How to Conduct Expert Interviews for Competitive Intelligence Data Collection

After you lay the groundwork for your interviews, you're ready to get started collecting data for competitive intelligence. How you conduct your interviews is up to you. You may simply send each expert a questionnaire, or you may choose to do live interviews with each expert over the phone or by using some sort of videoconferencing technology. The process goes like this:

  1. Send the questionnaire to each expert with instructions to complete the questionnaire and return it by such and such a date.

  2. Collect the questionnaires by the designated due date.

  3. Review the responses and conduct a Skype interview to follow up with each expert and flesh out their responses to the questions.

As you conduct your follow-up interviews, take the opportunity to triangulate prior findings, discover new information, and dig up hidden treasure.

How to conduct a follow up interview with an expert

Whenever you're conducting an interview in person, over the phone, or via videoconferencing, you don't exactly want to grill the expert as though you're conducting an interrogation. Just the opposite. Ease into the conversation. Spend the first part of the interview getting the expert to relax. Don't start your interview until the person's demeanor noticeably shifts to calm and comfortable.

In this state of relative relaxation, the expert is much more likely to disclose hidden treasures. Here's how it works:

  1. Begin your interview with a focus on the person you're interviewing by recognizing his accomplishments, or in some other way communicating that you value him as a person.

    A great way to start an interview is to remember a concept called significance. Everybody has the desire to be recognized, appreciated, and valued. The significance step is the most important step in any sales call, and it's equally important when interviewing an expert. Here are some sample questions you might ask:

    • Do you mind summarizing your experience for me?

    • How did you manage to develop expertise in this particular area?

    • What's your major area of interest (or research) in this area?

  2. As the conversation progresses, occasionally take a moment to be personal in a positive way.

    For example, if the expert's insight revealed something you didn't know, tell him how important that was to you. You may say something like, "That's admirable. It's clear that you really do have leading edge knowledge in this field."

    Be genuine in your praise and appreciation. People can usually tell when you're just trying to butter them up.

  3. Keep the conversation light until you notice it becoming more conversational and relaxed.

    You often find that the person has transitioned from being an expert into someone who has a real desire to help you because he senses that you value what he has to offer.

  4. Crank up the intensity of your questions by asking more follow-up questions and perhaps even shifting the direction of your discussion if something of value unexpectedly arises.

    Generally, the respondent starts opening up and telling you additional things about your research area. In some cases, the topics may be related to areas you hadn't considered. That's how you discover hidden treasure.

How to compare different expert opinions for competitive intelligence

During the course of your research and interviews, you develop three different assessments of what's likely to happen in the future:

  • Internal management's view of the future issues, which is usually the least accurate.

  • The data-mined view of the future based on the research you performed prior to interviewing the experts, which is usually more accurate.

  • The experts' view of the future, which is usually the most accurate.

If the three views align, you can be fairly confident that whatever conclusion you arrive at is probably correct.

When the different views don't align, the disagreement may reveal a golden opportunity. Such disagreements are strong signals that you need to dig deeper, perhaps with additional research or by returning to the experts to ask follow-up questions. In trying to resolve different views, you often discover the most important information.

How well you deal with any differences between the three views can determine the future of your company. This is especially true if the opinion of internal management is drastically different from reality (the data-mined view and what the experts think).

Companies don't fail due to lack of access to accurate information about the future. They fail when they don't strategically align their organization with future reality.

How to discover new competitive intelligence information

One of the real opportunities from expert interviews comes when you ask follow-up questions. When you call an expert and review her responses with her, you should always ask her why she believes specific things about the future. If you're good at using this technique (deep diving with your follow-up questions), you can often discover a treasure trove of new information.

Skilled intel people practice a strategy called interrogating the data, which consists of asking questions to find out the "why" behind something they already know. For example, suppose you find out (from publicly disclosed financial statements) that a competitor has increased its research budget. That information is of little or no use until you interrogate the data to determine its significance, if any.

You can interrogate the data by asking your experts follow-up questions or by seeking answers to the following questions, using your own research:

  • What does this change mean?

  • What do the company's press releases reveal about their future product initiatives?

  • Do the company's annual reports leave any clues about new products or directions?

  • Has the CEO revealed anything relevant in recent speeches or interviews?

  • What about the company's 8K filing (its public disclosure of material changes at a company)? Has the company made any significant changes in key personnel?

Interrogating data helps you dig down to the point at which you can begin to really understand its meaning.

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