Tips to Improve Your Collection Interviews

I recently gave a webinar for our SLA competitive intelligence division on “How to improve your collection skills through interviewing and elicitation.” I particularly enjoyed the Q&A and will share my 2 favorites which I have embellished on since I have had more time to think about them.

Phone Interviewer soloHow do you differentiate yourself from a telemarketer? Do you say what you’re doing, like a research project?

I usually don’t tell people exactly what I am up to in a cold call. It isn’t really necessary and most people don’t care. We are usually more experienced in communication than telemarketers, who try to have us not hang up on them. A telemarketer usually has the same approach and objective for every phone interview, such as to get us to buy something or to donate money to their charity. Not surprisingly, there is high turnover in telemarketing. I have been doing primary collection interviews for over 20 years. I have specific and different objectives for every telephone call. I also have multiple approaches to obtain information, but I am not asking anyone to buy my service or donate money to a charity. I don’t expect anyone to hang up on me and am polite. I have a level of confidence in the tone of my voice that telemarketers don’t have, just as soon as I say “Hello.” Remember it’s not just what you say, but how you say it that makes you a successful interviewer.

What are some tips to get the interview in the first place? Reaching people live, referrals or customized email requests leading up to a telephone call?

When it’s a cold call, it’s pretty straightforward. I call the company and ask to be transferred to the department that I think will best help me. Switchboard operators are usually quite helpful. If one is not, I will wait until lunchtime, when s/he is often replaced with someone else, or the telephone goes into auto-attendant, so I can make my best guess and get transferred through automation. Sometimes I don’t know who I should talk to and the switchboard will give me a name to connect with as she is transferring the call. It is now a referral which warms the call up a bit.

If it’s not a cold call, people increasingly expect you to email them to set up a time to talk on the phone, since they don’t appreciate having their day interrupted with unscheduled telephone calls. You have to figure out a short value proposition to get their attention, and be willing to call them to set up a time, since often enough they don’t email you back in a timely fashion. This is particularly true when querying people in technology.

However, with all the turnover in technology, the person you want to talk with to may have left the company. Meanwhile the administrator will let you know who their replacement is, ever willing to connect you immediately. You can decide to call later and look them up on LinkedIn, or you can be transferred right in to the person immediately. I always opt to be transferred immediately. By now I know enough about that person’s job and have done a little research on their company. Reading their LinkedIn profile isn’t going to help me that much, and will delay me from talking to them. These are often win loss analysis calls. They have inherited someone else’s decision, and are now responsible to make it work. They are happy to tell me all about their experience, and in these interviews I probably do about 10% of the talking. I think it’s also because they’re new with the company, and not so well connected with other employees just yet. I am a pair of willing, listening ears.

Here is the Interviewing & Elicitation presentation. Here is the YouTube that combines audio with the slides. However, the slides are a out of sync with the audio. For those who attended the webinar, I have included the YouTube link to the video of the awesome Walter Cronkite predicting the office of 2001 with pretty close accuracy, back in 1967!

Interviewing Versus Elicitation

People often ask, “What is the benefit of elicitation versus the standard interview?” Actually they have a lot in common.

Preparation in similar. You want to learn as much about that person as you can before you talk to them. Is there something about their profession that you can comment on to get the conversation flowing? Do they work in an interesting industry? Is there some industry jargon that you better know to be believed? What is their communication style? What will put them at ease to share with you early in the interview? Do you have something in common that you can build rapport with?

phone intv 2 peopleFor an interview, I list all the questions I want answered and then rephrase them in a way that makes it easier for the person to become engaged based on my research of their personality, preferred communication style and profession. This is a great exercise since mentally I start thinking about all the different ways they might respond, and in turn what other questions I might ask, that are not on my list, based on their response. I create something like a decision tree for interviewing, and you thought decision trees were just used in statistics. You can never be too prepared to talk to people, since interviews seldom go as planned, especially over the phone.

Whether you have an appointment or make a cold call, you are interrupting the person’s day, so you need to use your words wisely so as not to waste their time. With some people, a little small talk is all it takes to jump start the interview. With others, state your purpose and get to the point. Others will ask you questions to test your knowledge before they’ll share.

