When Ford wants to know how it is doing, it often turns to a man named Martin Goldfarb.

Goldfarb, a sociology graduate of the University of Toronto, has worked with the nation's No. 2 carmaker for nearly 25 years, helping it better design its cars through the use of "focus groups," as they are known in the business.Such groups, also called consumer clinics, are compiled from a random selection of buyers who are then asked to share their likes or dislikes about certain products or services.

Toronto-based Goldfarb Corp. assembles several hundred such groups around the country each year on behalf of Ford as well as several other major companies and even political parties.

Such groups are used to conduct "pulse research" - some more industry jargon. Simply put, millions of dollars in added sales and profits can be realized if companies develop and design products that satisfy or appeal to a wide spectrum of consumers.

Several automotive journalists were invited recently to observe a group of eight owners of new 1991 Ford Escort cars through a one-way mirror. Each owner was paid $50 to participate in a videotaped 90-minute session in which Goldfarb asked a variety of questions.

"We have really never understood the depth of feeling people have about their cars," said Goldfarb, 52, a soft-spoken man who started his firm in 1966 and who has been called in some circles the most influential private citizen in Canada.

"But we know consumers make very wise choices in their own self-interest, and we try to understand how consumers respond to the product, " he said.

Goldfarb must make the group feel at ease. He speaks in a low, soothing voice, first asking individuals about what they do for a living.

"You have to get them relaxed by having them answer easy questions . . . they do not want to feel embarrassed or insecure," he said.

Indeed, early in the session some owners could not even remember which Escort model they own. By the end, however - and even though they knew they were being observed - they were more comfortable and more willing to say some negative things about their Escorts.

Some disliked the automatic seat-belt design, while another commented on the "plain-looking" dashboard. One even said he would never have considered a Ford car because the older Escorts in his company's fleet "are the cheapest, tinniest things you ever saw in your life."

The varied assortment of Escort owners at this particular session included homemakers and engineers. While they lauded Ford's newly redesigned small car for its interior room, ride and reasonable monthly payments, they also seemed to focus on minor and often inexpensive details, such as a convenient cup holder, for instance.

Goldfarb concedes the Detroit area is not a good place to conduct such research because so many people are employed in the auto industry. So as part of this study, he also is interviewing groups in Dallas, New York, Washington, Los Angeles and Chicago.

Afterward, the results are distilled into brief summaries for company executives, who decide whether to make changes in a product or service.

Robert Rewey, vice president of sales operations for Ford, holds Goldfarb in high regard.

"He has made major contributions in crystalizing the company's thinking on a broad range of fundamental issues regarding the voice of the customer," he said. "What customers have told us has either confirmed or suggested change in our marketing and/or product direction."