How can you
learn about competitors from talking to people and what should you ask them? I’m Mike Sandman and we’re going to be talking about primary research: the ways in which you can talk with people about competition and about the way business is done in a particular market.

Be Smart in Your Research

The first question you probably ask is why will people tell me about their businesses or about somebody else’s business? Well they’ll talk to you for several different reasons, even if they don’t know you. They’ll talk to you because they’re curious about what you’re doing, they’ll talk to you because if you say to them I’m interested in understanding something about this business or about this market they feel a sense of responsibility to help you out. Sometimes you can talk to somebody who has a desire or feels the need for recognition, for example talking to someone who works for a competing organization or who used to work for a competing organization is a perfectly legitimate thing to do, as long as you’re careful about not asking for confidential information. They will very often be willing to talk to you because nobody’s asked them about what they do and they’re kind of interested and willing to talk about it in order to get some recognition. Sometimes people will talk out of indiscretion, when they’re not in control of their emotions, at the end of a long hard day or perhaps when there’s just been a layoff in the business, they may have an instinct to complain or to dump. There’s a tendency to correct others, if you say to someone I understand that the typical companies in this area do X or Y, if you know that you’re providing or saying X or Y in a way that’s a little bit off, they’ll very often correct you. There’s a tendency to discuss things that aren’t their direct concern, so if you say to somebody who’s in one part of the business something about some other function of the business, they may very well tell you the way that function works even if they wouldn’t talk to you very much about what their function is. And finally there’s a tendency to gossip, especially when they’re bored, and in fact one of the best times to talk to people is when things are really quiet, during the dead part of the day or if you ever go to a tradeshow when sessions are going on and the exhibit hall is basically empty.

Approach Research Like a Journalist

So when you do all of this, think of yourself as a reporter, and you follow a journalist’s interview process. Qualify the source – hi I’m interested in learning more about X or Y is that something you can help me with? Recognize time limits – is this a good time to talk? Can we talk for 5 to 10 minutes? Try to establish rapport – I got to you because I saw your name in a trade journal for example or in an advertisement or on the website. Be alert to tone, listen very carefully to nuance. If somebody says to you well yeah it’s a good place, it’s different then they’re saying well it’s a good place, and you can make use of that information. Ask for referrals – thanks very much, who else can I talk to? And if you are talking to them on the phone, thank them and say is it okay if I call you back? And you want to do that before the answer to your question is likely to be no – in other words, don’t wear out your welcome. Those are the basics of primary research, and you can learn a lot more about that by getting a book from the public library about primary research, but the basics will always come back to that: follow the journalist’s interview process.