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Using Force Field Analysis to Listen to Customers

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At a meeting of customers, such as an annual user conference, do you dread the ‘feature list haggling’ breakout session? Does it seem to end up being a complaint session, which is never strategic and never satisfying? It sends you running for the bar vowing never to do one again. Instead of haggling over features, try a force field analysis.

You’ll discover:

  • What your customers think has contributed to their success (as it relates to what you do)
  • How your products or services are holding your customers back
  • Customers’ priorities (not only about what you offer, but overall priorities for their business)
  • What ‘big ideas’ are your customers thinking about

Force field analysis (developed many years ago by Kurt Lewin, a pioneer in the field of social sciences) is a technique you can use with customers to elevate a painful exercise into powerful feedback. It is a very simple tool that can be used to quickly brainstorm and prioritize ideas with a group of customers.

For your product or service:

  • What are the driving forces? These could be features, services, a way of doing business with you, your channel, your website–anything that helps customers drive to success.
  • What are the restraining forces? These might be quality issues, complex implementation, convoluted processes, support, and unclear procedures–anything that prevents your customers from being successful.

This process can work with groups as small as 5-6 and groups as large as 150 broken into round tables of 8-10. More than that will result in chaos if you try to do it interactively. If you have a larger user group, try segmenting it into smaller groups: industry, type of user (such as systems administrator, manager, analyst, data entry), product line, or region.

[One caveat–if you currently have a lot of unhappy customers and few happy customers, this technique won’t work any better than a feature haggling session. It will quickly deteriorate into ‘beat up the vendor’ when you get to the restraining forces.]

Assuming you have happy customers, before the meeting, decide what you’re really trying to learn. State the problem, goal, or situation where you want feedback. Make sure this is well thought out or you could end up eliciting feedback for the wrong things. It’s a good idea to have a separate discussion for long-range issues versus next release.

It is also important to set expectations with the group. This is input into the process, not the final authority! (But if you never act on what you learn at these types of sessions, don’t bother collecting the information.)

Each table should choose a scribe and a facilitator (who will also act as a spokesperson for the group). Follow this entire procedure first for the driving (positive) forces and then for the restraining (negative) forces. Each discussion (driving and restraining) should take about 30 minutes. The time it takes to report back to the group at large depends on how many groups you have.

  1. The table facilitator goes around the table and asks each person to contribute one force. The table scribe will record each new one (it is likely some items will be repeated).
  2. Go around the table one or two more times until everyone agrees that their top 3 forces have been listed. Spend a few minutes discussing.
  3. Review the list with the table. Each person will get 3 votes for their top 3 forces. Read the list again and have everyone vote. The scribe will tally the votes for each force.

If you have multiple small groups, when every table has come up with their top 3 driving forces, have a moderator with a microphone go around to each table (talk show host style) and ask for one driving force per table. A meeting scribe can write down the forces in a spreadsheet, projected at the front of the room (make sure the resolution is set large enough for people to read them). Go back through the tables one or two more times until each of the tables top 3 driving forces have been reported.

Leave the list up for a few minutes so everyone has a chance to see them. Discuss any items needing further clarification. Then each person in the room will get 3 votes for their top 3 forces. Read each item and get a show of hands to vote on the items. The meeting scribe should enter the number of votes for each driving force listed in Excel. When done, sort the items by the ‘votes’ column to rank them. The scribe can report back to the group at large what the top 3 driving forces are.

Repeat all of the above for the restraining forces.

Try this technique with a small group to get the logistics down before attempting it with a large group. You will find it has lots of application for eliciting feedback both internally and externally.

Force field analysis is a simple tool to listen to your customers. But don’t forget to report back to the group later on what you learned. If you discover new driving forces, these might be folded into your positioning (or might result in customer case studies or references). As you begin addressing the restraining forces through new features, products, services, or changes to your operations, let people know that you not only listened, but that you acted on what you heard.

The purpose of listening to our customers is to continuously improve and refine our products and services to help them solve their problems.

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