August 24, 2012.
Where do you start getting data on a competitor? How about right around you? If you are in an industry where people move back and forth from firm to firm to advance their career, get better pay, nicer working conditions and the like, you may have some people that work for you that formerly worked for competitors. They can be a fantastic source of information with several caveats.
First caveat: not everything they tell you will be accurate. Unfortunately, although they may sound like they are right up to date on what is going on at an individual competitor, Delta, it is rarely current. The problem is when people talk about a former employer, they tend to talk about it in the present tense, making it seem as if they know what is going on today. Just keep that in mind.
Second caveat, you just don’t walk up to someone who used to work at Delta and ask them “so what kind of new secret products are they planning to launch next year?” Never, never, never.
You must never put a fellow employee in a situation where they feel any pressure. Why? Well, they may have signed a nondisclosure confidentiality agreement when they worked at Delta. Now, they may feel that you are putting their job and your firm in jeopardy if they don’t “cooperate fully” with you.
Okay, but they could still be a great source of information. How do I handle this? Answer: with care.
We suggest that you use an intermediary, someone from outside your company. When we tell you how we proceed. I think you’ll understand why. Before we approach former Delta employees at your company, we would tell you the following:
When we interview your employees, you will not be there. We will identify ourselves is working for you and speaking to them with your permission. We will also tell them that they are free to contact you to confirm that we have your permission to talk with them. We will tell them that we wish to interview them about their work at Delta. However, we do not want to have them disclose any confidential information to us. In fact, if they feel uncomfortable about discussing something, we do not want them to discuss it at all.
We then tell them that, at the end of the project you, our client, will be told that this employee (in fact every employee) was cooperative. We will not tell you, our client, what any employee said, or even any employee declined to talk because he/she felt it was not lawful or even if she/he felt it was tacky. In any report, we will not identify them individually as a source for a particular fact. At best, we might note that, “several former Delta employees confirmed that….”.
This way, using what I call a Miranda warning [thus betraying my previous life as a lawyer], both you and the employee are protected. There is no pressure on the employee, and the employee is warned not to give you any confidential information.
Does this mean you will get nothing? On the contrary, most employees are more than happy to talk about their former place of employment. Those that were unhappy there are often even happier to talk about their experiences. Or, as Peter Finch in Network might have put it, “We’re as mad as hell, and we’re not going to take this anymore.”