Monday, 06 June 2016 02:25

The rules change when conducting focus groups for business to business research


Given the idea that "people are people," one might assume that the strategies used for consumer focus groups would apply to business-to-business focus groups, but this is not the case. This article offers strategies and considerations for conducting business-to-business focus groups, including playing dumb, allowing the client in the group room, anonymity, confidentiality and a quantitative follow-up.

Using a “people are people” rationale, some researchers might contend that the same strategies can be used in conducting focus groups in the consumer and business to business settings. But experience suggests that some of the rules and practices used in consumer focus groups cannot readily be translated to business sessions. The following article offers strategies and issues to consider when conducting groups among business purchasers.

The unacceptability of “playing dumb.” In conducting consumer focus groups, it is common for moderators to intentionally convey a sense of incomplete understanding. This is often referred to as “sophisticated naivete” in textbooks; “playing dumb” in the vernacular.

In the business to business setting, playing dumb is generally not a viable strategy. The respondents believe that they have entered a group setting among peers, moderated by someone who understands the subject being discussed. They anticipate that this person can understand their language and they will speak more openly to a person who demonstrates an understanding of what they say than to one who does not.

The moderator can still demonstrate a level of incomplete understanding that requires additional information. He or she cannot, however, demonstrate such an ignorance of the subject matter that the participants are deterred from volunteering information. An example should help to clarify this distinction.

If a respondent in a group on electronic data transmission says, “I don’t think that 2400 baud is fast enough for this application,” a moderator who responds with, “I’m not sure what you mean by baud rate” will sacrifice the confidence of the group. The moderator has demonstrated a lack of understanding of the subject being discussed. An acceptable demonstration of incomplete understanding, however, would be: ‘‘I’m not sure why you feel that 2400 baud is not fast enough. This question says, “I understand you but I still need more information.” The previous question says, “I don’t know what you people are talking about.”

Waiving the “no client in the group room” rule. In consumer research, most moderators prohibit clients from being in the group room, because the client might inadvertently affect consumer responses by laughing in response to a remark, enthusiastically taking notes when the “important information” arises, looking disinterested, or in some other way shaping the comments of the participants. In many group situations, even the appearance of the client might affect participant statements.

In contrast, many business to business groups can benefit from the presence of a client in the room. Most frequently, this involves the presence of a technical expert, who can respond to participant questions and resolve any misunderstandings that occur in a business to business group. Importantly, this technical expert is not present to influence attitudes. Instead, the technical expert exists to clarify inaccuracies concerning product characteristics or other statements of fact.

Some guidelines apply in using these experts. The expert must be controlled by the moderator, responding only to the moderator’s questions, not to questions raised by the participants. Permitting them to respond to participant questions would risk a loss of control by the moderator.

To discourage interaction between the participants and the expert, the expert should not be seated in the visual focal point of the group. Above all, they must be restrained from debating technical issues with participants or attempting to sell the participants on the merits of the concept being discussed.

Anonymity cannot be guaranteed. In consumer research, most respondents are guaranteed anonymity. They are generally unknown to the viewers and contact between viewers and participants rarely occurs prior to or after group sessions.

In business to business research, however, a greater level of respondent-viewer interaction often exists. In a typical setting, key customers of a company might be seated around the table, while the marketing and sales executives of that company sit behind the glass. These executives have met the respondents before the sessions and they will see them again afterwards. Unless the client would be willing to allow the research company to conduct the sessions without client viewers, which would sacrifice one of the benefits of the group process, anonymity for these respondents cannot be guaranteed.

Eliminating this promise of anonymity, the moderator must do the next best thing: promise the participants that the information that they divulge will not be used against them in a sales setting. Of course, the client has to agree to this practice, keeping in mind that they will be jeopardizing their integrity if the promise is broken. A sales manager who repeats what he or she heard the customer say in a focus group setting will almost certainly risk the loss of that customer.

The client’s confidentiality is at risk. The passing of information between respondents and clients in business to business focus groups is a two-way street. Just as the respondent often loses his or her anonymity, the client operating in the business to business setting also loses confidentiality.

In consumer research, respondents are typically screened to ensure that they do not personally work, or have friends or relatives who work, in the researched market. In business to business research, the process is just the opposite: the respondent must work in the targeted industry to qualify for group participation. Working in the targeted industry also says that they have contacts in that industry, which presents the opportunity for security leaks. The dealer who sells your company’s plumbing supplies probably also sells your competitor’s products, which means that they have contacts with representatives from that company, providing them with opportunities to pass on information learned as a participant in a research project.

While some researchers have asked respondents to sign nondisclosure agreements, the value of these documents is questionable. Provided that an attorney could produce an enforceable document, would a company want to sue its customers in the event of a disclosure? More important, it is likely that the document would have a biasing effect on the research. The nondisclosure agreement would scream to the respondent, “The product concept that you are about to see is new and different!” Even an existing product would seem special if preceded by a nondisclosure agreement.

As an alternative to a confidentiality statement, some researchers might provide bogus product attributes to camouflage the nature of the product. In essence, the product concept described to the respondents would be a modification of what might ultimately be produced.

This appears to be a rather futile exercise, since it will obscure the evaluation of the “real” product concept. Additionally, the risk still exists that the respondents will remember only those elements that your company considers most sacred, and pass them along to your competitors.

Since we cannot swear the respondents to confidentiality and attempts to camouflage the nature of the new product concept would be counterproductive, it is recommended that the user of business focus groups views this as a risk versus reward situation. The risk exists that in doing good research in the business setting, some confidential information might leak to a competitor. What the marketer must do is evaluate that risk against the benefits of acquiring new marketing information. If the potential benefits outweigh the risks, then the research is worth doing. If, however, the risk of advanced disclosure of a new product idea is too great to offset the potential rewards of the information to be acquired, then the research should not be conducted.

Quantitative follow-up might be impractical. In consumer research, focus groups are so often followed by quantitative research that the focus group reports frequently close with a standard recommendation for a quantitative follow-up: “Of course, we recommend that this research be followed-up with a large sample, qualitative study.”

In the business to business setting, a quantitative follow-up is often impossible or illogical. If you are conducting research among the chief financial officers from the 25 largest companies in a market, and you have selected the focus group as the most appropriate method, who will be available for a quantitative follow-up? After conducting two focus groups with a sample from this population, virtually no one would remain with whom you could conduct your follow-up research. Since business to business focus group research frequently targets these small markets, a quantitative follow-up is likely to be impractical.

In conclusion, there are enough differences between business to business and consumer focus groups to warrant a modification of strategies in moderating and a rethinking of some of the truths that are assumed in the consumer setting. One needs to consider issues related to moderator knowledge, the use of experts, and anonymity and confidentiality, to maximize the value of this tool for the business to business researcher.


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