If you hope to develop an effective strategy, it’s essential to have a clear understanding of the external forces that impact your organization. Much of this, of course, can be learned through the inevitable Google searches — finding news items in mainstream press, public reports from organizations, or trade journals.
But to really gain a clear perspective, you’ll want to speak with people who are (or were) working in the field. Frequently, the best insights come from folks who are not part of your internal team or even your customer base. Rather, they are industry players or experts who are familiar with the space in which you operate… or, sometimes, “adjacent” or even different spaces.
But how do you get their attention? And, once you do, how do you get them to share the information and insights you seek? For the most part, it comes down to effective interviewing.
Some suggestions for doing this well…
What’s in it for me?
You’ve no doubt heard the catchphrase, WIIFM: “What’s in it for me?” Well, when reaching out to people who will not benefit directly from your work and asking for their time (whether in person, phone, or video), you need to consider WIIFM and incorporate that into your request for a meeting.
Fortunately, many people are naturally inclined to be helpful — but that alone is not usually enough. One thing that can tip the balance is an offer to share a generalized summary of what you learn in your research. People are often interested in discovering how others in their field answer certain questions, so they benefit by participating.
For example, while working to develop strategy for a foundation in Boston focused on supporting women and girls, I found that executives running similar organizations in New York, Texas, Illinois, Colorado, and other states were very open to sharing their experiences and perspectives in return for the overall results.
That said, some professionals (medical doctors in particular) are harder to engage than others and you’ll need to offer them an “honorarium” in exchange for their time. Usually this is a modest dollar amount that I offer to send to them directly, or to a charity of their choice in their name.
It’s not an inquisition.
We’ve all been on the receiving end of a market research call in which we are walked through a tightly scripted, seemingly endless series of questions. It’s not a wonderful experience.
A better approach, I find, is to draft a high-level “discussion guide” — something that captures the key issues you want to learn about, and lays out the order in which you hope the conversation will unfold.
In general, a discussion is better than an interview. Not only does this tend to engage people more deeply, but by keeping things somewhat open-ended, people will often bring up issues or ideas that you were not anticipating (one of the main reasons for having these discussions in the first place).
Be up front about who you are and what you are doing.
When you reach out, you need to be honest. In many cases, I lead by letting the person know I am working for an organization in their field. If it is in a non-overlapping market, I say that too. If they ask who the client is, and my agreement allows for that, I offer to tell them at the end of our discussion, so as not to bias their responses.
If any of this presents a problem, I accept that I am likely to lose the chance to speak with that individual; that comes with the territory (which is why you need to begin with as broad a list of potential interviewees as possible).
I also make it clear that I am not seeking confidential or proprietary information, only perspective on big issues. Further, I steer away from discussion points that might lead them to inadvertently reveal something they shouldn’t. And I promise not to attribute their comments to them, but rather aggregate them in with all the others I hear (for this reason, I don’t share interview notes with clients as part of the deliverable).
Do your homework.
These are experts — it’s not up to them to give you an elementary education of their field. So do some prep work.
For example, once I was involved in a project seeking alternative potential uses for ground-based radar. I studied a graduate-level physics textbook to gain some basic insights on the main technical issues. And while I don’t claim to have understood most of what I read, it gave me enough vocabulary and basic understanding to engage with the engineers I interviewed.
Be respectful of time.
These are interesting people! Often, I wish I could speak to them for an hour or more. But I tend to ask for just 20-30 minutes. And, if that’s what is agreed upon, I do a time check as we get near the end and wrap things up as promised. (In some cases, if the discussion is interesting, they will say it is okay to extend a bit.)
Follow up and say thank you.
Make sure to follow up with a note of thanks. And, of course, if you promised a summary of your general findings, let them know when they can expect to see it and keep your promise!
Often, the greatest insights and ideas come from having conversations with a broad range of people; far more than what you’ll learn by just Googling.
It can be a challenging and time-consuming process, absolutely. But much less so than crafting a strategy or entering a market with a less than thorough understanding of what awaits!