From the June 2008 issue of Investment Advisor • Subscribe!

Just Ask Them

Consider using focus groups to sharpen your marketing efforts--you might also gain some clients in the process

Advisors around the country complain about prospecting. There are no two ways about it, it can leave you feeling helpless, broke, and depressed, but there is a relatively simple way to achieve the goal of explaining what you do and how you do it to the people you want to do it for--a focus group. It's an honest, sincere, and inexpensive method that can leave you feeling like the ultimate professional, not a salesperson.

Focus groups have been an important part of each business I have been in. They are effective in any relationship-driven business where three key components exist:

You provide a service, process, or product that you feel is a bit different from your competitors or should appeal to a specific population;

You can clearly identify who is the prime beneficiary of that service, process or product;

You place significant personal and economic value on those beneficiaries.

Simply put, if you have something interesting to say to an identifiable group of people and you care what they think, utilizing focus groups will have a positive impact on your business. They can be effective both for working with your current clients and for attracting new ones.

I found out very quickly that the more unique the service, the harder it is to educate the potential beneficiaries about it. If I wanted to educate prospective clients, I had to have face time with them. Mass media and direct mail don't really work. The general public has become so skeptical that they would rather unknowingly compromise the security of their families than respond to an ad that seems too good to be true.

There are several examples in today's local paper. An advisory service offers a free box of Omaha Steaks if you come in for a free consultation; a mortgage service says you can buy a $300,000 house with payments as low as $600 a month; and another advisory service that touts itself as "home of the $59 trade."

Each of these companies paid a lot of money to advertise completely ineffective messages. What's more, each of their Web sites talks about relationships but advertises a commodity. This is what each of us competes with every day--we are being "commoditized."

I found that I was faced with two choices: advertise a commodity and be a victim to paying high advertising rates, or sit around and wait for referrals. Each choice is a no-win situation. If I were successful with the advertising, I would likely have clients who called because I was cheap. That was not exactly the foundation of the relationships I desired. And while I wanted referral business, I did not like that I was faced with either being reactive and waiting for calls, or bothering my top clients with questions like, "Who do you know?"

Finally, I decided that I would call the people I wanted to do business with, pay them to attend a focus group, and listen to what they said. The results were amazing. For less than the cost of a small newspaper ad, I was in front of 10 of the people who I would have wanted to respond to my advertising or be referred by a current client. I had their undivided attention for one hour to educate them about what I thought we were doing well. Most importantly, I had the opportunity to hear directly from my prospective clients what was important to them.

These groups introduced me to many future clients and gave me the opportunity to educate rather than sell. The groups also became the basis of how I communicated the value of my services. I used the feedback of these prospective clients to discontinue many of the marketing dollars that I was ineffectively spending. Finally, I used focus groups as a means of staying on top of what is important to my clients. These groups allowed me to engage my clients in my practice and continue to build meaningful relationships with them.

I have combined years of formal education in behavioral psychology with my experience in conducting focus groups to build a relationship-driven business. Following are some simple steps you can take to incorporate focus groups into your business. Knowing what is important to your clients will never go out of style.

Developing a Compelling Topic

What services can you add to improve your practice? What do your current clients value the most about what you do? When your clients refer you to someone, how do they explain what you do? What would your clients think if you moved from commission-based to fee-based? How can your seminars become more effective? I don't have the answers to any of these questions and chances are neither do you, but your clients and prospects do. Developing a topic for a focus group is not as difficult as you may think. What is your greatest challenge in business? Chances are this would be an excellent topic for your first focus group.

Some advisors choose to do focus groups with their current clients to engage them in their practice. They want their clients to give them feedback on how to improve what they do. This process creates more loyal clients and more referrals. Other advisors choose to replace or supplement seminars with focus groups. Rather than send a mass mailing and have no control over the attendance of an expensive seminar, they are able to call the people directly and invite them to attend a smaller, more intimate discussion. The best part is that they are able to qualify the person to truly determine if they are a fit for what they are trying to accomplish. Think about it; would a car company host a focus group full of people who cannot drive?

There are many reasons to have a focus group. The key is to insure that your intent is genuine and you truly value the feedback of the people that you would like to be doing more business with.

The Invitation Process

This is the choke point. This is what separates those who can incorporate this concept successfully, and those who will tell you that "focus groups don't work." The invitation process is work. You must first insure that your target population is identifiable and approachable. You have to be able to outline the characteristics of the clients that you desire to work with.

When it comes to inviting people to an event like this, there is no short cut. You have got to pick up the phone as the business owner who's asking them to help him improve his practice. Handing the process over to a disinterested assistant will not come off as genuine. When you call, the scripting involves only one thing--honesty. Why are you really calling them? What are you really trying to accomplish? Just tell them those things. It can be as simple as:

"Hi, this is Dan Allison and I own a small financial firm here in town. I am conducting a series of focus groups of about 10 to 12 parents who have children of college age. I am looking for feedback on some of the concepts in our industry that appeal to college planning. Before I get into promoting the concepts, I am conducting focus groups to see what parents really think of the concepts. I am paying $50 cash for the hour and will have refreshments and pizza. Is this something that you and your wife would lend your opinion to?"

