customers? feelings and mood

• Analyse the data and look for trends - break the data down into issues which need to be addressed at a unit or regional level and generic, organisational issues

• Identify at a generic level emerging themes

• If the focus group has been site specific there may well be general issues that need to be fed back to Head Office as well as improvement issues specific to the location

• Discuss and agree specific improvement actions

• If location-specific, inform members of staff about the discussion topics and the improvement actions

• Publicise the results of the focus group to customers

Video, web-based and customer to customer focus groups

The popularity of focus groups has meant that variations are now run using new media options. For example, business to business focus groups can be run using video conferencing. We have also facilitated focus groups that have been videoed with customers' permission. The subsequent film of the customer discussions was shown to employees throughout the organisation starting with the Board. The impact was dramatic. For the first time the voice of the customer was heard and seen throughout the organisation.  In many ways the visual impact of seeing customers express their views is far more powerful than reading a report or listening to taped transcripts of customer research.  The emotion expressed by customers is often a call to action to the organisation.

Likewise the web is now being used to host, albeit written versions, of customer focus groups where customers join an open forum to discuss their views.  First Direct has extended this concept. They sent out 30,000 e-mails asking their customers just what they thought about them. They received 1,061 replies. They subsequently interviewed and filmed 14 respondents. The comments from these customers formed part of their advertisements and on their web-site the same customers speak for themselves.

Another approach is to develop a community feel to your web-site so that customers become part of a loyal club.  On-line retailer has developed discussion groups on their web-site. Customers exchange tips on a range of topics such as health and fitness, careers and finances.  Their dwell- time on the site is ten times greater than that of the equivalent chat room.


Customer focus groups are an invaluable listening post. With careful planning, expert facilitation and follow up they are an insightful way of understanding the customer experience.

Sarah Cook is Managing Director of customer care specialists, Stairway Consultancy. She and her team of expert facilitators can be contacted at  01628 526535.

*Measuring Customer Service Effectiveness - published by Gower.

You may publish this article in whole or in part. The only requirement is that if in print the article must state - article by Sarah Cook, Stairway Consultancy Ltd,

If you use this article in whole or in part electronically, the requirement is that you inlcude the following code on the page:

Article by Sarah Cook of the Stairway Consultancy. Specialists in <a href="">Leadership</a>, <a href="">Customer Services</a>, <a href="">Team Building</a> and <a href="">Personal Effectiveness</a>.

The code should look like this:

Article by Sarah Cook of the Stairway Consultancy. Specialists in Leadership, Customer Services, Team Building and Personal Effectiveness.

If you do not do this you will infringe our copyright

Looking for high impact training material?

We have a wide range of Training Games, Activities, Toolkits, Books and DVDs.

Training Shop