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.

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.

Maximize Your ROI through Competitive Intelligence

This is the second in the series from my Pecha Kucha presentation for our SLA Competitive Intelligence tournament. In the first I described life as a competitive intelligence professional back in 1985.

This will focus on maximizing your ROI (return on investment) while providing market intelligence. You want to prove your worth as soon as you can. First you must find out what is missing that you CAN PROVIDE ETHICALLY! We conduct interviews with those who fund our competitive intelligence initiatives, as well as those we know will ultimately be great sources of CI (CI sources and users will often be the same people, but not always).

I was fortunate in that I came from field Sales, so I knew sales intelligence was an area where I could improve our company’s ROI by helping them win more deals. I had a good idea how I could help without interviewing anyone, since I knew what we were missing. We didn’t have regional detail on how to win against specific competitors. We just had a global outlook on the competition, and this was too broad to be useful. In addition, people in Sales didn’t know each other, so I could connect individuals who were combating the same competitor, and let them strategize together. Then I could share their success story so others could take advantage and win more deals. This would pump up the sales force, so they would share even more with me, since they liked this kind of publicity.

Competitive intelligence is a support role. You need to shelf your ego. I learned that I portrayed a cooperative attitude which I have since dubbed “cooperative intelligence”, which opened up the floodgates of sharing from Sales in particular. I went to them on a mission to help them, rather than to extract information from them. This was a first for them. Since I was a giver and a listener, this cut through politics and promoted information sharing. When you give without the expectation of something in return, anyone can tell.

There are more subtle ways to gain brownie points with Sales. I noticed that most staffers were coming to sales people with requests for information repeatedly, and that their requests were often for similar or even for the same information. I decided to become a conduit for others in our headquarters staff to centralize and consolidate their requests for information from Sales. Sales loved this since this reduced the number of staff requests. I also kept track of what other staffers had collected from Sales, so that I could intervene in some cases when Sales had recently already provided this data to a different staffer. Staffers appreciated this too since most of them didn’t like to call Sales with requests for information. This is a great way to insert yourself into the Sales process and prove your value. It doesn’t take much extra time, and Sales is really grateful.

Even doing all these things “right,” it still took me about 2 years to connect with Sales throughout our company. You cannot rush connection and relationships. It takes time to build trust.

It took me a little longer to connect with Sales Vice Presidents, the subject of my next blog.

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.

Independence or Not?

It’s Independence Day in the US, and it makes me wonder how independent we are as individuals. These thoughts were inspired by “The Busy Trap” in the New Times by Tim Kreider.

How many times have you heard people say, “I am too busy. I am soooo busy.” Are most of us really busier than we used to be? Or are we imposing busyness by all the distractions of everyday 21st century life? I think the only ones who are truly too busy are those who are pulling 3 jobs barely scraping by; students who also work long hours while at university; single parents who no longer have the means to support their family; and those who take care of their elderly parents while also raising kids and working. Not only are they too busy, they are tired and we are losing their creativity while they are in these circumstances.

I traveled a lot in the last month to Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota, DC, Virginia and Maryland. While I didn’t think about it, I found myself engaging with the present, with the people I was around and paying less attention to my social networks. I found myself a lot more relaxed, and less busy! I slept longer and was in a better mood. Laughter, which comes easily to me, was ever present. How many ways do you need to connect every day? Do you have to be connected to Twitter and Google+ constantly? How often do you need to log into LinkedIn not to mention Facebook and Foursquare? Do people really need to know what you’re doing all the time and where you ate and what airline you’re flying? Knowing when to connect on social media is a competitive advantage for individuals and for companies. Knowing when not to connect gives you more independence.

We have have had a record amount of fire destruction in Colorado already this summer. I don’t watch TV, another way that I am less busy. Last week when the Waldo Canyon Fire in Colorado Springs expanded ferociously from the wind gusts and dryness, I was in touch with the present through Twitter feeds and the live video-stream on the Internet. Soon we will have systems in place to help the many families who lost their homes build back their lives.

So how does this translate into competitiveness? We are flooded with incoming information and ways that people steal our time from us, if we pay attention to all of it, or even to too much of it. You don’t need to know ALL the information out there about your marketplace, new technology, the economy, the political situation, your customers, your suppliers and your competitors. Rather you need to know WHEN to pay attention when you are NOTICING CHANGE. If you spend too much time listening to all the chatter you might miss the important changes or your ability to predict how the marketplace is evolving and what you need to do to stay on top or at least to stay competitive!

So on this Independence Day, think about how you are going to regain some lost time in your life by turning down some of that “social noise,” tempting though it be. Learn how to relax again. I plan to enjoy my Mom today who is 94 and is visiting us. Maybe that’s why “The Busy Trap” spoke to me. I want to relish the time I have with her today. BTW she is napping now.

Timing is Everything in Win/Loss Interviews

Too many product managers seem to avoid customer interaction. While they know that customer Insights are useful to define products, features and the marketing message, there is this fear of customer confrontation. Yet most customers are actually quite willing to share the experience of dealing with your sales force, and how they chose your product or a competitor’s.

In a recent webinar I learned a few new things about the psychology behind conducting win/loss interviews. I have always told clients to makes sure that the sale is complete and implemented before handing them off to me to interview. In the webinar, Steve Johnson of discussed the timing of the win/loss interview.

