Don’t ask your cus­tomers

Finweek English Edition - - INSIGHT -

sim­i­lar to each other – all white males, aged be­tween 55 and 65, earn­ing an in­come be­low R250 000. Not too sur­pris­ing, re­ally. Mary told us that we needed to break our cus­tomer base down into dis­tinct seg­ments, “so that we can get a true ref lec­tion of what your cus­tomers think”. Of course, this meant that we needed to do an­other seven fo­cus groups to make sure that we cov­ered the whole cus­tomer base. At R15 000 a pop, this was go­ing to be a very ex­pen­sive ex­er­cise.

“This feels very weird,” I said to Mary as the group sat down and looked di­rectly at me through the win­dow. “Don’t worry,” she re­as­sured me. “It’s a one-way mir­ror. They don’t even know you’re there. Just re­lax.” Still, I felt very un­com­fort­able. It was al­most voyeuris­tic, like a lab ex­per­i­ment where I was a mad sci­en­tist ob­serv­ing test sub­jects in a glass box. “And any­way,” con­tin­ued Mary, “they’ll each get a nice gift voucher at the end so it’ll be worth their while.”

The next three hours went by very quickly. Steven re­ally knew what he was do­ing, and kept t he con­ver­sa­tion go­ing con­tin­u­ously. Mary scrib­bled fu­ri­ously through­out the ses­sion. “Whew, that was great,” she said, once t he par­tic­i­pants had re­ceived t heir re­wards and were on their way home. “Let’s de­brief.” For the next hour, we an­a­lysed the group dis­cus­sion in painstak­ing de­tail, twist­ing and turn­ing the words to tease out all the nu­ances and in­sights hid­den be­neath them.

“That old guy at the back, he said R50 a month was too ex­pen­sive. I saw one or t wo of the oth­ers nod­ding as well. You def­i­nitely need to drop the fee.” The old guy at the back thought ev­ery­thing was too ex­pen­sive – in­clud­ing his daily beer at the lo­cal pub. “I have a drink­ing prob­lem,” he said to the oth­ers, “it’s too darn ex­pen­sive!” The oth­ers thought this was hi­lar­i­ous.

I was feel­ing a lit­tle un­com­fort­able with the con­clu­sions Mary had reached af­ter lis­ten­ing to the con­ver­sa­tions. “Are you not read­ing too much into what they said?” I asked her. “Are you kid­ding?!” she replied, “This stuff is gold!” AN EM­BAR­RASS­ING CON­FES­SION I have a con­fes­sion to make. While I was com­plet­ing my PhD, I used to lec­ture a course on Sam­pling The­ory to sec­ondyear Math­e­mat­i­cal Sta­tis­tics stu­dents at one of South Africa’s top uni­ver­si­ties. In other words, I taught stu­dents how to sci­en­tif­i­cally con­duct mar­ket re­search. Now what I’m a bit em­bar­rassed about is that I had never once talked about a fo­cus group in a lec­ture. In fact, I had never

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