When Wendy Marron was testing an audio program her firm developed to help people get over public speaking fears, she rounded up eight people and conducted a focus group — and she learned people are stressed about talking in situations even she hadn’t imagined.

One participant revealed she gets nervous during telephone interviews, said Marron, partner of consulting firm High Performance U. Another confessed avoiding initiating conversations with strangers — a habit that can make social functions a chore.

“Everyone who has a fear of speaking has their own little quirky fear,” Marron said. Finding out new issues that affect potential customers shaped her firm’s resulting marketing messages. “The results that came back from the focus group really helped us and really surprised us.”

Focus groups can be extremely helpful to business owners, says Jill Matthews, whose Bright Cactus LLC marketing consulting firm conducts focus groups and works with global consumer packaged goods manufacturers and restaurants.

“Focus groups really help you understand the why — the why behind customers’ decisions and actions,” Matthews said. “They help you understand your customers, your consumer’s mindsets, what they feel, what motivates them ... and how they perceive any new ideas.”

Getting feedback directly from customers has unique advantages over feedback gleaned from experience as a business owner or employee, said analyst Brad Schaefer of Sageworks Inc., which conducts financial reporting and analysis.

Insiders “get so familiar and so sucked into how it’s done or how it works now,” he said. “It’s hard to step out of that view to see what the customer sees.”

When you need measurable, projectable data or hard core facts, however, focus groups probably aren’t the way to go, Matthews said.

Marron learned that from the focus group she developed. It included surveys of participants before and after they tried the audio program. “In the end, we didn’t get any numbers we could use because everyone was all over the map,” Marron said.

Matthews said professional focus group facilitators like herself offer the experience of structuring and conducting many focus groups a year — and of listening to participants. A professional moderator may pick up on attitudes about the economy or about different products and services as they crop up across multiple focus groups.

Before launching a focus group, you should know exactly what you want to learn, Matthews said. Identifying that “critical learning objective” can help determine not only how to structure the focus group but also whom should be included — current customers, lapsed customers, people with certain demographics or with certain attitudes and beliefs.

Another key is for business people to approach the focus group process “with open eyes, ears and minds,” Matthews said. “Listen for verbal language; watch for body language.” Customer comments will often surprise you; the focus group structure and the immediacy of feedback allow you to probe those findings, she said.

Schaefer suggests recording the events so you don’t miss what could be critical feedback. And while businesses should have an agenda for the focus group, let participants steer you in that agenda, he said. For example, if you’re testing a new product or service, talk generally about the idea and get feedback from participants before showing any prototype or giving more specifics.

“Don’t do a lot of talking in focus groups, because the whole point is to get the feedback from the other person,” said Schaefer. “The more talking you do, the more they narrow their feedback.”

Mary Ellen Biery is a research specialist at Sageworks, Inc.