Customers are the least confident during implementation, and often experience stress, so you are less likely to get a clear headed reaction to their decision-making process, and what features they do/don’t like or what they think of your products or marketing message. They will be preoccupied with the process of implementation. For example, they might have thought they would get more handholding or professional services during implementation.

Timing is everything in life, and the same is true in win loss analysis. I think the best time to call customers is after implementation, since how that went will often affect their desire to do future business with you or the competition. If implementation did not go well with a lost customer, you might have a chance to jump back into the sales mode sooner. The loss interview will uncover this. You will also learn, in detail, how the competition implemented the product or service, which is great competitive intelligence. The customer is more level headed after the stressful implementation phase is complete and they are trained on how to use the product.

Another observation: It used to be rude to email customers/prospects to schedule win/loss interviews. Now, this is the best way for connection. People appreciate knowing who you are; the value proposition of partaking in a win/loss interview; and that you are not trying to jump back in to sell. Another reason I like to connect via email ahead of time is I hope that they will pick up the telephone when I call them. Caller ID is not a win/loss interviewer’s friend since many people won’t pick up the phone unless they recognize the telephone number.

I like it the best if my client informs their customers and prospects that I will be calling. Better yet, if Sales informs all prospects and customers during the sales presentation that win/loss interviews are part of doing business, and they occur after the sale is consummated and the product is installed regardless of who wins the business: your company or a competitor.

Win/loss learning is often more about the failure of the selling process rather than selling the product. There were several sources that Steve shared that are worthwhile for those who want to understand customers and the buying and selling processes.

The New Rules of Sales Enablement by Jeff Ernst – This explains that the way we sell is often out of synch with how people want to buy.
Buyer Persona – Adele Revella instructs people on how to ask probing questions to learn what matters to your buyers. This relates to win/loss since it’s by probing that you learn the real reasons why your buyers choose you or your competitors, or decide to do nothing at all. You want to uncover how to delight the person who is buying your solution. Other books include: Innovation Games and Never Eat Alone.

In conclusion, if you just have one time to conduct win/loss interviews, wait until after implementation or a rule of thumb is wait 2-3 months after the sale closes. If you wait too long, they’ll forget the details around the sales event that you are trying to collect and analyze.

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

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Six Things you Can Learn from Conducting Win Loss Interviews

I am always surprised that more companies don’t have a formal win loss program since the ROI is amazing, and what you learn from this process can often be quickly implemented.

To conduct win loss, interview your customers or lost customers shortly after the sales event to find out why they chose to do business with you or decided on a competitor. The data gathered combines sales intelligence and knowledge from customers, competitors, and your marketplace. Those companies that do win loss analysis claim to improve their win rate by 15-30%. That’s a nice return on investment.

Here are some improvements I have helped companies uncover through win loss interviews and analysis.

1. Improve sales professionalism: Benefit-more customers and customer retention.

Beware of the sales person who is fixated with, “How are we doing compared to the competition?” This is a turnoff. In one recent case, this behavior cost the sale. The customer was strongly leaning towards this company’s solution, but the account rep rubbed the decision-maker the wrong way with his pushiness to close the deal. This was a gift to the competition. This behavior is most injurious when your product really isn’t that different from the competitor’s.

2. Improve the quality of your customer testimonials: Benefit-more customers

This one comes up often. Make sure you have picked respectable and responsible people among your customers to represent your product or service. Make sure they really know your product, and can answer just about any question your prospect might have. Provide enough customer testimonials, so prospects have a choice and you are not overburdening your testimonial customers.

3. Improve implementation, training and service: Benefit-customer retention

I hear this one time and time again. Companies often get careless after the sale is made, and don’t hold the customer’s hand enough during implementation and during that period of time when the customer is ramping up and learning how to use your product or service. Make it easy for them. Ideally assign them a dedicated rep, so they don’t have to repeat their story to a new “help desk” rep every time. This continuous repetition is also not efficient for your staff. Get it right sooner and you will have happier customers, less downtime and fewer help desk calls.

4. Focus on Product Features Your Customers Value the Most: Benefit-more customers and customer retention

You will find out about features that your product doesn’t offer that the competition does or does better. This isn’t always a quick fix, but sometimes it is. However, this knowledge can fuel product development. More immediately this information helps Sales focus on your product features that customers value the most, perhaps by vertical market, knowledge that also comes out of win loss interviews.

5. Learn Which Clients Are and Are Not Good Prospects: Benefit-qualify the right customers sooner. More customers

Good sales people tend to focus on solving the customer’s business problems with your company’s solution. They usually are not fixated on the competition, but rather on your company’s solution. Win loss data can help provide fuel for how and why your solution is the best, and where it is not so strong. Knowing which clients are not good prospects for your service gives Sales more time to focus on better prospects, which improves close rates and revenue.

6. Don’t Forget to Research Wins: Benefit-customer retention and incredible intelligence, not just competitive intelligence

Many companies just want to focus on losses. Wow, are they missing the boat. Your customers are usually a better source of intelligence. Generally they will spend more time telling you what you’re doing right; what you’re doing wrong; and provide you with ideas for product development and the competition. They will tell you about implementation, service and how well your product is working for them (or not). Psychologically they want you to be successful. They chose your solution. Their sharing is a reflection on their good business decision using your company’s solution.

Conclusion: This is just a smattering of what you can uncover in win loss interviewing. If you analyze the data, you can quickly uncover trends in your business, and more importantly take corrective action.

What have you uncovered in win loss interviews to help your company or your client?

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