Elicitation is a conversational interview, a planned conversation. People remember the beginning and the end of a conversation more than what is spoken in the middle. If you are asking a series of questions they might wonder why you are asking those questions, and how they should answer. How is the interviewer going to use the information I share? Hmm, I wonder how much I should share? What’s in it for me to share this information?

So you start and end your elicitation conversation with some inconsequential questions about the weather, last night’s football score or ask what brings them to the trade show. Other than this small talk, you don’t ask questions. For some this takes practice. For me it comes naturally, since it’s human nature. When John Nolan taught us a workshop on elicitation in 1995, I remember thinking that I had been using some of these techniques and didn’t know this was elicitation.

Elicitation builds off human tendencies that most people have: a desire for recognition, showing off, curiosity, gossip, complaining, correcting you. Most people can’t keep a secret. There are numerous techniques, and I will illustrate a couple.

One of my favorites is flattery. Some people have a strong ego while others get so little recognition that stroking their ego really works.  Simple flattery often coaxes a person into a conversation that otherwise would not have taken place. Everybody, whether prominent, or very low on the totem pole, reacts to flattery as long as it’s genuine. A common way to use flattery is, “I’ve heard you’re the best…an expert…”

Another favorite is coming across as naïve. People just can’t resist enlightening you. Naïve doesn’t mean stupid. It just means that you don’t quite understand something.  For example when I spoke to a trades person about his instrument, I wanted to learn why he liked this particular competitor’s model. I simply said, “I am not as familiar with this company as I only know the market leader’s instrument which you replaced with this competitor’s model.” That’s all it took, and he told me what he liked about the competitor’s model, and why he didn’t replace it with the market leader’s.

This above call didn’t go as planned. According to my client’s database, this trades person was using one of their instruments. However, that was an error, and he was using a competitor’s model. I didn’t hesitate to find out more information about the competition.

I bet many of you who conduct primary research or interviews use elicitation techniques and don’t even realize it. If you want to learn more about this, you can read John Nolan’s book, Confidential. I gave a webinar for SLA’s Competitive Intelligence division. Check out the Slideshare deck.

Cooperative Communication: Digital versus Voice

email-phone-face-to-faceEveryday communication has become a complex business. When I started my job, it was so much easier. We had 3 choices: face-to-face, telephone and hardcopy. It was challenging enough then, since few of us received training on communication as part of our education. In years past, I picked up the telephone to communicate without an appointment. If it was a bad time, the other person would tell me and we would set up a better time.

Now we have so many additional choices ranging from old fashioned email, the various forms of social media, texting, blogs, wikis, and face to face electronic conferencing like SKYPE or Google hangouts. Where do you get trained on when and how to effectively use all these ways to communicate?

A recent HBR blog post, “Just Call Someone Already,” attracted over 100 comments and focused on when to use the phone versus email, often used instead of the phone. I resonated with the author, Dan Pallotta in his comment, “Much worse than the inefficiency of using email to set up phone calls are the missed opportunities and unnecessary misunderstandings that come when we use email instead of phone calls.”

Today many feel compelled to text or email a person to schedule a call, and better yet to avert the call, since many view phone calls as an inefficient use of time, an interruption to their day. Nobody has a monopoly on busy, and this attitude about interruption and efficiency at the expense of building human relationships seems unkind. It also feels selfish to me, since these folks are just considering their preferences, not the other person’s.

Email is often used to express emotions or feelings that people are too embarrassed to say. However, I think it’s better to confront the other person and clear things up over the telephone or better yet in person. I have received more rude emails, where people write things they would not have the nerve to say to my face or on the telephone. Another downfall of email is when it gets sent to too many people that don’t need to know or care about your communication.

I also notice rudeness in LinkedIn comments, Twitter and Facebook, where there is one up man ship professionally, for example. I resent the number of emails I get in my LinkedIn inbox asking for endorsements; please take a survey; buy my service—which these people presumably blast out to their LinkedIn connections just like email spammers. There is more blatant WIFM (what’s in it for me) in the digital world.

Everyone seems to agree that face-to-face is still the best way to connect as you can read the person’s body language which is so revealing. But in today’s world we are so scattered that many of us can’t easily or cheaply meet face-to-face. I always recommend that people connect the next best way which is often the telephone, SKYPE or Google hangouts.

