Read an Excerpt
If people listened to themselves more often, they would talk a lot less.
For over thirty years, I've been collecting information for intelligence consumers--both federal as well as commercial. For the past ten years, I've run a company that specializes in collecting hard-to-find information that can be turned into competitive intelligence and then to competitive advantage. For much of that time, we've also provided courses in intelligence skills and techniques to business professionals who work for most of the largest--and many of the medium-sized--companies in the world.
How do we do this? We do it legally and ethically. We don't steal information, bribe people, bug their conference rooms and executive suites, or hack into their computers. We don't misrepresent ourselves, conduct ruse interviews, or have specially molded masks to impersonate others. We really don't need to. In America, where a great deal of our work is done--working for one firm against another irrespective of national pedigree or ownership--we encounter what we call a "target-rich environment."
This target-rich environment gets its name from the comments of a former adversary, a former Soviet intelligence officer who defected to the United States in the late 1980s. We became acquainted a year or so later and have maintained a fairly cordial relationship now that we no longer have professional constraints. He worked against the United States while I worked against his former homeland. Every once in a while, he and I get together to tell each other lies about how successful we were.
On one of these evenings a few years ago, he told me that he'd just finished a great book thatreally captured the essence of the East-West intelligence competition. Oddly, he said that it was written by a former U.S. Navy pilot. I had no clue what a pilot could have known about our old business. My colleague went on to tell me that the pilot recounted some of his experiences over North Vietnam. The U.S. pilots would take off for missions over the North, and large numbers of North Vietnamese aircraft would rise to meet them. The navy pilot described the aircraft as inferior Soviet export models, flown by inexperienced and undertrained North Vietnamese pilots. Rather than viewing the environment as hostile and threatening, the navy pilot commented that he and his colleagues viewed it as a "target-rich environment."
My former Soviet adversary then said that that really captured the essence of how we competed, he and I. While I worked against a xenophobic and suspicious people who were extremely hard to meet, he had free rein in the United States against an open, trusting people that never really met a stranger. For him, the United States was--and remains--a target-rich environment.
I must admit that our experience bears that out.
In our efforts on behalf of clients to collect useful information that helps them make decisions that impact their financial and technical performance, we follow a standard that requires us to identify ourselves by our true names, and by our company. We do that in every contact with a source or potential source of information.
It maybe be helpful to share a statistic with you--one that we began compiling in 1992 and that has remained fairly consistent since that time. Each time our researchers, our diggers as we call them, contact a source--whether a new one or an old one--they fill out a form that describes the person, their information, and their reactions to the approach. It's their reactions that I'd like to share with you.
Let's say we call one hundred people. We say exactly the same thing to each of them. For example, "Hello, my name is John Nolan, from Phoenix Consulting Group, in Huntsville, Alabama. I'm working on a project involving X, Y, and Z and wonder if this is a good time to speak with you." Depending on how cynical you are, you may or may not be surprised that fifty people out of that one hundred will say, "Sure, this is as good a time as any" or "Could you call back in an hour after I've had a chance to clear my desk?"
The other fifty are somewhat less cooperative. Most of these remaining fifty will ask at least one, but usually two, questions. The first usually is "Before I talk to you, what's this about?" Our answer is fairly standard as well: "We're a research firm in Huntsville, Alabama, and we're working on a project on behalf of a client." The second question is a little more focused: "Well, who's your client." Our response is consistent as well: "Sorry, I can't tell you. You see, we have confidentiality agreements in place with every one of our clients and they prevent us from being able to disclose the name of our client."
You would think that anyone with an IQ above room temperature would respond, "Hey, if you can't tell me who your client is, there's no way I'm going to talk to you." Indeed, fifteen out of that remaining fifty hang up at that point. Fifteen. The remaining thirty-five people say something like "Oh, yeah. I've gotta put up with confidentiality agreements at my place too. I understand. So, what can I do for you?" That means eighty-five people out of a hundred agree to talk to us. That's just the starting point. It's what they say afterward, knowing what they've just learned about us and our reasons for calling, that sometimes amazes us.
We'll be spending the first part of this book showing you the ways we keep those conversations going--and enjoy repeat calls to the same people in subsequent projects as well. As you adopt these methods, you'll be joining the thousands of intelligence professionals--government and nongovernment alike--whose approaches to information collection have changed radically and for the better because of the way they've added elicitation to their tool kit.