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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Talk Is Not Cheap If the Chat Is Really Industrial Espionage




I don't use the word "spy." When someone says "spy," it connotes illegal activity. We don't trespass; we don't lie; we don't do anything illegal. I am a competitive intelligence professional. I don't go up to someone and say, "I'm a spy." I say, "I am a market analyst."


You'd be surprised what people will tell you. I don't interview people; I elicit information from them by casual but boring conversation. People remember the first thing you say and the last thing you say. They generally forget the rest.


They also remember questions better, so I don't ask questions. I bring the conversation closer and closer to the things that I am interested in. It's very much about thinking on your feet. If a person says, "I am director of new product development," an alarm goes off in my head. I have to keep the conversation general until I figure out what I want to do.


I might try to goad someone into bragging. Or I might provide an opportunity for someone to correct me. I might say: "You never have enough people when you are working. How many guys you got in your department? 10? 11?" And he might say, "Oh no, we've got 15." What good is that number? Well, we can estimate the total manufacturing costs based on the number of people working in the company.


How much can you get from one guy in one conversation? Not a lot.


But you get a little every time and they start to think they can tell you more. It's really important to remember names. What better way to introduce yourself than to walk up to someone with a beer and say hello?


I target mail room guys and secretaries. They are called the invisible people because they have a great deal of information, are generally underappreciated and no one ever asks their opinion.


Scientists are also great to target. The reason? What is a scientist's motto? Free flow of information.


A great place to overhear information is the men's room. I heard about one guy who dresses up like an attendant and hands out towels to listen to people's conversations. Another place where people keep talking is on a plane.


If I know the guys I'm targeting will figure out who I am, I have to pay somebody else to go after them. Recently, two consultants I hired found out where executives from a rival company played golf and arranged a foursome. The executives blabbed throughout the round, and I got the information I needed.


I also do what any good reporter does: look at published articles and brokers' reports and the like and build a picture of what a company is doing.


X. works for a large telecommunications-equipment maker gathering intelligence about its competitors. At trade shows, he tries to wheedle information from rival companies' employees without letting them know who he is. He agreed to be interviewed on condition that neither he nor his employer be identified.