However, email is still the steam engine for digital communication since it leaves a written trail, and you can communicate with many people simultaneously in one email, and time zones don’t matter. You can also attach a document for people to review, not an option with the phone, but an option with SKYPE or Google hangouts.

A best cooperative intelligence practice is to think about how the individual you want to reach likes to be communicated with, even if it’s not your preference. People in Sales figure this out pretty quickly.  They call; they fax; they email; they in-mail; whatever it takes connect to decision-makers. Another cooperative best practice is only send communication to those who will value it.

I am pretty open minded about communication. I like to stay in touch with friends and colleagues. In one win/loss project, I was doing one on one interviews. I emailed to set up a call with one non-customer. He refused, but did offer that he would be happy to email me answers to my questions. I got some of the best insight from this gentleman—all because I listened and accepted his preferred communication.

How to become an expert in primary intelligence: Interviewing

Last night I gave at talk to our DC SCIP chapter on primary intelligence collection and elicitation. I promised I would share the slides with attendees. They are on Slideshare.

Here are some of the key points from the talk about interviewing. The next blog will cover key points on elicitation.

When conducting an interview, most people know who you are and why you want to talk to them, except when you are cold calling, which is what we do often enough in competitive intelligence.

The first step in primary collection regardless of whether it’s a standard interview, elicitation or some combination is preparation. Do your homework. Find out about the person you will talk to, even if it’s a cold call. At the very least, you know their profession and their industry, which will help you develop reasons why they would want to talk with you, and more importantly, share! Do not skimp on this upfront time. Often conversations and interviews don’t go as planned. If you have done your preparation, you can more easily be flexible and go with plans b, c or d!

As you prepare for your collection project, think about what it is you will share and NOT share before you pick up the telephone or attend that trade show.

Think about why people will be motivated to share with you based on who they are: their profession, personal issues, politics, predisposition, and emotional intelligence. Be sensitive as to how they like to be communicated with based on how they come across in those first few seconds of the call or the meeting, and alter your communication style accordingly to a dominant, expressive, conscientious or amicable type. Recognize that people may change their practice and predisposition when they are under stress.

Reword your questions to motivate people to open up and share. Start with open ended questions that are easy for them to answer, and that you think they will enjoy answering. Then move to more hypothetical questions and indirect questions before you get to the more narrow questions. I find that bracketing those narrow questions gets a better response.

Listen closely to what the target is telling you, and be flexible. Perhaps they really don’t know the answers to some of those issues that you thought they would know. What are they not sharing that you thought they knew? Did they really know it or are they purposely not telling you? With so many participating in social networks there are too many self proclaimed experts who aren’t so expert once you start probing.

Lay aside your preconceived notions. Many of us listen for what we think is the ‘right’ answer or for what we want to hear. We don’t listen to the full story that the other person is telling us. Listen and put your ego aside if you want to be good in primary collection.

If you are at a trade show or another form of in-person collection, take advantage of the person’s body cues. Do the words match the facial and body expressions? If they don’t, believe the body: it’s easy to lie. In America, people often misinform. They are often just trying to be helpful, but it’s misinformation. Sometimes that’s harder to discern. One way is to make an obvious mistake in a key assumption or statistic as I ask a question. If they don’t pick up on it, I am suspicious about their knowledge level.

Also realize when dealing with people in person that it’s easier for people to manipulate their smiles and facial expressions, less easy for them to control other parts of their body such as their shoulders, arms, legs, feet and breathing.

If you are connecting on the telephone listen for a change in their tone of voice, pitch, cadence, confidence, speed of speech, hesitation, sigh, shallow breathing, silence. There are so many cues when you listen to people beyond what they say or don’t say. Trust your intuition: it’s usually right.

In closing, many people asked me how I represent myself when I talk to people. I tell them who I am right away. Many people seem to think there is one approach that will work with every person, that there is a simple answer to this question. There isn’t. You should choose to be ethical when you conduct research. SCIP has a code of ethics; AIIP and SLA have codes of ethics. Your company probably has a code of ethics or business practices they want you to follow. But most importantly you have to be true to yourself.

BTW, if you want to watch a great interview check out John Clees here and look for my next blog on elicitation.

