Understanding the customer and the ways they can influence the success or failure of a business is critical, yet many products in the assistive technology market are designed, manufactured or sold without the direct input of the consumer! Our consumers have many "faces", as they are not necessarily the same individuals who use the product, ... or who make the purchasing decision ... or who ultimately pay for the product. Getting to know the various faces of the consumer, at an early stage in the development of the product, is crucial to its success in the marketplace. The experience and expertise of the Rehabilitation Engineering Research Center on Technology Transfer (T2RERC) partners (described elsewhere in this publication) gives them the tools and the local and national contacts needed to illuminate these faces. Some key tools are focus groups, direct-mail surveys and personal interviews.
Focus Groups: a customer microcosm
Focus groups bring together a sample of the people in the marketplace. Each session has approximately eight to twelve participants. It is recommended that a minimum of three sessions (24 to 36 participants in total) be held to ensure a valid sampling of the market. Multiple sessions also eliminate the effect of situations where groups are brought together that do not have a good interaction with one another, or groups that are affected by the influence of a dominant participant.
The focus group environment should create a sense of warmth to make the participants feel they are safe to share their feelings or concerns. The participants share a common background to the topic being discussed. However, the success of the groups organized by AZtech and the T2RERC has been a heterogeneous mix of end users, decision-makers, clinical staff, purchasers, family members, third-party payers, retailers and industry experts. The experience of each customer representative provides a different perspective of the topic and promotes deeper discussion by the participants.
The results of the focus group session helps to identify issues that are important to the various participants. The groups are lead by a moderator who is trained to direct the discussion in specific areas and to probe for reasons behind comments that are made by the group. However, the best information from a focus group is what has been identified by the participants themselves, without the influence of researchers behind the scenes.
Expanding your reach with surveys
Surveys have the advantage of a single instrument (questionnaire) that can be used to evaluate the needs or responses of customers across a larger territory, providing a more substantial population on which to base decisions. Surveys come in two forms, telephone and mail (one-on-one surveys will be discussed separately). Each has its own advantages and disadvantages.
The advantage of the mail-out surveys is the majority of the work is done up front - the instrument is developed and mailed to all participants at the same time. The disadvantage is the time to get responses returned and the potential of a smaller response rate.
One way to compensate for the small return is by increasing the number of participants used in the first place. Another is to notify the participants ahead of time that the survey will be coming, followed by a reminder two weeks after the survey has been delivered. A small incentive is also helpful in increasing the response rate. The incentive can be individual to each participant or can be lumped into a larger prize with a drawing used to determine the winner.
The mail-out survey requires very explicit instructions on how to answer the survey. Each question must be written in a way that is easily understood - at this point there is no way of knowing if the participants have questions. All surveys should be developed so the responses can be made using multiple-choice answers. This reduces the work of the participant and helps encourage them to respond to the survey if it requires little effort to complete. There is one final disadvantage in using mail-out surveys: there is no proof that the survey has reached your intended audience, therefore the answers may be skewed, which will affect the outcome of the exercise
Telephones add the human touch
Telephone surveys follow a common script for each participant - a similar instrument as the mail-out questionnaire. The time to receive the responses is reduced over the mail survey because there is no delay in waiting for the reply. However it may be frustrating when tracking down participants who are not home when the call is made.
Telephone interviewers must be properly trained in using the telephone, such as controlling their voice tone and pitch, clarity of speech, stressing the ability to stay on topic and not allow the participant to go off onto a tangent response. The advantage of the telephone interview is the ability of the interviewer to expand (within reason) on the questions to make them clearer to the participant. In the end, respondents are more likely to share additional information if they aren't burdened with having to write out the response; the trick is getting them to commit to participate.
Regardless of whether mail or telephone surveys are used, it is recommended that a sample survey is tested to determine whether the questions or instructions are clear and to note the areas that cause a problem so they can be adjusted prior to the expense of mass surveys. Above all, keep the survey instrument simple and short.
Getting the views of the citizen-on-the-street
One-on-one interviews are an excellent method of obtaining information from a participant. The same survey instrument used in mail-out and telephone surveys can be used in this case as well. The advantage of the one-on-one is the ability to gain additional information from the participant, due to the intimate relationship developed between the interviewer and the participant. Personal interviews give the participant a feeling that their answers really make a difference. However, the one-on-one interview has its down-falls; it takes longer to administer, the territory coverage is less than what can be achieved with a telephone or mail-out survey, and, more importantly, the direct face-to-face with the interviewer may be intimidating for some people when delivering negative responses to the question. Nonetheless, one-on-one interviews do provide the ability to share intimate details that the participant may not be comfortable discussing in a focus group or to an anonymous voice on the telephone, or writing the response on a mail-out survey with no guarantee how the information will be used.
Each avenue has its use
Each of the above techniques, focus groups, surveys and interviews are all valid methods of obtaining information from the customer. Before the method is chosen, it is important to look within and determine what the expected goal of the exercise is meant to be. Once the purpose has been identified it becomes much easier to select the research method that provides the best results to meet your individual needs.
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