Be Smart: Be Human: Be Flexible

I read a moving post about the value of being flexible by my friend and book counselor, Judith Briles. She totally changed gears from talking about her book, The Confidence Factor, on a morning show in Cleveland due to a tragedy where some high school students had been killed the night before. The community was reeling from it. She decided it was time to talk from her heart. She had such incredible empathy from her experience losing her son at age 19, also in a terrible accident. The local community couldn’t get enough of her. The show extended her time by two segments and she was invited back.

manager woman doing yoga at white background

How flexible are you in competitive intelligence and Win/Loss analysis? We usually aren’t in situations where the daily news changes how we’ll be with people. However, it’s likely that no matter how much planning we do, there are surprises.

Flexibility at Trade Shows

In my first Neocon, the largest N America-based commercial interior and design trade show, I was asked to get specific information on three competitors. I had done my homework before the conference: I knew where are the competition’s exhibits were in the huge Chicago Merchandise Mart. I had memorized considerable facts about each competitor, and had my questions all organized in my head. I was sure of my game plan.

I came up to the market leader’s showroom and asked to have a tour of their space which featured some new products. The snooty sales person asked if I had an appointment. “Why no,” I answered. “I didn’t know I needed an appointment just to see your furniture display.” So I walked away feeling dejected.  To add spice to the day, I was rapidly losing my voice.

What was I to do? I could not succeed in my assignment unless I could get into the competitor’s showroom and get answers to our questions. Then I got an idea: “Why couldn’t I find a group who had an appointment and just tag along?” So I stood outside the market leader’s space until I saw a group of gentlemen from a well known software firm, heading to the competitor’s exhibit area. I asked if they had an appointment, and when they answered in the affirmative, I asked if I could tag along. “Sure,” they said. “Happy to have you join us.”

Ironically the snooty sales person was their account rep, who gave us the tour being as informative as she could be. She told us all about their new products, and why they were better than the competition, which answered most of my client’s questions. She glared at me, but graciously answered my questions, since I imagine this was one of her largest accounts as this software firm was expanding exponentially. Meanwhile her client had questions that I hadn’t thought of, as they were steeped in the commercial interior space. Their jobs varied among purchasing, design and decision-making, so you can just imagine how much I learned, all because I hung back and waited for a major customer to get the tour.

Flexibility in Win/Loss Interviews

In Win/Loss interviews, I like to research who I’ll be speaking to, and usually can find something about them from the sales team and social media, especially on LinkedIn. No matter how much you learn, you need to be flexible as soon as you connect with them on the phone, SKYPE or however you converse. Sometimes you cold call these people, especially in B2C Win/Loss interviews.

In one case, I was trying to reach those who used test and measurement tools. When the gentleman answered his phone I could barely hear him and wondered why he had even bothered. I could hear machinery very close by and asked where he was. “I am a crane operator, and that’s where I am.” I chewed him out for answering his mobile on the job and asked to schedule a time when he would not be operating his crane. We had a great interview during his lunch hour the next day.

In another case, I thought I was going to talk to a user of these test and measurement tools, which was the target of this project. Instead I got through to a person who repaired all the brands of these test and measurement tools. I revised the questions on the spot, and asked him about the repair track record of all the manufacturers’ test and measurement tools. This was one of the most informative interviews we had, since he had about 20 years of experience. Not only did we get the current trend in repair protocol and need, but we also got the history of how it had changed, and his future assessment of the industry.

Competitive Intelligence Collection

In another project, I was researching the glass industry. My client thought I might benefit from listening in on the quarterly earnings call. I thought I might just as well read the report later, and look at the slides. But he insisted that I should listen in. I was so glad I did. When the CEO was asked about the failing glass business, his tone of voice changed to a sad one. Yet he didn’t indicate any desire to sell it. A rational business person would have sold it a few years before I was hired to investigate this company. This made me wonder what emotional tie this CEO might have to the glass business. I found out his dad had bought the business, and that he wanted to keep it going for his dad.

