Previously, I wrote that effective product managers actively go to the market to obtain information rather than relying on industry experience, feedback from support calls, or feedback from sales. Many executives don't seem to appreciate the value of go-to-market approaches, with one exception: focus groups.
Due to media attention to the concept of focus groups - whether in the context of product marketing or politics - much of the population is familiar with the notion. So the first idea that may pop into your head as an executive when you need market feedback is to conduct a focus group. Unfortunately, focus groups, while sometimes a useful tool, are often not a particularly effective active means of gaining an understanding your market.
The main problem with focus groups is that they don't give the facilitator the opportunity to probe deeply into the customers' situations and problems. Not all customers have the same perspective and background, so you would have to probe each customer individually to understand them. A focus group is not the appropriate setting for probing each individual's personal situation.
Focus groups are still helpful, particularly when one-on-one interviews precede them. Focus groups aid you in gaining an understanding of the surface, gut reactions of your customers. They also may yield insights about the effect of customer interaction on their propensity to buy.
Use focus groups judiciously, and don't use them to the exclusion of other techniques. More on this subject in Susan Abbott's Customer Experience Crossroads blog.