Competitive Intelligence in 1985

ImageWhen I wrote my Pecha Kucha presentation for our SLA Competitive Intelligence tournament, I decided to go back in time to 1985, the first year I focused entirely on competitive intelligence. This is the first in a series about how I evolved in my career in competitive intelligence, and what I have learned over time. Overall I am glad I had a start back then for the critical thinking and deeper relationships I developed. I am glad to still be in this field today where I can reach out to sources quickly that I would never have dreamed even existed, thanks to social networking.

1985 was a very different time and I will focus on the US.

  • Gas was $1.09/gallon
  • Movies were $2.75
  • Rent averaged $375/month
  • The Fed’s interest rate was 10.75%.

Technical differences were also noteworthy:

  • Windows 1.0 was introduced
  • CDs were introduced in the US in 1985
  • The first mobile telephone call was made in the UK by Ernie Wise

I started to focus on what we called competitive analysis just before the Society of Competitive Intelligence (SCIP) was formed, and didn’t learn about SCIP until 1989, two years before SCIP published its first membership directory. I worked for Bell Atlantic, a new company then, a Baby Bell from the initial AT&T divestiture. We were working out our company infrastructure as I was figuring out how best to provide and collect competitive intelligence.

I did not have a PC at my desk. My telephone was the most immediate form of communication with most of the company, although I could easily have in-person meetings with our product and marketing managers who sat close-by. In fact I had to be careful not to attend too many of their meetings else I wouldn’t get my work done. It correlates somewhat to spending too much time on email and social networks today.

We shared a fax machine among many of us, and waited in line at the photocopy machine. Secretaries typed up memos and reports. We took notes by hand. We memorized people’s phone numbers and had a Rolodex of names. I cross referenced my Rolodex names by job function in case I forgot a person’s name. We used company mail and US mail (which we didn’t call snail mail) for written communication.

Presentations would be typed up, given on overhead machines or written up on flip charts. I spent less time putting together presentations through these primitive means than I do today on PowerPoint decks since our standards were lower. I think people spent more time listening to what you had to say back then, since what you produced wasn’t much to look at. It also meant you had to know your stuff since there wasn’t the crutch of media to support you. People asked more questions and had more comments since they couldn’t easily get smart before a meeting like we can today by accessing the Internet to read up a bit.

I read the news in hard copy. We distributed news sources like Time, Business Week and Fortune among ourselves. I got my own copy of The Wall Street Journal which I read daily. We noted who got which industry consultant reports and subscriptions throughout Bell Atlantic. It could be that our Philadelphia office would get the only copy of an expensive industry report, and we would have to wait our turn to read it due to copyright issues.

The first organizational thing I did was a personal SWOT. My strength has always been visionary. I can see the big picture pretty readily and am creative. I am not strong with the details and execution although I am highly intuitive. I was lucky and found a wonderful lady to work with who was great with people and had a similar work ethic to mine. Unlike me, she was attentive to detail and great with execution. Over time we became a strong team, and are still friends some 25+ years later, although we live 2000 miles apart.

Our opportunity and our immediate threat were the same thing:

  • Learn how each of our regions communicated
  • Learn each region’s culture
  • Learn how individuals were motivated to share
  • Learn how individuals and each region would accept facts and ideas from a centralized group outside their region, namely us

We had to talk with each other more often than we do today, since there was no email; no voice mail or social media connection. I got copies of company’s (competitor’s) press releases from my company’s industry liaison person soon after she received them, so I could pass on the scoop to my company clients.

We had to use our creativity to achieve real-time intelligence, since people were our only real-time source, and we had fewer people we could reach out to since our world was smaller. On a positive note, our relationships with people were deeper, perhaps since we had fewer relationships. Our critical thinking skills were naturally sharpened with these deeper relationships. I had a few people outside the company that I had provocative discussions with often. These people helped me reach outside of Bell Atlantic’s culture and expand my vision of the competitive environment.

4 Steps to Plan for Successful Win Loss Interviews

I am in the planning stages of a win loss analysis project and in the spirit of cooperative intelligence will share why many of these endeavors don’t shed much light and never really get off the ground. One reason is the person conducting the win or loss interview does not have all the material s/he needs before conducting the interviews. Often people ask me for the template that I use when conducting the interviews. While that’s important, I find that people will tell me what they know once I get to interview them. The real challenge is convincing them to take the time for the interview in the first place!

