Fable Friday: What focus groups have to do with the game of bridge

Today I’ll share two related stories to help us think like our customer.  The first concerns the game of bridge, one that I played very well when I was much younger. After college I went off to the working world, while my partner pursued the game and became one of the greatest players in the world.

Although I miss playing tournament bridge, I still get the American Contract Bridge League Bulletin, and look forward to taking the “It’s Your Call” bidding quiz where I generally score pretty well.  Here’s how the quiz works.  You’re shown a hand of 13 cards and the bidding up to a certain point, and then you’re asked what you would bid now.  Your answer is then compared to those from a panel of experts, which often widely differ.

I discovered recently that I often miss the top score because I unconsciously try to imagine what the experts would bid, rather than what I would really bid at the table.

Do you also find it curious that if someone asks you what you would do, your answer is likely to differ from the response to the question, “What do you think your neighbor would do?” Dan Ariely, author of “Predictably Irrational” and his latest, “The Honest Truth About Dishonesty,” provides some helpful examples of this phenomenon, so you can be sure this disparity exists.

Now here is my second story, and believe me there’s a point to this.  A few years ago I was asked to observe a focus group in which my client, a large northwestern regional bank, was trying to learn the most effective questions to ask customers in order to identify their financial needs.

One question concerned the way people save for the future. I had written the question so I had a serious interest in how it was asked, as well as the focus group’s responses.  Well, as sometimes happens, the moderator positioned the question poorly, which elicited a lot of negative feedback:  “I don’t like this question.”  “I don’t like to be asked how much money I’ve saved.”  “I think your customers would be upset if you asked them this question.”

So the client threw the question out, despite my suggestions that 1) it should have been asked in a different way, one that was positioned to show the respondent that it was in his best interest to answer it, and 2) that the question should have been beta-tested with actual customers, rather than in a focus group setting.  Didn’t matter. Focus group said no. Client said no.

Many years ago GM asked Cadillac owners why they drove a Cadillac. Responses were, “I feel safer in a large car, built with quality, quiet ride, power when I need it,” and so on. When they asked non-owners why their neighbors drove a Cadillac, responses were, “Thinks he’s a big shot, pretentious or a snob.”  Get the idea?

So in taking the bridge quiz I noticed it was nearly impossible to shut out from my mind what the expert panel would guess, and concentrate instead on what I would do in a real game. And unless you have a great designer and moderator of your focus group, the members will often respond how they think your customers would. This means you should be wary of making business decisions from them.  My client listened to the focus group and made a huge error.

Focus groups are not always the best way to…

Think Like Your Customer

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About Gregory LaMothe
I teach people how to sell things. I own the company ActionSystems. Visit my website at www.actionsystemstraining.com.

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