It's a scene from a second-rate detective movie -- a compact, windowless room with bright, harsh lights that make you squint and wonder to yourself what time it really is outside. Except for a mirror, the walls are bare and the only pieces of furniture are several chairs strategically placed around a small table, the top worn smooth from hours of nervous, tapping fingers.

The room is filled with strangers and the sense of unease is palpable. For two hours, the leader has been pumping you for information, working hard to coerce you into giving up the goods. Just tell us the truth, the leader keeps coaxing, just tell us what we want to hear. But you don't know what they want to hear. By now, you don't even know how you ended up in this dead-end chamber of horror. You realize your only means of escape will be to say whatever it takes to make them happy -- even if it means lying.

We've all seen Hollywood's cliché of the interrogation room -- a tough, no-nonsense suit questioning the witness until he squeals. If it all sounds eerily familiar, however, perhaps that's because it's also the perfect description of a focus group session.

In the year 2006, how are you conducting consumer research? Are you still relying on traditional focus groups to compile what you deem to be qualitative data? If you are, that is, as a young friend of mine would say, just so 20th century.

Companies like Yahoo (NASDAQ:YHOO), Pepsi (NYSE:PBG), and Best Buy (NYSE:BBY)  now realize the methods they used to mine  for information in the past were often unproductive and inefficient. The pressure-cooker atmosphere of a group of strangers in an unfamiliar setting, combined with questions skewed to obtain answers favorable toward a product, is often a dangerous (if not deadly) concoction. Over the years, countless products that should never have been introduced made it to market, and vice-versa.

Today, major advancements in science, technology, and human-behavior studies offer new tools for studying consumers that are more natural and provide greater insight into what a customer wants. What techniques should you consider?

Internet Research Panels. Companies like Invoke Solutions and Greenfield Online are providing businesses with a way to connect with consumers at the computer keyboard. They gather groups of consumers to participate on panels via instant-messaging services. In the comfort of their own individual spaces, participants feel more at ease to answer honestly (and anonymously). Important, effective data can be compiled in hours rather than weeks or months.

Conversation Groups. Rather than study a group's reaction to a specific product or service, industries like consumer electronics are getting to know their customers from the perspective of human behavior. A major thrust of my research work for clients includes moderating "conversation sessions," where groups of four to six friends meet in a host home and discuss life in general -- what stage of life they find themselves, their dreams, worries, and thoughts about the future. This information is then matched with human behavior profiles based on Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs (a mainstay of every Psychology 101 course) and product solutions to help solve a demographic's challenges are created.

Immersion Groups and Ethnography. Instead of bringing the customer to them, some companies are going directly to the customer. While research groups have long studied consumer behavior in places like malls, some are now taking the next step -- observing consumer behavior by immersion into the home, either live or remotely by camera.  Kimberly-Clark (NYSE:KMB), the maker of Huggies diapers, has experienced recent success in working to understand how mothers change diapers and bathe babies. Placing a small headset camera atop a mother's head, they discovered that instead of using a changing table (which was indicated during traditional focus groups), mothers change diapers just about anywhere there's an open space and often struggle with packaging that requires two hands. By redesigning the packaging of their products for easy use with one hand,  Kimberly-Clark has seen a resurgence in popularity of its Huggies brand.

While many large corporations are exploring new methods of consumer research, you don't need a monstrous marketing budget to try some of these tools yourself. Spend some time going over your database. Who are 20 of your most loyal customers? Why not create, as authors Jackie Huba and Ben McConnell put it, a group of "customer evangelists"? Spend time in their homes, hold a few conversation group parties, get to know them from the inside out. What stage of life do your customers find themselves in, and what solutions do you offer to make their life easier, not to mention more enjoyable? Find out how they're using your product and service. Are they missing something you assumed they knew how to do? Are they utilizing what you sell in ways you never dreamed -- ways that should be shared with others? 

As traditional marketing and advertising gives way to futuristic methods of information delivery, the right kind of connection with individual consumers is more important than ever. Start looking at new ways to get to know your customers today, and you'll be one step ahead of the competition.