Are focus groups misused?

The eidetic process may be a better alternative

By James A. Schauer, F.C.Inst.M.

Much customer satisfaction monitoring isn't working as many business organizations that have become "customer-focused" also engage in marketing research, largely to determine their (often self-serving) customers' satisfaction levels. Yet in a 1997 study, the Juran Institute revealed that fewer than 30% of top managers believed that their customer satisfaction efforts had contributed any economic value to their corporations. An even stronger statement made in a recent Forum study indicated that "barely 10% of organizations studied actually use customer survey findings to make management decisions," and "most customer research never benefits customers." 1

This is the result of death-wish marketing. Marketing professionals know that holistic marketing outcomes are virtually impossible when nothing is known about customers, and that meaningful feedback is critical to support any system of marketing processes aimed at "identifying, anticipating and satisfying customer requirements profitably." In today's dynamic market environment it is also no longer good enough just to be customer-focused. The most successful companies have already learned that customers are often the first to spot changes in competitive product and service offerings, and adapt their value perceptions and expectations accordingly.

The ultimate goal of marketing research is for marketing managers to understand customers' changing perceptions, expectations and buying behavior as well as their competition. That is, why do people do things or buy certain things and not others? Yet many companies using satisfaction surveys to learn how happy their customers are, ask the wrong questions to begin with. What matters most is not how satisfied customers say they are, but how this satisfaction relates to their expectations and whether the values they perceive to have received will keep them loyal. These relational metrics of customer behavior are often the missing measures.

Satisfaction surveys suffer in several ways. First, conventional marketing research assumes that people can clearly articulate their needs, motivations, value and expectations. However, we know that consumers don't always choose rationally and research that forces rational answers must then also be flawed. Second, in many organizations self-serving satisfaction scores have become an end in themselves. These scores mean nothing if the impact of satisfaction is not linked to purchases from loyal customers and profits.2 Third, satisfaction levels are rarely related to customer or end users' initial expectations or their value perceptions.

Holistic marketing success requires an integrated feedback system that links customer and user-derived feedback to all organizational units and the corporate bottom line. It is like operating a jet transport; feedback from dozens of instruments covering all sub-systems provides the basis for systematic monitoring of progress towards the desired destination. While this system allows for unexpected changes, there is no single feedback source for managing the entire operation. Paradoxically, many managers of equally or more complex marketing programs are fooled into believing that feedback from a single source can meet all their needs.

A serious fallacy is the widespread belief that focus group interviews are a serious research tool which can be safely used to make serious marketing decisions. As part of the research continuum, focus groups are indeed an excellent first step for focusing (and little else) to learn about marketing issues from a customer perspective. Their qualitative output then provides the basis for quantitative surveys, to determine the meaning and significance of identified issues, which must involve sampling. But when this first step becomes the only step, it's not just a symptom of death-wish marketing, it could even, in some cases, be professional malpractice.3

Due to the seductive image of "being seen to be listening to the public" the popularity of focus groups has grown at an alarming rate, with preposterous misuse occurring in several areas:

1. As a cheap alternative to quantitative research;

2. To produce data that they are not intended to generate;

3. Using more focus groups than necessary;

4. Unnecessarily conducting groups in different locations.

Unfortunately focus groups cannot replace other, generally more expensive, more reliable quantitative research techniques. Not only are results unstable, they are not representative of any marketplace segment. The apparently low cost is also a popular myth. Since only one group member (out of eight or ten) speaks at any time, the true value is reduced to under 10%, especially when the "echoes from instant experts" are considered. A trained moderator can boost this value considerably; but many are not trained and different "moderators" often interpret the same group differently. Research into why people participate and how this affects their attitudes, revealed that "payment received" is most important to 45%, and the "opportunity to be heard by companies" for 35% of participants.4

Several studies indicate that almost 70% of satisfied customers are also not loyal. To change this, marketers need to know: What do customers really want, how, and what are their expectations to begin with? Customers' buying decisions are now largely affected by perceived value a function of quality, competitive price and customer service. For any business wanting to increase loyalty among its preferred customers and profits, it is essential to discover how to deliver superior customer value.

The feedback benefits are obvious. As customers continue to support a particular business and buy its products and services, their value to the company also grows progressively. Beyond increasing their own spending, added revenues accrue from new customers referred by loyal customers at virtually no extra cost, with further benefits from savings in promotion costs.

