Elicitation with Enthusiasm

I have been pondering the use of elicitation skills in competitive intelligence collection.  I have been using these techniques for many years, but not quite in the military intelligence way, which seems like using the other person in a more negative way. The techniques take advantage of human tendencies to complain, gossip, correct and inform, which certainly works. However, I like to capture the human desire to be happy.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhile my research assignment is to get information that clients can use to make the decision at hand, I have a relationship goal as well. By the end of the telephone call, my goal is to make the other person feel good about themselves. This was inspired by Maya Angelou, “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

A great way to make people feel good about themselves is for you to have an attitude of optimism, joy, and enthusiasm while you converse with the other person. Enthusiasm is infectious, and people like to share with you because you are making them feel happy. There are three ways I get myself in this zone:

1. Overall, I don’t take myself too seriously, so laughter comes easily in conversation. Work is a serious, less fun environment for many that I talk to. A little levity is often appreciated, but only if you sense that the other person is open to it. In my experience, most Americans are.

2. I put a smile on my face just as I am dialing to remind myself that happy is a good way to be. There is something about putting a smile on my face that puts me in a happy place. When I first make that connection with the person I am interviewing, they can feel my smile.

3. Before I dial, I get myself grounded and focused, by taking deep breathes. I want to forget about me, and to just concentrate on the person who I will be connecting with, even if this is a cold call. I want to get myself on their channel, sort of like sitting in their chair in my own mind. This also helps me be prepared for however the interview might go, since they seldom quite go as planned.

Being grounded is the one technique that has improved my success in collection more than any other. I can spend all the time in the world getting my value proposition written out and etched in my brain. But if I am not confident and grounded, the person at the other end can sense it right away, and won’t feel like connecting or sharing with me. When I am grounded and confident they will share, since I am in their zone, and the words just flow.

These practices also have another benefit: they help me get to the other person more readily, since I am more absorbed in how they are, and readily forget about myself while in conversation. My challenge is to remember to cover all the material that the client has hired me to collect, since I will often get lost in conversation as I let the other person control the flow of sharing, according to how they are comfortable.

Learn more about elicitation techniques here. Learn how you can become an elicitation expert.

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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 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.

Improve your Primary Collection through Relational Voice

Lee Glickstein

Yesterday I was reading Lee Glickstein’s relational presence description, and it spoke to me. In relational voice, you start with deep, relaxed breathing and use your voice to almost do inner calisthenics. As your voice comes out in the exhalation with great pleasure, you free up your brain and allow yourself to relax. Lee discusses this in the context of public speaking, where is the founder of Speaking Circles International.

I was thinking this exercise will strengthen those doing primary research of any type whether it’s cold calling, win loss analysis calls or trade show collection. If you learn to love your voice, and allow yourself those extra seconds to interact with those you are interviewing, you will listen more intently and talk more consciously. This is powerful stuff for those of us who interview people. In those extra seconds, which is such a short time, if you are really grounded and connected with the other person, you can think of additional ways to connect or to simply tweak the next question on your list since you might notice how they don’t like to talk much, so you shorten the question and ask it more softly.

These days the people we interview are so busy that they don’t have time for long interviews, so you need to make every minute count. The same exercise to help you reach your relational voice can help you connect with those you interview more quickly since you put yourself aside in this process, and just concentrate on the other person’s energy. Just imagine how powerful you will be when combining this skill with elicitation/interview preparation.

Check out Lee’s site, and try his exercise to get grounded with your eyes closed before you make those phone calls. I guarantee if you get fully grounded, those calls will go a whole lot better. You will also be more effective on those days when you really don’t feel like making phone calls. Try it out and let me know how it works for you!

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.

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