What you need to get in the door:

 #1 Basic Sales Intelligence about the situation for each person/company you will be interviewing. At a minimum, I like to have:

The Company’s Name I will be interviewing

The Customer’s Name(s) (I like to get two or three if possible and let the customer decide who has time for this interview.)

Customer’s Title

Customer’s Contact Information: Phone number AND email address

Account Rep’s Name

How Long with the Company

Annual Revenue from theSale

Approximate Date of the Sales Decision

Win, Loss or Undecided

If Win, check what applies: Incumbent, Win back, Win with Competition, Win with little competition, Customer testimonial already

If Loss, check what applies: Was previously a customer, Was Never a Customer. Loss to ______ fill in the name of the Winner

All competitors whether win, loss or undecided

Deal Summary (Share the relevant details around the win or loss including the key challenges.)

Specific to the industry or customer. I will create categories of “customer” based on what marketing tells me, so sales can just check that off. I want to make this as easy as I can for Sales.

#2 A good value proposition as to why the customer or prospect wants to talk to you that you will either tell them over the phone or email to them in advance of a phone call to schedule a convenient time to connect.

#3 Flexibility on time and communication for the feedback you need on the win or loss situation. This is the real challenge today. So many people are doing the work of 4 people that they simply don’t have time. Some have that 15-20 minutes that you need to go over a survey and also allow them to simply tell you the real reasons why you won or loss and share precious nuggets about their business and the competitors. Others don’t, so you need to be creative about letting them tell you their story. Sometimes it’s useful to let them tell you some hard hitting information via email and then have a 10 minute call.  Somehow this isn’t as painful to them. Ironically it would probably take less of their time to give you a 20 minute call since email does take time to compose but somehow it often isn’t perceived that way.

#4 Research the companies and the people that you will be interviewing. In yesteryear I spoke to Sales to get this information. Now Sales doesn’t have time to talk to me in most situations, so I check out LinkedIn and other social networks to get an idea of how that person I need to connect with will be motivated to share based on their communication style. This is a good use of time since you can customize your communication based on this intelligence and this really opens up sharing. If you don’t know the company, check out their site so you can appreciate what they do.

So, I have shared the start to my win/loss projects, what do you have to add?

Win/Loss Analysis book gives you a process to learn why you’re losing business and how to keep more of it!

Receive our 6-page Win/Loss Cheat Sheets

Connect on LinkedIn  Connect on Twitter

 

Questions to Ask Competitive Intelligence Software Providers

One of my colleagues called today and we spoke about what you might be looking for when you team up with a competitive intelligence software provider. I have links to a few of my favorites here. Rather than extolling the virtues of individual providers, in the spirit of cooperative intelligence, here are some practical questions you want to ask a prospective service provider:

How does your system integrate with what I already have installed at various places in my company? Think salesforce.com that many in Sales use, SAP or Oracle systems. How does this software work with what people are already familiar with? Can the service provider provide a mask that makes it transparent to the user? Can this hang off our CRM? What will the CI software enable you to do that you can’t do today? Why?

How does this software enable competitive intelligence: monitoring, collection, dissemination and analysis? Frankly there isn’t a system out there that I know of that supports the entire competitive intelligence (CI) process. You need to decide what is the most important part of the CI cycle that the software will enable. Is translation built in for global organizations? How will it support multiple languages? Or do you build separate software apps in the native tongue and not support translation?

Many companies use CI software to both collect and disseminate intelligence. As a CI professional, I look for a solution that will free up my time to be a critical thinker, to do the analysis, prepare persuasive communication from what I can deduce, and connection with my users and providers of CI–in some cases maintaining that relationship in others finding and building relationships.

In that same vein, what is involved in keeping the information flow up-to-date? Does the software have crawlers that continue to find new information? How does it accommodate and integrate findings from traditional web 1.0 and social networks? Can my clerks be set up to input that timely information? Does it include any audience opinions such as a favorable rating versus slamming your products? How far back do I want to go in storing information? How do I insure that the date of the information is clearly identified so readers know? Do we have guidelines around copyright?

What is the balance between Push and Pull? Can my system users decide which areas they want to follow and have information pushed to them? How will the information be organized so people can easily find it? How does keyword searching work to locate information?