So I told my client I couldn’t predict what would trigger the sale of this business, which was inevitable, but it would be a major event where the CEO would be forced to sell the business. Perhaps it might be a terrible accident in the glass factory. A couple of years later, some stockholders filed to force the CEO to sell this unprofitable business and won. My client was ready to capture this company’s glass business.

So the bottom line is as with many things in life. Do your homework and be prepared. Be flexible and swallow your pride, and let your heart speak when it’s needed. That way when the unexpected happens, you will have an ability to shift gears.

Check out our book, Win/Loss Analysis: How to Capture and Keep the Business You Want.

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Use Trade Shows as Fact-Finding Missions

Recently, I blogged about “5 Tactics to Research Your Marketplace using Competitive Intelligence Skills” originally published by Adam Sutton of MarketingSherpa. As promised, I am focusing on each tactic. This week’s is #3.

Trade shows are a Mecca for competitive intelligence. Nowhere are there more people who want to share their knowledge and insight with you: industry experts, prospects, competitors, other industry participants such as suppliers and distributors and journalists. This is cooperative intelligence at its finest since everyone is marketing to you whether at formal presentations, exhibitor booths or even informal places like the conference bar or hotel café.

Here are some tippers to help you be more productive at the trade show:

Beforehand: Do your homework and prepare a game plan that includes both formal and informal intelligence gathering opportunities. Study the exhibitor floor plan and all the presentations to decide how best to use your time. Write out the questions you will ask to the various audiences to help you be more articulate.  Keep your action plan rough as you’ll need to be flexible to jump on opportunities as they arise. For example, you might find out about a cocktail party that you didn’t even know existed until you arrived at the conference! You don’t want to miss it since alcohol consumption makes loose lips. Just make sure they aren’t yours and drink very little or none. I learned that lesson in the late 1990s when I was invited to a cocktail party and had to return to the scene the next day. I was lucky that the show was on for that third day. The competitor’s employees were quite attentive as their exhibit area was almost empty except for me. I don’t recommend what I did there, although I made good connections and got great information!

At the Conference: Be observant. Most people think about gathering competitive intelligence from competitors’ exhibit areas and formal presentations. However, I have found the best intelligence is gathered at informal settings such as the conference coffee shops, the conference hotel cafe, the elevator, cocktail parties, the bus ride to the airport, even during the airplane ride–by simply listening.

It’s a great time to practice your elicitation skills. I spend my time sorting out how I will approach each competitor or press personality prior to the show and often have to revise my approach mid-stream since I meet so many people for the first time, cold. If you read body communication you can figure out who is most approachable and how they might be motivated. Who is leaning forward as they talk to the booth visitors? Who is the technical person you see fiddling with cable and the computer at the booth? They probably have technical knowledge and are willing to share.

Be creative: If the booth staff doesn’t seem friendly, just wait, in time they’re likely to be relieved. Perhaps you can ask another booth visitor if you can tag along with them. Be smart about who you pick: I accompanied one of the competitor’s key clients, so the account rep answered all my questions and remarks to impress the client. The client had a number of additional questions that I would never have thought of since my product knowledge in that industry was not as deep as his!

After the Conference: Start writing up your findings during the conference and see if your home office has more questions based on what you’ve uncovered. You can pull more information out of a conference especially if you have a few people’s input, even if you’re attending by yourself.

I have even ducked into the ladies room to write out some technical details after a booth visit before I forget. I review my findings every night and often wake up with better questions. I don’t write up anything in the airplane ride home since there might be other attendees around and I don’t want to arouse any suspicion. Also they might start talking about the conference among themselves. Share your findings ASAP with co-workers upon returning to the office!

Note #1: Your competitors and other industry experts are collecting information about your company at trade shows too. How do you qualify who you will share what, and how much to share? Your booth personnel are a target, as are your company’s presenters. Have you thought about how you will answer difficult questions in public? Have you trained your employees not to have private conversations in public places like the elevator, the restroom, airplane or restaurants?

Note #2: Here is an article with more detail on cooperatively collecting at trade shows.

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