Keeping Your Ear to the Ground

lee pieceThere’s a joke one of my sociology professors used to beat to death. It goes, “There are two types of people: the first type categorizes everyone they meet into one of two types.” I didn’t say it was a good one — my professor certainly thought it was funnier than we did as he always used it.

Where I’m going with this is that, as an aphorism, the “two kinds of people” expression has limited utility when trying to reach an understanding of the world around you. But, it does have its place. Soft skills often boil down to this: Some people have natural soft skills, while others have to train themselves to do them.

In this instance, I want to talk about networking and collecting competitive information from your personal network. I’ve noticed over the years that some people are just naturally good at it, while others aren’t. But like a lot of skills, it just takes practice. 

Your personal and business lives are a web of relationships between you and everyone you know. Personally or professionally, your friends and rivals are all interconnected sometimes distantly and sometimes not. What we have to remember is, they all talk. They talk to each other, and they talk about each other. If you are a good listener, they’ll talk to you.

Why would you want to do that? If for no other reason, do it for the “Opportunities” and “Threats” portion of the SWOT Analysis. Whether it’s a business opportunity or news about what your competition is up to, you’ll find out about it through your network. 

Sometimes it can come to you in the strangest ways. Years ago, the director of a company I worked for was trying to learn more about a rival retailer’s expansion plans into Canada. He had been asking his business contacts what they knew, but nobody had any answers. As it happens, he was on a flight, and seated beside him was a vendor rep he hadn’t seen in years. The rep had just been at the competition’s head office in the U.S., and happily told my director everything he wanted to know.

It’s not just threats you need to keep yourself aware of, but opportunities, too. Sometimes the best opportunities come from keeping your ear to the ground. It could be a potential client has broken up with their preferred vendor (or is at least on the fence about them). Learning that means you would prioritize your time to reach out to them to see if you’ve got a shot.

As I mentioned earlier, some people are naturals at this, and others need to work on it. If you’re in the latter category, break it down into three steps and practice them.

  1. First, collect information. You already have the resources you need to keep tabs on new developments in your channel. Every channel is a small town and everyone knows everyone else. Regularly reach out to your contacts and chat. Steer the conversation towards subjects that you want to know more about. Think of it like fishing with a net: If you cast your net out over and over again, eventually you’ll pull something in that’s worthwhile.
  2. Next, analyze and corroborate. Not everything people tell you is going to be nicely wrapped. You might have to do some digging to find out more. The way you do that is to keep asking around. If one person knows something, odds are someone else does, too.
  3. Finally, if what you’ve learned is actionable, then act. Take whatever steps are necessary to benefit from what you’ve learned.