How easy is this system to use? Is any aspect of it visual? How easy is it for people to add information? Can they do it on the fly, such as from a trade show when they learn new intelligence? How do people correct mistakes and outdated information? Can I use the software for CI project management? How can people communicate back and forth through this software? Can we locate experts by topical area, both internal and external to the company?

What is the system security? How do I keep my strategic information away from Sales, for example? How do I keep all that Sales chatter away from R&D and strategic planners who might not be interested? How many levels of security does the system have?

What is your company’s culture? Are people going to engage with a CI software application or do you already have too many apps for people to process? Timing is everything. If your company is receptive to a CI software solution, where do you test it? How long do you test it? What will be the measure of success that will cause you to expand its usage? How will you train users on how the system works and the benefits of using it?

I believe that companies who can react to and predict the marketplace in real-time, while also having a meaningful long-term strategic plan, will be the winners in this global competitive environment. While you need to look out in the future with your crystal ball, you also need to be flexible enough to react to what is happening in the present moment, and be nimble enough to change, adapt and be opportunistic.

So, what questions would you add to this list?

Gain Competitive Advantage through Risk Management: NCBA’s Story

Kendal Frazier, Senior VP at National Cattleman’s Beef Association (NCBA) spoke at our Denver Association of Strategic Planning meeting on the subject of crisis and risk management. To appreciate NCBA’s risk management program, it’s helpful to understand this industry. They are HUGE, a $70 billion industry. Cattle are raised in every state, and occupy more land than any other industry in the US. There are over 800,000 in beef cattle; and 200,000 in dairy cattle. The two key goals of NCBA are to protect the safety of US cattle and thus protect the health of beef consumers and maintain consumer confidence in the product. There are strict rules to reduce the risk of disease entering the US cattle market from imports. There is a big push for risk communication: that is how NCBA will react to bad news such as Mad Cow disease!

While the more sensational story was around NCBA’s involvement in the Oprah Winfrey show in 1996, I more appreciated how NCBA implemented its risk management strategy when Mad Cow entered the US on Dec 23, 2003, and believe they reacted in a way that reflects cooperative intelligence principles.

On that same day, NCBA reached out to a pre-selected list of government contacts. They activated a dark website which had been developed just in case Mad Cow penetrated the US. At 5:30 pm that night, Ann Veneman, Secretary of the USDA, made the announcement. Then NCBA held a news conference with 140 media contacts. At 7:30 pm, they made announcements to state agencies, beef councils and affiliates, like McDonald’s who sells 3% of US beef. As of Dec 23, 20 – 30 people worked solely on this issue as prescribed by the emergency response process plan. They had a communication response plan all set to go and worked throughout the holiday season.

What lessons did they learn?

Practice, practice, practice–even down to the level of conducting media interviews.

Organize a team of spokespersons at the National and State level.

Organize your internal resources. Make sure that you have all functions around the table when these crises happen. You need everyone’s perspective: legal, marketing, administrative, purchasing, research, government affairs—all functions!

Drive consumers and media to your dark website. It was helpful to have already developed a dark website for Mad Cow disease.

Your enemies will attack: be prepared. NCBA had a list of enemy activist groups as part of their preparedness for this event.

Expect people to overreact and have your response ready (some schools said they would eliminate beef at cafeterias).

Communicate this difficult problem in easy terms to the consumer.

Make sure that industry amplifies what the government is saying.

Keep major partners in the communication loop.

The media is not the enemy, but is the battle ground. Choose multiple spokespersons for your message.

Evaluate how well your spokesmen come across in the media. Pull weak players and use the more effective spokespersons.

Give the ground team more support (the Washington State team where Mad Cow entered the US).

Being ready when a crisis hits is a huge competitive advantage! Scenario planning is a great exercise to flesh out which crises you should be prepared for. If you wait until the crisis hits, it’s too late, especially in today’s real-time world!

Real-Time Competitive Advantage

I am enjoying David Meerman Scott’s book, Real-Time Marketing & PR. He explains the competitive advantage to companies and individuals of being responsive to events that affect them in real-time: that means right NOW, not tomorrow. No longer can you just monitor the news: you have to take action! In this book he tells the story of how United Airlines broke Dave Carroll’s Taylor guitar. Dave Carroll, a songwriter gets back at United with a song about how United breaks guitars which becomes a YouTube hit. The saga continues as Taylor Guitar and Calton Cases (yes you guessed it, they created Dave Carroll guitar cases) capitalized on this event, by responding quickly and decisively. A most amusing story, if you’re not United who came out smelling like a skunk. David tells the story here.

