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.

Trade Shows and Business Conferences (Part 4)

June 7, 2013

The trade show, for many businesses, particularly those in the business-to-business niche, represents a major investment and tremendous opportunity to retain existing customers and to development customers. It also represents an important competitive intelligence opportunity.

The first thing you want to do at a trade show is look around. Where are your competitors’ tables and displays located? How big are they? That should help you write ups tonight how much their spending.

Who was not present? It might be useful to ask around to find out why particular competitor is not present. Maybe they are having financial issues or maybe that they moved on no longer represent a direct competitor to you.

If you have a chance, and by that I mean make a chance, visit your competitor tours’ booths and tables. Do not attempt to hide who you are, but then again do not announce your presence either. Look around – in what section do they display? How big is the display? Are there any materials or samples that you can obtain? If so get them

Always ask yourself “What is it that I expect to see here, but no longer see?” You have time after the session to determine what the answer means.

When people come to your display area, if they mention anything about your competitor, such as comparisons of products, service, terms, etc., take the time to engage them in a conversation to understand what they have been told about your competitor. This is a golden opportunity for you. You have perhaps only a few seconds with people who have been approached as potential customers or even are existing customers of a competitor. Feel free to ask them about what they were told. The worst they can do is to tell you “no”.

Make time to walk around the hall. First, visit the booths and displays of your competitors. Second, take time to visit the booths of your suppliers, if they are present, and your own distributors or customers, if they are present. This is a very good opportunity to open a general conversation and see what they have been told, and what they have learned about your competitors.

Do not try to be a spy. By that I mean do not cover up your registration badge so that people cannot see for whom you work, or substitute a badge that looks like that of the different company for your own. Unethical behavior does not pay. You are unlikely to gain anything of real value that you could not otherwise get, and you basically have contaminated yourself. Bad idea.

If you have several people who are at the show, either have one person detailed to work the show from a competitive intelligence point of view, or assign people on a rotating basis the same task.

One suggestion: if a competitor comes into your exhibit area, welcome her/him. First that will throw her/him off base. Second, use it as an opportunity to find out what he or she is looking for. If you know what they’re looking for, you may learn something about what they plan.

 Before the end of the trade show, if at all possible, gather everyone together for an onsite debriefing. While it is busy and many things are going on, this is best done at the trade show or at least after the trade show is over, but before you return to your office or your plant. People’s minds are still focused on what they’ve been doing, they are still fresh from dealing with customers, competitors, suppliers and the like, and they can play off each other in terms of what they heard or did not hear, saw or did not see.

While a trade show is a golden opportunity to do business, is also a golden opportunity to do your own competitive intelligence.

Working trade shows (Part 3)

February 26, 2013


So you’re at the trade show. What you do now?

First, take care of your business, the reason you are there. You do not desert your booth or exhibit space to check on your competitors unless you have someone else, a qualified person, covering it.

Second, think out your approach. What is it you are trying to find out?

  • Is it the presence of new competitors? If so, carefully go over the show catalog and plan to work the aisles where new competitors might be housed, particularly if the show is organized by type of product or service.
  • If your concern is new potential competitors, you have to allow more time. Review the ads in the show catalog. Do any of these sound like they are attacking your niche? If so they deserve attention.
  • Are there key suppliers of yours at the show? If so, you should visit them to keep the lines of communication open. Also, that is a great time to find out from them if they have been contacted by any of your competitors. It does not help you gain new business if one of your key suppliers suddenly switches allegiance from you to a competitor.
  • If your concern is new products from existing competitors, then you’re going to have to focus your time on going to the exhibits of each of your existing competitors and making careful notes of what is going on. When you go there, if you can, take pictures. Do not be shy. You are not doing anything improper.
  • If you can, you, or another member of your team, should circulate through the venue at the very beginning, so that you can pick up copies of all merchandising, product, and capabilities materials at every key stand. Remember, the longer you wait the more likely it is that something that could be critically important to you will no longer be there.

Working trade shows (Part 2)

February 21, 2013

 One thing you have to be sensitive to, when planning to work a trade show, is that your competitors might be, in fact should be, working against you. What can you do about that?

You could bar them from entering your area. That really is not feasible if you have a very large exhibit. If you have a small one, and you see someone of them hanging around, you could politely ask them to leave. If they don’t, frankly there’s nothing you can do

What else you can do is to pay attention – look at your exhibit area. Of course, it was set up to attract customers by showing them new and different things by emphasizing new features of products, etc. But by doing that are you giving away vital information to competitors?

Your approach should not be to deny them all information. That is pointless and impossible. Also, in so doing you going to deprive your customers and potential customers of information as well.

What you must do is determine what is competitively sensitive, at least for short period of time, and work to keep that away from competitors. Arrange your exhibit space to do that.

Make sure that your people will realize that their job is to talk to potential customers, actual customers, the press etc. but not to competitors. At a trade show there’s probably no such thing as a safe conversation with a competitor.

In particular, talk to your salespeople. In many industries, it is common for the sales staff to concentrate on “qualified leads”. That is all well and good, but to some salespeople this means that any person who is not immediately seen as a qualified lead is to be handed off, however gently, to someone else, very often a technical person. This is not a very good idea.

From personal experience, I can tell you that the technical staff are more than happy to talk about your product, in fact to brag about it. The problem is they could be talking to the wrong person. In addition, since they are often add-ons to the tradeshow staff, they feel somewhat neglected and easily respond to elicitation techniques.

After you have reviewed your tradeshow exhibit center, we can turn to other issues dealing with working tradeshows.

Working trade shows (Part 1)

February 18, 2013

One of the most productive ways to do your own competitive intelligence is to learn how to work the trade show, or expo or conference A recent issue of Bloomberg Businessweek praised one entrepreneur as “an old hand at tradeshows” noting that “and as we walked the Expo floor he checked out his competition”.[1]

“Checked out his competition”, a wonderful phrase to hear.

Exactly what should you be doing to check out your competition at a trade show. First let’s touch on what not to do: do not pretend to be something or someone you are not. In most trade shows you have a badge identifying you by name and organization, that is, probably color-coded as well when to indicate whether you are a vendor a potential customer the media and attendee etc. Honesty is the best policy. Be who you are.

Now, once you are there, you should do is take a look at the list of vendors and determine which of your competitors are present and, perhaps as importantly, which ones are not present. Did you expect to see particular firm there? Why are they not there? That may mark the beginning of an inquiry into a potential new opening in the market space.

Now take a quick look at the floor plan. Who spent a lot of money on space and who seems to be spending less money than last year? Those buying more space or more expensive space than last may be more dangerous to you in the near term than they are now. The reverse could be true for those that cut back on marketing expenses at the trade show. Does that mark something significant?

Don’t be afraid to walk around and look at your competitors’ displays. Even take a picture. It is an open session and you are behaving openly. If you are working with a number of people at the trade show, it would be useful to detail one or more of them to actually visit the booths, displays etc. and listen to what your competitors are saying and to see what they are displaying.

What else should you do? I’ll cover that in future blogs.

[1]Matthew Power, Apocalypse 24/7, Bloomberg Businessweek, Feb. 18-24, 2013, 63.