Ask Cindy: Can we do customer discovery with groups of customers?

I understand the temptation of the focus group format. Conversations are time-consuming.  We’re seeking out commonalities in what customers tell us.  Why not combine those customers into a group and get the value of six interviews at once?

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Trust me, I’m always looking for ways to make research faster — if this worked, I’d recommend it. It doesn’t.

First, let me draw a distinction between a team of customers and a (focus) group of customers.

Customer Discovery within a team is useful

Teams are great to learn from! A team of customers from the same company share common goals, environment, and culture.  They trust each other enough to admit to wonky processes and mistakes.  Because they share context, they can riff off each other:

“This is how we do it—”

“Except for when we’re dealing with this type of exception—”

“Oh, right.  And I guess we also adapt our process when…”

Inevitably someone in the group will say “maybe it’s only me who is bothered by this, but…” and once they’ve finished, others will jump in “oh, me too! I wasn’t sure I wanted to bring that up, but yeah, it’s not just you!”

Talking with the team as a unit increases psychological safety.

It allows more introverted team members to contribute briefly without feeling the pressure to ‘carry’ the conversation.  It allows individuals to express how pain points and constraints differ based on role or stage in a process.   It also allows you more context into an individual’s comments:  is this person a mentor who influences the others, the self-assigned ‘devil’s advocate’?

Note: the advantages of talking with a team together start to diminish when the team gets larger than 7 or 8 people. If you’d like to talk with a larger group, I recommend splitting into multiple conversations. See The 6-Person Discussion blog post for more on this.

Focus groups are a waste of time.

Any time you’re having a conversation with multiple people who don’t have a pre-existing relationship and shared context, you’re only having half a conversation.

People won’t give you honest and thorough answers in a mixed group.  They’ll hold back. They may not even realize they’re doing so. 

It’s a protective cognitive bias: there’s risk in admitting that you’re making mistakes or struggling to figure out a challenging situation.   In a group with people you don’t know? Who are possibly competing with your company in some way?   Much safer to talk about how your team behaves on the best possible day.

There are other negative dynamics, which I’ve written about before.  It’s easy to end up with one person who dominates the conversation, or someone who keeps dragging the others off on a tangent.   Those problems are obvious, though. You know the conversation didn’t go well and as a result, you know not to take the insights you heard at face value. 

When people are silently censoring themselves, it’s usually not obvious.  They still complain. They still express pain points.  But what they talk about may not be their highest priority or your biggest opportunity – and you won’t even realize it.

Having multiple conversations instead of 1 feels like a waste of time (and it absolutely requires more scheduling hassle, even with judicious use of Calendly or a similar tool).  But having 1 useless and misleading conversation — and using it to wrongly inform decisions — costs you far more time and resources. It fails to give you the strengthened confidence and risk mitigation that you need to be getting out of your customer conversations.