I hadn’t really thought about real-time response as a competitive intelligence professional. Often we’re so busy monitoring, studying and analyzing competitors, market trends and our customers that we ignore what action we should be taking right now to be more competitive. So many companies are stuck in the past and the future and forget that we operate in the NOW!

How many companies are connected to their customers in real-time? Some listen to what their customers say on Twitter and other social media, which is a step in the right direction especially for companies in the B to C space. But what about companies selling B to B? How do they stay connected to their customers in real-time? At SCIP’s annual conference, Rick Marcet spoke about the win/loss model that he developed at Microsoft which is fed by sales. This is the best example I can think of continuous learning from customers. These assessments are completed at the conclusion of the sale, while the information is fresh, and is viewed as part of the sales process. The company takes action on an ongoing basis based on these results. You can read more about this in Rick’s soon to be published book, Win/Loss Reviews: A New Model for Competitive Intelligence.

Carrying this a step further: how many companies have real-time communication with their employees? While many companies claim that their employees are their biggest asset: how many companies really listen to them on a regular basis? Southwest Airlines comes to mind immediately as they solicit suggestions from employees, implement the winning suggestions and reward employees appropriately. This is America’s second largest airline, and has been profitable in an industry which has slim margins and where most competitors have had a bout with bankruptcy.

Almost every company monitors its competitors and the marketplace it perceives that it competes in. However, too many companies just monitor these activities using Google and other forms of electronic connection and social networks. I think this is just a first step and that winning companies take action based on what they learn, and they don’t need to get the board’s approval. Companies that are excellent also have a human source network that they are connected to in real-time who they can count on to be responsive as business needs dictate.

As our world becomes smaller and more easily connected through the Internet and social media, this real-time connection and communication is becoming a way of doing business. Don’t be left out by disallowing your employees to participate in real-time. You will never have enough information to be certain that you are correct, but if you wait until you’re sure of what you “should say” or “should do,” you will be too late.

Preparation: Step 1 for Successful Collection Interviews

Colleagues and clients ask why people share information so readily with me, especially when cold calling. The first secret is that I like people and have a cooperative attitude. This encourages a good connection almost as soon as we start talking. Preparation, even for cold calling, or should I say especially for cold calling, is essential since the other person has no incentive to talk to you until you provide it clearly and quickly.

The first thing I do when I get a collection assignment is to learn the language and jargon of the industry I am targeting. I figure out the habits and challenges of the workers I will speak to.  For example in one project I had to interview hospital employees to learn what equipment they had installed, and how old it was, so we could do some forecasting. I learned the pain points these employees faced as well as the problems that this equipment solved. This made getting the information relatively easy, since they were sharing what equipment they had installed as part of the overall picture of their situation.

The second thing is to figure out who knows the information you are looking for. Who else cares? Who knows and doesn’t realize the value of this knowledge or care enough to keep it a secret.  For example, in this hospital project, I figured out which department would know this information. Once I was forwarded through the switchboard, someone always answered the phone.  The biggest enemy these days is that people hide behind their caller ID enabled telephones, and might not pick up your call. However, if you’re transferred in through a switchboard, often your identity is masked.

Before I pick up the phone, I have all my questions and conversations organized, since I don’t want to stumble or waste time. Most importantly I have several introductions prepared, and when I hear their “Hello” I decide which one might work, or I go a different direction. There is a lot of art to phone interviewing, and listening for how the person “is” goes far beyond their voice.

I think long and hard about what questions the other person might ask me about who I am and why I am calling. If you are thoughtful about this, you can listen more closely to the other person. This is key to a good interview, since conversations often don’t go as planned. You listen for what they say and what they omit, which you had expected them to know.

I find if I am thorough in my preparation, I am more relaxed, and can listen fully since I am not panicking about what I should ask next. I can also think of other angles and questions right on the spot which I hadn’t considered, since the other person’s comments may trigger them or cause me to doubt something I thought I had already correctly collected which their answer contradicts.

Remember preparation is a key step to a successful interview, but it is just the start. In future blogs, I will share other important steps.

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