Emerging Problems for Elicitation Interviewers

May 30, 2018

A recent newspaper article[1] discussed the ongoing “death of voicemail”, particularly in the case of millennials. Now, I have previously pontificated on some the difficulties of communicating with millennials, Millennials and Competitive Intelligence (2 parts)[2], but this takes it to a new level.

If the trend this fascinating article describes holds, the death of voice mail will have a significant impact on competitive intelligence research’s elicitation interviews. One key element of that is that you, the researcher, are able to get access to someone you have never met, whose business email and/or personal email accounts you do not know, to talk with them.

Consider these quotes from this interesting article:

“When people leave me voice messages, I just delete them without even checking. If they want to get hold of me, they can text me.”

“This is a large generalization, but they [millennials] don’t feel that comfortable in face-to-face spoken interaction or its derivative over the phone.”

“In the last three to five years the majority of phone calls in my world are booked ahead of time, just like a meeting.”

“Fewer and fewer people are going to have that skill [talking on the phone].”

As an aside, the people and patterns described in this article do not bode well for those very millennials described therein. Why? Ok, how do you get to know new people in your own business or neighborhood or graduating class when you only respond, by email or text, to a message on your voice mail (but never listening to the voice mail), only so long as you already know that person’s phone numbers and email addresses. A very static circle, isn’t it?

I wonder what would happen if the EVP called one of these people to ask questions about a report he/she did, and never received a reply because the employee did not recognize the EVP’s cell number, so he/she just deleted the message without listening to it. Think about it.

[1] ETHAN BARON, “How the death of voicemail is changing the way we connect”, The [San Jose] Mercury News, May 13, 2018.

[2] https://diy-ci.com/2015/09/10/millennials-and-competitive-intelligence-part-1-of-2/ and https://diy-ci.com/2015/09/15/millennials-and-competitive-intelligence-part-2-of-2/.

Guest Blog: Mental Preparation for Interviews

August 31, 2016

In a previous blog, John hit the high points of preparing for elicitation interviews. But what he did not cover, as Carolyn pointed out, was the mental preparation of the interviewer before ever picking up the phone. While that will vary for every CI data collector, there are a couple of proven ways to get your mind in gear for this stressful task. These are not cumulative, but rather more of a menu. What they have in common in finding a way to relax your mind and to center it on the interaction during call, not on anything else:

  • One of Carolyn’s favorite tricks is to work on her persona for the call. She refers to this as developing her Diva. That means getting into the mode of determining what element of your personality you want to project on the call, and then focusing on it well before picking up the phone. Then, once you are on the phone, it is Show Time!
  • For John, the focus is on clearing his mind (no jokes here, please). To remove his attention from whatever else is going on, he sometimes plays a couple of online hands of solitaire or games of Mahjongg. By focusing for two or three minutes on winning these games, he tamps down any other immediate distractions he has.
  • In a book John just reviewed, Ellen Naylor, a mutual friend of ours, has a variety of suggestions, one of the most creative of which is practicing relaxation breathing exercises just before calling.
  • Another tip is to anticipate and shut off all distracting background noise, such as a radio in the office, as well as your smart phone, starting a couple of minutes before the call.
  • Also, consider shutting off the email entirely, temporarily, until you are finished with the call and its transcription.
  • Some people just get up from the desk and walk around, getting a cup of coffee, or a drink of water and then sit down and start right away.
  • If you do not know the person you are calling, before you dial, try to visualize what that person looks like. Then, when he or she answers, quickly try to update that image. That way, you are immediately focused on that person, and not on you.


John J. McGonagle and Carolyn M. Vella

Don’t Let Calling Do You In

To conduct an elicitation interview, you have to talk with someone. And to do that, you have to first contact them. Today, that still means either face-to-face or by telephone. It is very hard to do even a decent elicitation interview by email. Why? Because there is no emotional connection and using text exchanges may give the subject way too much time to think about you and your questions.

So how can you prepare for elicitation interviews on the telephone? Here are some starting tips, not complete, but good for the newbie to master:

  1. Do not be afraid or nervous. What is the worst that can happen? Someone will hang up on you? Forget about it. Move on.
  2. Do not do interviews until you have exhausted your secondary (desk, book, Internet) research. Use interviews for things you cannot get otherwise, for adding currency to dated data, and for figuring out what will happen, not just what has happened.
  3. What do you want to find out? Can you state it in one short sentence? Then say it out loud. Does it make sense? If not change it. Never read it from notes.
  4. Allow enough time. Even though you think it will take only 5 minutes, allow more. Maybe you will get lucky and the subject will be chatty. Do not turn off the faucet before it stops.
  5. Make sure you will not be interrupted by calls, fellow workers, etc. so you can take good notes.
  6. Be professional, and polite. First, smile while you are talking. It really works. Then watch your language. You will be surprised, perhaps even shocked, how much a “please” or “thanks” can get you. Even if a subject does not want to talk, ask, politely, if there is someone else that could help you and if you can use the subject’s name. Regardless, of what is said, “thank” the subject.
  7. Be patient. Maybe this is not a good time for the subject. If so, reschedule – right then – politely. If the subject is discussing something that is particularly useful, keep it moving, using little nudges, like “really?” and even dead silence. Silence can be very effective. It may make the subject slightly uncomfortable, maybe enough to add something more.
  8. Wind it up. When you have what you want, try to take the conversation quickly to something else, so that the final impression left in the subject’s mind is not the critical data you were seeking, but something else. Then, again, “thanks”.
  9. When you are done, hang up and then write-up your notes into a full document. Never put it off. You will forget something, maybe small (to you) comments, maybe an inflection that could be important later.
  10. Now go back to number 1.

