As a small-business owner, you might think you can't afford the services of a fancy marketing firm to keep track of how you are doing. Wrong! It can be easy and economical to measure your level of service. And it is a critical step toward achieving a level of service that will give you the competitive edge.

One measurement tool that is inexpensive to administer is a customer panel. It is a little different than a focus group in that a representative group of managers and employees of the company are present in the room with the customers. A more traditional focus group has the customers or idea generators in a separate room with a two-way mirror or not present at all.

A customer panel will give you lots of valuable information to help you improve your service or product. It is also one of the tools that will help you plant the culture of service deep within your organization by keeping the voice of the customer in front of your employees.

It will also allow you to really hear the voice of your customer. Reading feedback from customers in a formal feedback report is one thing; actually hearing and seeing your customer say it is even more powerful.

Use this a step-by-step guide for conducting your own customer panel.

Establish the purpose of your panel:

Determine what you want to get out of a the exercise. Customer panels, in general, can be used for several purposes:

1. To determine your customers' opinions of the level of service they are currently receiving.
2. To determine marketing issues on product acceptance, features, ideas for future products, and other product-related things you might want to know.
3. To determine how well your customers' expectations are being met in the area of customer service or the features of your products.
4. To use the information derived from the panel or panels to improve service levels and/or products.

Choose and assemble participants:

Usually two hours in length, the ideal customer panel will include approximately 12 to14 customer participants. Key people or the entire staff from the department or product line being discussed should also attend and observe, but they should not participate unless asked a direct question by one of the participants.

1. Develop a list of customers you would like to participate. Choose a cross section of some who are extremely important to you, some that may have had problems, or those who you feel will not be shy in sharing their opinions. To get 12 to14 participants, you'll want to develop a list of at least double the number of participants. The number invited varies somewhat depending on how eager people will be to give their opinion. For instance, with an NFL football team I conducted a panel for, everyone wanted to give their opinions, and we had little trouble filling the panel slots. On the other hand, a credit union had trouble getting anyone to participate.

Call some of them, tell them what you're doing, and solicit feedback from them on the best time and place to meet.

Determine the people from your company who you want to attend and invite them, too. Explain the purpose and copy them on the invitation to the possible attendees.

2. Once day and time are established, find a room. Be sure to make arrangements -- and don't forget the details. Refreshments, small thank-you gifts or money if they're being paid, seating, and any presentation equipment you might need should be available. Also, remember seating for the observers and to include flip charts to capture comments. The room you choose needs to be one where you can tape paper to the walls and that will be relatively quiet.

3. Invite the participants. You can do it with a formal mailed invitation, via e-mail or the telephone. The method depends on how much time you have to assemble the panel and how you feel most comfortable communicating with them.

4. Send confirmation correspondence to participants with details of where, when, etc. Be sure to include details about what you will be asking them to do, too.

5. Two days before the event, call each panel member (do not e-mail) to reconfirm. This is a critical step. You need to confirm twice; otherwise, at the last minute, people may decide not to come -- unless, of course, you are paying them $50 or more, then there are almost always no shows.

Once the participants arrive, use the introductory agenda below.

Suggested introductory agenda:

1. Introduce yourself with your title and length of time with the company.

2. Explain the purpose of the panel and what you will be asking them to do. "We are here this evening to get your ideas on what you like and don't like about certain features of our product" or "We'd like your ideas on what you expect when you do business with us."

3. Explain the process detailed below on how you will go about collecting their ideas.

4. Explain your role as the facilitator -- that you are there to organize and move the discussion along, but you will not be offering any opinions of your own.

Conducting the panel:

1. Introduce the "task statement." That is a succinct statement of what information you want from the panelists. For instance, "What are we doing well?" "What needs to be changed about our product?" "What's one thing you would change about our service or product?" "What would you consider a perfect service experience with us?" and other things you would like to learn about your service or product. Prior to the arrival of the participants, write the task statement(s) on a large piece of paper and paste them on the wall so they stay visible during the entire process.

2. Have participants generate one idea per piece of paper that addresses the first task statement. Give each participant a stack of 8x11 brightly colored paper and a marking pen. Have participants generate one idea per piece of paper that addresses the first task statement. Encourage them to be specific. Don't let them say, "You are offering good customer service," for instance. Have them write what exactly they like about your service. Are the personnel friendly? Is the service fast? Are they made to feel special? Is the product easy to use? What attracts them about the packaging? Encourage them to write large and legibly and tell them complete sentences aren't necessary-- just have them capture the gem of the idea.

3. Don't rush them. Give them about 10 minutes to generate as many ideas as possible relating to that one question. As they generate the ideas, tape them to the walls, and encourage the participants to read the comments from other panel members. The posted comments offer participants ideas that they might feel compelled to add to. It is helpful to have an assistant help you collect and tape up the ideas.

4. Group like ideas together, for example, put all comments about personnel together, all comments about speed of service together, etc. As you are doing this, ask questions about anything that is not clear and jot any additional information on the flip chart or directly on the original piece of paper. If someone from the observing employee group would like more explanation, they can ask at this point. Try to "lose" whose idea it is if possible. You want to make this an anonymous exercise.

The employees who are observing the session should also be taking notes. They are there to listen to what the customers have to say and make changes in their areas based on customer feedback, if possible. It is one thing to read written comments from customers; it is much more powerful to actually be there to hear it. However, remember that the employees are just there to observe, not to make any contributions. If a panel member asks them a direct question, they can respond, but the idea is to bring out the customers' ideas, without any explanation or excuses from the employees. That will be the hardest thing for the employees to do.

5. Repeat the process. If you have more time, ask more questions.

6. Once the session has been completed, thank everyone for their time and give them their gifts or reimbursements, and let them go. After the event, write a thank-you letter to all participants. Some participants may want to linger and speak to the company participants,which is fine and could be your opportunity to deal with any unhappy customers.

7. Later, document the results and discuss with employees. Gather together all relevant employees or departments to discuss the results and to develop ways to improve levels of service or the product. Use the positive remarks to praise and recognize employees for their good work, but use the negative ones to take positive action. If appropriate, and possible, communicate with the panelists what is being done in response to their comments.

Lastly, plan for more customer panels. They offer the best results when you do several with different segments of your customer base.

Peggy Morrow is a customer service consultant, professional speaker, and the author of Customer Service: The Key to Your Competitive Edge . Contact her via her Web page,

Copyright © 2003 by Peggy Morrow