How to be a Competition Detective: Eliciting Conversation

People often ask me how I engage people so readily in conversation over the telephone.

“Who do you say you are? Why do you say you’re calling?”

The first question is easy to answer. I always say I’m Ellen Naylor.

Crazy woman on phoneThe second question is harder to answer without more context. Is it a cold call or a warm call? A cold call is when you don’t know the person and they don’t know you. A warm call is when the other person doesn’t know you, but you know them through your sources. Or it might be a hot call which is the easiest: you and the person you’re calling both know each other and why you’re calling. You have different preparation for each type of call. But you need to have a good entrée to each person so they know in short order why you’re calling, what you want and what’s in it for them to give you their time for an interview.

With all calls, you want to give the person a good reason to talk with you, and not waste their time with small talk and listen very closely to how and what they share and don’t share with you. With a cold call, I research the person’s profession and try to find out what about that profession I can relate to or not, and get the conversation going. After a few interviews you get even more ideas about what they do and don’t tend to like about their job.

In a healthcare query each person I spoke to was a recruiter for medical professionals who traveled to different hospitals around the US for work. I got their attention by mentioning that it must be challenging for their employees to be away from their families. With others, I mentioned how much I liked to travel. This simple entrée got most of them talking.

Using elicitation techniques, another great entrée for me is, “I’m Ellen Naylor and I wonder if you can help me.” Then I tell them why. People often can’t resist the urge to be helpful in our US culture, especially when talking to a female who sounds young.

People can’t resist the urge to show off a bit if you flatter them with, “I hear you’re an expert in this area,” or “I want to understand what you do and don’t like about this equipment. Companies can only make product improvements if they hear what’s wrong. They also need to hear what’s really right so they don’t go changing those features.”

If someone is a little hesitant and less interactive, I often ask if this is a bad time, and will call them back later. Other times this hesitation means they expect me to share something in return before they’ll start talking. So I will share some tidbits I have learned, and these can be my best interviews. In a recent project, I called one of these hesitant guys back at 6:30 a.m. his time. We conversed for about 45 minutes, and I felt like I had a new friend by the end.

Warmed up calls are so much easier since you don’t have to quickly convince a stranger that you’re worth talking to. However, you do need to respect their time and be polite. One way is to hone in on relevant information about them so you can ask better and tighter questions.

The bottom line is I consider who I am talking to and the questions I need to have answered. I try to think of all the ways the person might answer them, so I am more prepared for the unexpected. Calls seldom go as planned whether they’re cold, warm or hot. You are dealing with another human being. Be flexible and prepare additional questions for the unexpected turns of an interview. Don’t take yourself too seriously and keep that smile on your face.

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How to be a Competition Detective: Motivation

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This is the first in a series of blogs to improve your collection skills. Figuring out how others are motivated is a great start. Even if you’re cold calling, you can get a hint of how they might be motivated by learning more about their profession. In a recent project I called trades people from various industries who worked with electricity. I had to learn their language and the innuendos of the marketplace, the products, the competition and what people liked or didn’t about various product models they used.

In addition to the major provider’s websites, I visited stores that sold these products so I could see how they looked and felt in 3D versus the Internet. One provider really stood out as their product is ergonomic whereas other competitor’s products looked and felt more like a brick. I also spoke to sales people in retail stores. Not too many women inquire about this equipment so I was an anomaly, and they were all too happy to tell me everything they knew about the equipment and which models sold better and why.

Amazon increasingly sells this equipment and customer comments were quite helpful, as were trades people’s comments to each other on industry Internet panels. I learned that most trades people wanted the best product in the marketplace, and that product quality and reliability were important for most since they worked with electricity. But there were some who bought based on price and found that an inferior product was good enough. I also learned from experts on YouTube who showed how this equipment worked. One person even took one of the products apart to show how well made it was as compared to some competitor’s models.

Meanwhile I spoke to sales, marketing and product development in the company that hired me. I got as much information about the marketplace, trends and projections so I could share these ideas as I saw fit with some of those people I would interview without divulging proprietary information.

