Focus groups, around since at least the 1940s, are a great way to get a snapshot of opinion towards specific product, policy, idea or initiative. With the right, carefully selected, representative group of people you can get a fantastic insight into the way huge swathes of the country feel.
Anyone who has facilitated or observed a focus group, however, will recognise the nagging sense of regret as the discussion is forced away from a topic that you’ve only scratched the surface of. There is only so much you can pack into an hour and a half group discussion after all.
‘Deliberative engagement’, where you can go into a lot more depth with participants and challenge their assumptions, has emerged as an answer to this issue.
You cannot reasonably expect someone working a 9 to 5 job, ferrying their kids to and from school or otherwise running their own lives to have a detailed understanding of the topic you want to discuss. The risk, then, is that you never get the chance to delve into some of the more complex issues your organisation faces. This is exacerbated by the fact that those more complex issues can often have an enormous impact on the citizen or end consumer – but they have no way of shaping the process or having any real say over what happens.
Deliberative engagement, again, offers an answer here. The longer, in-depth sessions you can do with this kind of research, allow you to discuss, in detail, complex issues – which the participant may not have even heard of before – understanding, why, what motivates a decision and how it sits in relation to competing priorities.
At worst, deliberative public engagement can be ‘5 days of putting post its on a whiteboard’ – no direction, no focus and no insight that couldn’t be gleaned from a 90 minute focus group. With the right kind of expertise shaping the programme though, these sessions can explode into life.
At Traverse we have started to use Customer Forums – groups that bring together the same group of people over a period of time, usually anything from 3 to 18 months – with a variety of interactive sessions to understand what people think about energy networks. These sessions are geared towards getting participants up and about, while learning and thinking about topics in a different way. Some of the methods we use include discovery sessions – where participants find out about the organisation and what they do – role playing scenarios and designing posters.
As with all engagement however, it needs to have a purpose – why are you asking for someone’s opinion? What are you going to do with what they tell you? Why are you asking this person over someone else?
These groups are at their best when they have a substantial piece of work to get stuck into. In companies’ terms this usually means to inform or shape a specific policy or helping to understand customers’ priorities, particularly when developing a business plan.
So where next for customer forums? At present, they have been used most effectively by the energy networks, where they are cross-referenced and combined with other forms of engagement to build up a clear picture of customer and stakeholder bases, but are not limited to these sectors. For us, it is clear that it is most beneficial to:
- Regulated or price controlled industries
- Organisations with a Public Confidence measure
- Organisations that operate in an environment with complex issues, but have a significant impact on consumers.
If any of the above match with your role, or you’d just like to talk to us about how Customer Panels could fit with your organisation, we’re always happy to sit down over a coffee – just send me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org.