Focus groups are a great way to get closer to your customers--to solidify your relationship with current customers and to forge relationships with new ones. They can evaluate your company's success and determine a path for the future. And they'll tell you what customers are looking for and how you can better provide it. You don't even need to hire a marketing firm to put together a suitable collection of consumers. You can use local newspapers to find potential focus-group participants.

When Karen Scott of Lake Bluff, Ill., got started in the mail-order baby-products business, she put together her own focus group by clipping 250 birth announcements from the local paper, then contacting the new moms. She sent them surveys and conducted phone interviews, asking what products young mothers sought. In response to their comments, Scott added more travel products to her consumer catalog, "One Step Ahead," which allows customers to order directly from her company, Chelsea & Scott. In 1998, travel products are still top sellers at the $35-million business.