Can Secondary Research Alone Produce CI?

August 11, 2016

One of the weaknesses in DIY and other internally produced CI is the lack of data from interviews, particularly elicitation interviews. Unfortunately, there are a lot of reasons why individuals employed by the end-user of the CI end up trying to generate CI from secondary and internal primary sources only.  Here are several of the most common:

Some firms have formal policies banning virtually all – or all – direct communications with competitors. The rationale for these policies is to avoid any future issues about anti-competitive activities, such a price-fixing or market allocation schemes. But this kind of rule stops even such harmless ploys as calling customer service and asking about the availability of a new product – which is its job to tell you about!

Most internal CI staff, and virtually all DIYers, have little or no real training in, and little real experience in, interviewing, much less in the vital area of elicitation interviews. That means they generally avoid interviews, or, if they attempt them, they do not do them very well.

The sales force cannot or will not communicate regularly with those needing or generating CI. Why? Because of the attitude that this “is not their job” and they can see no way that doing this will help them in doing their only job – which is to sell. That often cuts off one easy source of some external primary data.

Some internal CI staff, such as those with library science and related backgrounds, feel most comfortable in the world of secondary, rather than primary, research. They are very good there, but there is more to be found by primary research that they do not try to access.

That means that a lot of internally generated CI is based primarily, or wholly, on secondary research. Does that mean it is not really CI? No – well, maybe.

If this research generates actionable intelligence, and it is communicated as such, then it is CI. But it is necessarily limited. Secondary research is great – up to a point. It can help you (or whoever is doing it) to determine where the competition is and where it is coming from.

However, taking that research and trying to determine where the competition is going and what it plans to do will inevitably produce poor results over time. And the further into the future the end-users of CI want to peer, the less useful the CI produced based solely on secondary research will be.

That is because the data allowing your analysis to determine where the competition is going and what it is going to do – the most powerful kind of CI – rarely lies documents, newspaper articles, web pages, or Facebook pages. It is still in the minds of people. And the only way to get that data is to talk with outsiders. So, if you want to make sure that the CI that you produce, rely on, or both, is up to that task, you must do primary research in addition to solid secondary research to develop it. There are no other options.


Win/Loss Analysis – A Book Review

Ellen Naylor, Win/Loss Analysis: How to Capture and Keep the Business You Want. Park Hill Press, 2016, 214 pages, $29.95


First a disclosure: I have known Ellen for many years and am one (of many) thanked by Ellen in the afterword. I can honestly say that I had nothing to do with this book – although I wish I had.

Ellen here deals not just with competitive intelligence (CI), a vital subject as readers of this blog know, but specifically with its application in a vital and impactful area – win/loss analysis. She is not talking about the postmortems that are held after a successful, or unsuccessful, pitch or even bid, with the sales forces. That, she properly distinguishes as win/loss interviews.

Win/loss analysis is a form of directed CI. In it, someone, inside or outside of your firm, interviews the customers you have won, as well as those you have lost. The differences are night and day. As she puts it in her understated prose, “Most often the customer has a different perspective than your internal personal as to why the business was won or lost”. (p. 65) From my experience, the phrase should be “Almost always…”

But Ellen’s real-world approach, based on her own experience, is inclusive and collegial. My comments would cause immediate objections from the sales force. Her proven approaches are designed to avoid that, and in fact, leverage the sale force as a partner in the process.

In addition to showing just how effectively CI can be applied to generating powerful and valuable win/loss analyses, Ellen provides a wealth of great tips on preparing for and conducting elicitation interviews (pp. 145-68), as well as walking you through the win/loss interviewing process (pp. 83 et seq.) with suggestions that can apply in any interviewing context.

The book is thus a great addition to the CI practitioner’s or the DIYer’s library. Read it – and learn from a pro!

Elicitation’s Secret Weapon: Politeness


After getting back from another trade show, I talked about it with my better half, Carolyn Vella. When I was (finally) done, we noted that a theme ran through it – other than the usual gripe about the size of the venue.

That theme was the power of being polite. Polite? Before I give a couple of examples of its power, I would note that its power is due to several different causes:

  • Not everyone in business is polite, even when his/her job involves customer/consumer facing activities.
  • For some of those who are polite, the politeness is not “native”. That is, there is no automatic “thanks”, “you are welcome”, “please”, or “could you help me”. It is forced – and people notice that.
  • And for those who have native politeness, smiles are not always present. (BTW – you should smile when you are on the phone. It impacts how you sound to others. Don’t believe me? Try it.)