We were trying to assess why the marketplace for certain products was shrinking while others were growing. We agreed on a list of questions I would ask which were both quantitative and qualitative. I considered the many ways that a person might answer each question as this was not a survey. I set the questions up like a decision tree in my mind. If they answered one question a certain way, I might not go to the next question, but would query them differently sensing they knew additional information. This process helps me be more flexible when I interview people, and it doesn’t go quite as planned.

Lastly before I called each person, I took a quick gander at their company’s website so I would have an idea of what type of tradesperson I might be speaking to. Often enough their company website wasn’t informative enough, so I made a guess as to what this person might be doing. If I was wrong, they were happy to correct me, and interestingly enough they just kept on informing me.

None of these people knew who I was before I called them. If I got through to the targeted person they were quite cooperative. After all, who ever asked their opinion about anything? While they were pressed for time like anyone else, they wanted to be heard. There are not enough listeners in this world.

One of my favorites was a crane operator who I didn’t know was a crane operator until he answered the phone and told me he was up in his crane. I chewed him out for answering his phone while operating this machinery and immediately asked if I could call him back when he was safely on the ground. I called him back at the designated time and he gave me a good chunk of his lunch hour.

People like that you appreciate their occupation, and I have found this to be a prime motivator to get people to open up to me regardless of their profession. It also pays to be polite regardless of which profession you are targeting. So many people are rude these days, especially to trades people, who feel they are taken for granted. Some of those I interviewed thanked me at the end of the interview, when it was I who should do the thanking. In today’s rushed society, having good manners really stands out.

Use Rivalry to Spur Innovation & Competitive Intelligence Sharing

In a recent McKinsey Quarterly, Mark Little, head of General Electric’s Global Research Group described how GE uses rivalry to stimulate innovation. I think these practices help GE be the powerhouse in the many fields where it is a market leader. Rivalry can mean outright competition—a zero-sum contest in which two individuals or teams go head-to-head and one is declared the winner at the expense of the other. But in the case of GE, rivalry is linked to a second notion, called paragon which means comparison. The motivation behind collaboration often is rivalry as two or more teams compete to develop the best product.

Scientists are motivated a lot like anyone else in that they want to be the best: yes, they’re competitive! Due to my love of aviation, my favorite example cited was the GE90, the large, high-thrust engine developed in the 1990s for the Boeing 777, which was developed by two independent teams. While one team won the competition, the other was assigned to challenge and push the winning team. While this pushing process made the teams uncomfortable, it made the GE90 a better engine and helped advance product development.

In the competitive intelligence field, I think of wargaming as a similar exercise where members of each team collaborate and role play as if they were specific competitors, so there is a healthy rivalry among the teams. However, the goal overall in a war game is to help your company be more competitive. More specifically the goal might be to prepare for a competitor’s new product launch, so it isn’t just the competitors who are represented by a team. One team might represent the marketplace which might include customer’s reactions and regulatory hurdles, for example.

Another example where rivalry works is in sales intelligence, when you reward individual sales people for being the best competition detective. Winners might share information around a new competitor entering your company’s space; a significant change in a competitor’s management team; how a team achieved a win back against a key competitor; new innovation in the marketplace; or how to win sales in spite of regulatory constraints. This is fun since most sales people like publicity and you can lay it on thick through your company’s communication channels: sales rallies, sales teleconference calls, complimentary write ups in the company wiki/newsletter or intranet and a handwritten letter to the sales person’s boss and others like the VP of Sales! While your reward system will never compete with a sales person’s commission, this publicity can. This playful rivalry will only grow over time if you figure out different ways to let Sales compete and continue to publicize your thank-you to the best competition detectives.

The real learning is you can use healthy rivalry to stimulate various behaviors since most people are naturally competitive and want to be the best. You need to figure out how best to motivate individuals to reach your company’s goals whether it’s product innovation, competitive intelligence or sales intelligence, the examples cited here. Depending on an individual’s personality type, this healthy rivalry might be fun or it might make them squirm a bit.

In the spirit of cooperative intelligence, here is an article on sales intelligence for your reading pleasure.

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