The approach is simple, but very effective. They will pleasantly decline the offer, accept and attend, or ask that you place them on a list for the next one. In a couple of hours, you should have 10 to 12 of your profiled prospects willing to participate.

It is critical to call the evening before the event to confirm the attendance. This will significantly increase the participation ratios. With the proper steps in place, you can expect anywhere from 80% to 90% participation.

Hosting the Focus Group

The focus group should be hosted in a professional atmosphere. Office environments are ideal. A conference room suitable for 10 to 12 people works very well to encourage communication. If you don't have access to one, you can use a private room at a local restaurant.

The room should be set up in either a circle or a "U" shape. This setting is conducive to open discussing and steers people away from the "seminar" feeling. It is critical to make every step of this process an actual focus group.

When the attendees arrive, the business owner who called and offered the invitation should greet them. It sends the right message that they meet the owner when they arrive and can eliminate some of their skepticism. They should be handed a folder with a copy of the presentation that will be covered, a questionnaire, and the compensation for their time. No marketing material should be in the folder. They are not there to be sold, they are there to participate. If they are a targeted audience, you can put a couple of articles that may appeal for them to read as they wait for the event to begin.

The focus group should begin with an explanation of why they are there, and how the focus group will proceed. Again, honesty is critical in making the event effective. You can say:

"I want to thank you all for attending today. My name is Dan Allison and I spoke with each of you on the phone about attending this focus group. I want to begin by explaining why we are here, and what we will be doing. One of my greatest challenges as a small business owner is to stay on top of what is important and valuable to the people that I serve or the people that my service was designed for. Rather than spending a lot of money for ineffective advertising, I chose to conduct a series of focus groups with people to understand what is valuable about my profession, and what people consider the standard.

"I will spend the first 30 minutes explaining what I feel is compelling and valuable about what our firm does. I will tell you what I think sets us apart. After that, we will have some open dialogue to get honest opinions of what is, and is not valuable. I am paying people for open and honest discussions. You will not hurt my feelings. I am truly just trying to become better. You will not be asked to buy something at any point today. This is not about selling you something. It is about me becoming better at what I do."

With that introduction, you can present your topic while your profiled clients take notes and ask questions. Rather than make a sales pitch, you are able to have a meaningful discussion. More business will come through focus groups eventually, but creating a better business needs to be the driving purpose.

After the presentation, the participants should engage in about 15 to 20 minutes of free-flowing dialogue. This is initial feedback on the presentation. Being good in front of people is critical here to keep the flow of the conversation moving. Having name tags or name tents will allow you to pull everyone into the discussion.

After some discussion, let them know that it is time to fill out the questionnaires. The questions should be open-ended, such as:

What did you find most compelling about my service and why?

Which portion of my service was not appealing and what is your suggestion to make it more appealing?

What is important to you in choosing a financial advisor?

After about 10 minutes on the questionnaire, the food should arrive. If you are in an office setting, pizza or sandwiches are great, because they allow people to take food with them, or stick around to socialize and discuss your services or their needs. And people do stick around. This is the time that people are able to further build trust for the advisor. This is where you will hear a lot of questions regarding their specific situation. Many times, their situation is too complex to discuss in the setting and you are able ask them if they want to set up some time to talk individually. At the conclusion, you will have 10 to 12 well educated profiled prospective clients who gave you honest feedback. The worst case scenario is that people leave knowing that you are honest, and care enough to engage non-clients in your practice, which is referable in itself.

The Follow Up

Once people have attended your focus groups, they can become part of your ongoing efforts for marketing or future focus groups. If they mentioned concerns or had unanswered questions that they wrote on their questionnaire, you are able to follow up and continue to educate and add value without selling. They know that you are not going to attack them and ask for business because they have met you and you already had that opportunity and did not take it.

Former participants are also an excellent source to refer others to your future focus groups. They have experienced it and can tell friends and family that it was informative, they were well compensated, and it is well worth their time. Over the years, filling up my focus groups became easier and more effective.

Many advisors want to run a business based on relationships, but don't take the steps necessary to understand what is important to their clients and prospects in the relationships that they seek. We spend hours every week in meetings wondering what people think, what they want, and how they will respond to certain things we do. We don't have to wonder. The answers are out there, we just have to care enough to ask.


Dan Allison is the founder of The Money Code, a consulting process designed to help financial advisors incorporate focus groups into their marketing. Through public speaking and consulting he coaches individuals through the process of understanding what is important to their desired client base. Contact him by email at dan@themoneycode.net.

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