That makes politeness, true politeness, rare – therefore appreciated, and effective.

So how did being polite pay off? A few examples:

  • At one target booth, the people manning it were all very busy, so I just stood around until one employee worked herself free and made eye contact. I did not immediately demand attention. I thanked her for coming over, she said she was sorry she was busy, and off we went talking about her company’s products, how well the trade show was going, the industry, etc. I thanked her for her time. Oh, when I came back for a follow-up the next day, I said that is what I was doing, could I take a minute more, and she could not have been more helpful then as well.
  • At another booth, I need to talk to a manager-level employee about some industry-wide (not his company) issues. In other words, not to just anyone and not about his booth or its products. As we started, I told him that I had a few learning questions, and that, of course, I fully understood that he might have to peel off to “do some real business”, so please do so – I appreciated his valuable time. My recognition of his real mission allowed us to talk freely for a few, enlightening, minutes – until he had to leave. I thanked him then for his time.
  • I was to meet my client in an industry association suite, where we had met a day earlier. Access was limited to association members and guests (only so long as they were personally accompanied by a member). I got there early and went immediately to the desk; I did not try to enter the adjacent lounge. I identified myself there, and noted that I had been there the previous day with “Frank”. I told the supervisor I was waiting for Frank, and asked if I could sit and wait inside right by the door. She said “yes”. I asked if I could borrow a newspaper from the desk to read; she said certainly, that is what they were there for. Each question was “Please” and each response was “Thank you”. I did not push – I asked. And I said I would return the paper (which I did). Ok, this may not have directly benefited my elicitation, but I was a lot more comfortable while waiting.

So, when involved in elicitation efforts, in person, on the phone, or by email, always be polite, patient, and smile.

Thanks for reading this blog.

Millennials and Competitive Intelligence (Part 1 of 2)

September 10, 2015

Why this topic? I chose it because there is increasing research to the effect that Millennials, and probably also Gen X, operate differently in the work environment than do those of other generations: Baby Boomers, the Greatest Generation, and other species of dinosaurs.

Some of the key characteristics of Millennials in the workplace, at least as they bear on competitive intelligence, are as follows[1]:

  • They tend to work longer hours than other employees.
  • They are less likely to suggest or to participate in face-to-face activities.
  • They prefer their incoming communications to be written, which means they avoid phone calls and particularly make sure most calls are diverted to voicemail.
  • When they do talk they prefer to keep their talks short, so there is no “small talk”.
  • They are heavily involved with social media, both at their work site and in their private life, and usually include details of both in that media.
  • They prefer to be multitasking, or more accurately multi-conversing, which means they are not necessarily paying complete attention to each of the email, IM, Twitter, and telephone/online conferences that they are simultaneously engaged in.
  • They are regarded generally as willing to “speak their minds”.

In this blog, I want to indicate how this impacts the collection of competitive intelligence from them – having them as targets of CI activities. In the next blog, I will comment on what these things mean when they do their own CI collection, joining into the community of DIYers, as well as when consuming CI provided to them by others.

So let’s first take a quick look at how these characteristics change collecting competitive intelligence from them:

  • Working longer hours – if you are seeking to do an elicitation interview with one of them, you have a good chance of catching them either a little bit before the beginning of the regular workday or, more likely, after the end of the regular workday. They are more likely to be alone and presumably less distracted, making them better elicitation targets.
  • Avoiding face-to-face activities – they are not likely to be able to be easily engaged in conversations aimed at eliciting competitively sensitive information at a trade show, business conference, or the like.
  • Avoiding phone calls and preferring emails – this makes setting up interviews harder because it is not always easy to find individual business email addresses. That is not to say that they cannot be found. But if the only way you can set up an interview with someone who would prefer to have all of their voicemail diverted to record is through an email, you have to do the extra work.
  • Avoiding small talk – by its very nature, an elicitation interview involves some degree of small talk if for no other reason than to conceal the key question or questions that are driving the need for the interview. This means taking a more direct and almost abrupt approach in the hope of getting the data.
  • Social media preference – this makes it easier to collect information on a potential elicitation target by checking his or her Facebook, LinkedIn etc. account. It also means that, unlike older employees at the same enterprise, they are more likely to put competitively sensitive information on these public sites because they believe that all of their life drives the content of their site.
  • Multitasking – if you can get their attention during the combined IM, email or the telephone conversations, you are more likely to be able to elicit at least one or two pieces of competitively useful information because they are not paying full attention to what they are saying; rather their attention is divided between two or among even three separate ongoing communications.
  • Willing to speak their mind – from the point of view of the elicitation interview, that is delightful. Enough said.

[1] For example, see http://www.forbes.com/sites#/sites/jacquelynsmith/2012/09/13/how-millennials-work-differently-from-everyone-else/; http://blog.mltcreative.com/Baby-Boomers-Gen-Xers-and-Millennials-Their-Different-Communication-Preferences; and http://axerosolutions.com/blogs/timeisenhauer/pulse/307/how-to-communicate-with-millennials-at-work-18-surefire-tips.