This is the text as it appeared in The Quality Observer, April 1977

Using Focus Groups to Add Depth to Your Focus On Quality

by Tom Greenbaum

As the emphasis on efforts to improve the level of service quality in business continues to increase, organizations are looking for more effective ways to evaluate the service they are delivering and to get the commitment of the key people who can influence others to increase the overall level of quality which is delivered. Companies have been using surveys of different kinds for many years to determine customer attitudes toward their service quality, with the emphasis in recent years on benchmarking with other similar industries in order to obtain an assessment of how they are doing on a relative basis.

For many organizations, the most frustrating part of the service quality assessments that are made is the inability to really understand the "why" behind the survey results. For example, it is one thing to understand that your organization performs well (or poorly) in the absolute and compared to the competition, but it is even more important to understand what has created the service quality rating that was reported in the research.

Using focus groups can be a vital part of the overall service quality assessment program, because this research technique can provide a dimension that is simply unavailable with the traditional survey approach to evaluating service quality.

A focus group is a gathering of nine or ten people who have been selected based on their common characteristics relative to the issue being discussed. These people are then led through a 1-1/2 to 2 hour discussion by a trained moderator, who uses the internal dynamics of the group environment to really understand why people feel the way they do about a particular issue. For example, if a survey showed that the local hospital was weak versus the competition in the area of patient admissions (i.e., speed, courtesy), focus groups could be used to understand the dimensions of the patient admission process that contributed to this problem. Specifically, was it a problem with the admission counselors in terms of their training, education or general interpersonal interactions with the patient, or was it the hospital forms, the admissions process or any one of a number of reasons. It would be very difficult to gather this type of in-depth information using traditional survey research.

However, if the quantitative surveys are supplemented with properly conducted focus groups, then the full picture can be understood.

Another very important reason why focus groups can prove to be a vital part of the service quality assessment, is that the people most influential in affecting service quality could be a part of the sessions and experience first-hand how the customers feel. This is accomplished by having the key people watch the focus groups from behind a one-way mirror, while the moderator conducts the session. Not only do they see the reactions of the participants (i.e., their customers) but they have the opportunity to probe specific areas by communicating with the moderator during the course of the sessions.

The other benefit of this process is that the people observing the groups tend to generate greater commitment to the process of quality improvement because they watch the reactions of their customers in person, rather than being told about them based on data that was generated from a research study.

The Keys To Successful Service Quality Focus Groups

There are a few simple guidelines that you should follow to increase the chances that focus groups will be an effective part of your overall service quality assessment. I Specifically, they are:

  • Have specific objectives for the focus groups. It is important that you understand why you are using focus groups as part of your process, and the key to this is to commit the specific objectives to writing. The purpose of this is that it focuses the efforts of the groups on a few very specific topics so that the discussion can be directed against those areas that will prove to be most important to understand relative to the issues which will help improve service quality.
  • Select the right person to moderate your focus groups. One of the biggest disadvantages of the focus group process is the reliance on the moderator as the leader of the process. The value of a highly trained moderator cannot be emphasized enough, as this person can provide some very important help to the client organization in thinking through the objectives of the research, in addition to ensuring that the sessions are run in the most effective possible manner.
  • Ensure that the moderator is an independent professional with no direct ties to your organization. This individual must be completely objective relative to the research, and must not enter the focus groups with any particular preconceived notions or biases. In this regard, the moderator cannot be an employee of the company, or a member of one of the service organizations with whom you work, such as an ad agency or public relations firm. One of the keys to successful focus groups is the objectivity of the moderator and the willingness of this individual to provide an unbiased interpretation of the comments from the participants.
  • Encourage the active involvement of all key people in the organization in the focus group process. This includes such things as the setting of objectives for the research, providing inputs to the focus group discussion guide and attending the sessions to experience the consumer inputs first-hand. While groups are routinely tape recorded and videotaped, the difference in the overall experience of being at the sessions versus watching (or listening) to them on tape is very significant.

So add a qualitative element to your overall quality service program, and focus your understanding of quality audits using focus groups.

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