Opposite In-Depth Interview Strategies – Same Great Results

This seems to be the season for conducting in-depth telephone interviews, probably because so many people are trying to figure out what the heck is going to happen now that businesses are struggling back to their knees following the knock-down economic punch of 2009.

So I’ve been talking with business owners and consultants quite a lot and was chatting with a client about how different interviews require different strategies. For example, this week I used two completely different interview strategies—the well-informed listener and the naive listener.

In one interview I was talking with a business owner about some of his current business dilemmas. He seemed cagey and reluctant to talk candidly about how his business structure was helping or hurting his recovery in the current economy. Most of his answers were little more than platitudes about how his business practices were designed to maximize profit. But some of his comments about how customers were going directly to manufacturers to save money were clearly contrary to his business’s reliance on distributors. Rather than challenging him on this directly, I acknowledged that businesses in other industries I worked with were facing similar dilemmas. I mentioned a couple of industries and examples of how they were tackling the issue.

The business owner was suddenly engaged in the interview and began talking much more candidly than he had previously not just about his customer relationships, but about many more of his business frustrations. A few comments about other businesses and professions was enough for him to feel that he was engaging in a dialogue rather than an inquisition. We were on the phone for well over an hour.

I had to take a completely opposite strategy with a consultant in the same industry. Let’s just say he was, well, a little crusty. I was trying to get his read on the future strategies of some big player companies that are competitors to a client.

He was gruff and disinclined to talk. Perhaps he hadn’t had his morning coffee. But he responded well to very basic, somewhat naïve questions that were of the “I wonder what…” variety. I certainly already knew a lot of what I was wondering aloud about, but it opened the door for him to set me straight and, in the process, revealed quite a lot of backstory.

And so we had two approaches—one as an informed listener and the other as a seemingly uninformed listener. But both were as active listeners and both achieved the same great results.

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