October 25, 2012

By Karol Aure-Flynn

Recently, and quite by accident, I found myself partaking in a focus group of sorts at the local coffee shop in my rural hometown in the Southern San Joaquin Valley. This all came about by chance. I didn’t plan it. But it couldn’t have been more eye-opening.

So, three unexpected characters meet up at a coffee shop: A helicopter pilot, a table grape grower and a cattle rancher. Their disciplines couldn’t be more different, yet they found common ground discussing the peaks and troughs of their careers. The experiences and the ups and downs they encountered along the way were similar and offered wisdom that could be applied to each of their lines of work.

For the first time wearing my consultant hat, I’d found myself in the unfamiliar territory of not being able to get a word in edgewise while the cross-pollination of ideas flowed freely. And as each of these gentlemen shared their stories and reached their “ah-ha” moments, I was blatantly reminded why we do what we do here at Entira.

Each of these guys has 20+ years of experience under his belt. Each at the pinnacle of his career, they’d “made it” thanks to good habits and smart decisions. All of them have managed their businesses through challenges and changes—some they had anticipated and prepared for, many others were unexpected. BSE. Export tariffs. Grape crisis. Regulations regarding aerial application. Groundwater issues. Shifting cropping patterns. These men had certainly been through it all.

They lived within a 50-mile radius but knew little about each other’s business. They were inquisitive...the grape grower asked the cattle rancher about feed and merchandising. He wanted to know about forward contracting. He wanted opinions about the business opportunities and risks the others had faced that he might be able to apply to his own business. The man in the aerial application business shared many interesting stories about evaluating unique contracting or business acquisition opportunities, in a shifting environment.

To get the good data, you have to get in front of people. There is no replacement for good old face-to-face communication. That kind of energy and insight cannot be recreated via any form of technology or social networking.

There’s nothing more authentic than a face-to-face conversation, in the same place at the same time. It’s where you can read expressions, shake hands, and connect on a human level—we are human, it’s what we do naturally! A smiley face emoticon can’t evoke as true an emotional connection as a smile with a handshake. It’s validating. It provides clarity. It prevents misconceptions. It’s invigorating—motivational, spawning new ideas and creativity. I witnessed all of that happening before my eyes at a rickety table inside a tiny coffee house.

Facilitating these kinds of conversations is one of our greatest specialties at Entira, though we generally go about it with a well-devised plan and not leave it to chance like my coffee shop experience. Our sweet spot is qualitative market research—specialized, high quality, very targeted market research. If the best clues to your customers’ mindset are in the dairy parlor, then that’s where we’ll be. If it requires spending the day in a combine with a soybean producer, we’re there. We’re willing to get our hands and feet dirty if that’s what it takes to learn what makes your customers tick. As companies face a rapid flow of change, business decisions to be made that open dialogue is paramount to ensuring you have all the insight and all the perspectives you need to make smart choices for your business.

So without even trying, I had created a cohort group freely sharing stories of their troubles and success. It was fascinating. So many learnings to be had from unexpected sources, all because of a chance meeting inside a local coffee shop.

My takeaway for agribusiness? Don’t take data for granted. Don’t assume demographics alone will tell you what you need to know. Go to the source and look them in the eye and have a conversation.

My impromptu focus group found their “ah ha” moments at the world’s original social network hub—the local coffee shop. Where is the “coffee shop” of your industry? When is the last time you paid it a visit? Please contact Entira at info@entira.net if you're interested in learning more about face-to-face, qualitative market research for your sector.