The Eidetic Process

While manufacturers have always measured results relative to customers’ needs, this was largely done from an internal perspective.5 This practice holds few problems when customers can see, touch and test goods before deciding to purchase. However, this advantage is more complex for services, where seemingly immeasurable human emotions like customers’ expectations, perceptions of value, quality, reliability and empathy play a significant role in reaching buying decisions.

The little-known eidetic motivational research process was developed to provide quantitative measures of psychological (visual and affective), as well as rationalized (verbal and numerical) meanings and management information. Designed to identify real needs and motivational patterns, the process also outlines strategies to address these needs effectively and efficiently. As such, it also addresses the issue of “missing measures” referred to earlier.

The process combines Socratic open-ended questioning with eidetic visual images, to draw out the essence of verbal and visual preferences, strengths and motivations from within people. A key concept of the eidetic process is its rigorous preservation of participants’ perceptions, keeping them as much as possible intact, despite the intrusion of the research event; in other words, reducing the impact of bias to an absolute minimum.6

Socratic questioning or learning, originated by Socrates, the Greek philosopher, involves “asking a series of easily answered, simple questions that inevitably lead the respondent to a logical conclusion.” This method is enjoying a revival in European corporations keen to change their corporate cultures, where it is already used to unlock employees’ and customers’ tacit knowledge and expertise, so that they can pass it on to other workers. To make that tacit knowledge really explicit, it is necessary to exchange it with others. The process has been particularly effective in “destroying comfortable assumptions of corporate managers.”7

Unlike focus groups where only one person contributes at a time, influencing opinions of subsequent speakers, the eidetic research process uses simultaneous silent personal interviews with no discussion allowed among participants. To draw out critical intuitive information, the process employs a combination of verbal and visual responses.

For accessing respondents’ intuitive (right-brain) thinking, the eidetic process uses visual images for the purposes of “precall” (pre-existing mental imagery associated with leadership, vision issues, and services), as well as visual “recall” of newly introduced visual or conceptual stimuli. This application draws on the virtually “lost” human capability of eidetic imagery, the ability to maintain a strong, full-colour visual image and recall it in detail for long periods afterwards. A unique asset in using eidetic imagery in market research is that respondents can identify colours, shapes and issues that are particularly useful in directing advertising and promotion programs, rather than rely on the graphic artist’s perspective alone.

There is no right way to do wrong things. Today’s widespread transformation of organizations, “doing better with less,” comes with some hidden costs. While the requirement for customer satisfaction and loyalty will continue, pressures on remaining employees will grow, leading to stress-related symptoms and risking a general decline in competitive values. The eidetic process lends itself particularly well for identifying these growing gaps in value perception within organizations long before they become marketing problems.

Jim Schauer draws on over three decades experience as a marketing professional, providing leadership in customer service and quality improvement. For most of this time he was engaged in the delivery of financial services, international travel and tourism, the introduction of new services to expanding markets, including the evaluation of airline, hotel, and communications services in both the private and public sectors. Jim is president of Easton Marketing Services Ltd., and can be contacted at [email protected].

1. Whiteley, Richard, & Diane Hessan (1996). Customer Centered Growth. Addison Wesley, Reading, MA.

2. Reichheld, Frederick F. (1996). Learning from Customer Defections. HBR March-April 1996. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA.

3. Clancy, Kevin C., & Robert S. Shulman (1994). Marketing Myths that are Killing Business Ð The Cure for Death Wish Marketing. McGraw-Hill, New York.

4. Tuckel, Peter, and others (1992). Focus Groups Under Scrutiny. Marketing Research, June 1992, American Marketing Association, Chicago, IL.

5. Simon, Hermann (1996). Hidden Champions Lessons from 500 of the World’s Best Unknown Companies. Harvard Business School Press, Boston, MA.

6. Evering, Henry, and others (1990). Eidetic Organizational Development: Image Motivations and Systems Research. Canadian Journal of Marketing Research, Volume 9, Toronto, Ontario.

7. Dorminey, Bruce (1996). The Philosopher’s King in Europe. Globe & Mail, Toronto, Ontario, Nov. 3, 1996.

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