Six Steps to Organizing an SME Interview
Read Time: 6 Minutes
New business opportunities often arise in sectors that are unfamiliar or niche. You shouldn’t enter into these spaces unprepared. Luckily, in circumstances such as this, there are people who have already explored the territory and can help you assemble a map to guide your way. Talking to these subject matter experts (SMEs) can be extremely useful.
To help you make the most of their expertise, I’ve developed what I call The Six-Step Process of Interviewing, which is a guide to organizing and maximizing the value of a typical 60-minute interview. Let’s review the steps.
Step 1: Prepare. Earlier we discussed how to create an interview guide. Once that is created, you should have all the necessary background planning complete. The expert you’ll be speaking with — whether a very senior-level expert who probably will be focusing on strategic issues or a more operational expert who can discuss tactics — should have a copy of the guide in hand so they can understand what they will be discussing. Before your call, review the interview guide to remind yourself of your goals and objectives for the discussion and have a copy in front of you during the interview.
Step 2: Open. This first phase of the interview usually lasts five to seven minutes. Your goal here is twofold: to introduce yourself, the subject at hand, and what you’re trying to accomplish and learn, and, in the process, develop a good rapport with the expert. Twenty to 30 seconds of small talk — about weather, sports, or some popular activity — is a great way to break the ice, warm everyone up, and create a comfortable basis for substantive discussion.
While your expert has been briefed not to discuss anything confidential, it’s often wise to read a confidentiality statement that reminds everyone that confidential information cannot be discussed or collected. After that, it’s a good idea to share some background on your project and then state very specifically what you hope to learn from the forthcoming conversation.
If your SME has read the interview guide you sent, they should be prepared.
Finally, as a safety check, it’s always a good idea to ask the expert to confirm that they still believe their background is appropriate for the discussion. In the worst case, if the expert turns out to be a mismatch, you are not obligated to continue the interview. You can politely tell the SME that there has been a misunderstanding, that they may not be the right person to talk to at this point in the project, and that rather than waste their time and yours, it’s best not to proceed with the interview. In my experience, about 5% of calls turn out to be a mismatch.
Step 3: Develop. At this point, the conversation starts. And I use the word “conversation” because it’s a key part of an effective interview. Gathering information shouldn’t be an interrogation or cross-examination, nor should it be a dry back-and-forth volley of questions and answers. Instead, build on the rapport developed in the opening and continue a conversation where questions, answers, and discussion flow naturally. This approach maximizes the information and insights shared by the SME.
Move the conversation along with active listening. If the SME is terse, encourage them to talk by saying something like, “That’s interesting, tell me more.” Once you feel you have sufficient information about a particular point, transition to the next point you want to touch on. In the conversation, it’s best to follow the 80/20 rule and strive for the expert speaking 80% of the time. In an hour call, that means you’ll be speaking for only about 12 minutes — which translates into you being an active listener and judicious prompter to keep the conversation going and moving along to the topics you want to cover.
Step 4: Maintain: While your job is to encourage the SME to talk, thereby providing you with information, it’s also to manage the conversation. You can telegraph your intent to guide things along by saying something along these lines at the start: “In the interests of keeping things moving, I may interrupt from time to time to bring us back on track, so please don’t think I’m trying to prevent you from sharing your thoughts.”
Some SMEs lapse into pontificating or can veer off the subject with anecdotes and asides. Since it’s your call, don’t be bashful; you can stop an SME from rambling by politely interrupting and saying something like, “That’s interesting, but let’s get back to what you were discussing.” Stick to your interview guide and return to the questions you’ve developed. If you find your SME is not paying attention — perhaps engaging in instant messaging or answering an email — simply end the call by saying, “You seem distracted right now, let’s reschedule this call to a time that’s more convenient for you.”
Remember to keep your questions open-ended to encourage conversation, and if the SME doesn’t know an answer, ask them for the names of people who might. You can also ask them to give you a guestimate or an opinion. Sometimes an expert may be reluctant to offer an opinion or their view. Try to get to the reason for their discomfort. It could be that they have a very good reason for not taking a position, and the rationale behind not doing so could be important to your project.
Step 5: Close. As you come to the end of the interview, and if you’re doing a team interview, make sure everyone on your team is ready to wrap up. The final open-ended question should be: “What question did we not ask you today that we should have?” More often than not, the question leads to one more useful discussion.
Before you wrap up and thank everyone, ask for referrals one more time, even if you’ve asked earlier. Also ask the expert for the sources of information they use to stay current on their subject matter. This can be a great way to continue your research in the secondary public domain after you finish up. Then ask that if they remember something they would like to add after the call is over, they should get back to GLG and not try to reach out to you directly.
Step 6: Assess. Once the call is over, complete your notes and your call report as quickly as possible. If the interview was conducted by a team, a productive practice is to have one team member be the lead interviewer and have everybody else takes notes, striving to record verbatim comments. These specific quotes are immensely useful as ways to pepper a final presentation. You can record the interview, but even if you record it and get a transcript, use the recording only as a backup and not a replacement for a written call report.
As a last step, refine your interview guide based on what you’ve learned. As you begin to gain consensus on certain questions, strike those from the interview guide and introduce new questions based on what you’ve learned from the previous interviews.
A Last Word on Compliance
Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t review the compliance aspects of the interview process. Conducting market research carries ethical and legal obligations that vary by country and are generally intended to protect privacy of the experts, comply with securities regulations, and prevent industrial espionage. There are three key areas to watch:
- Never ask experts for confidential or material nonpublic information.
- Never ask an expert to discuss their current employer. Be especially cautious when experts working for operating companies start to offer examples that relate to their employer. Stop them from going further.
- Aggressively manage experts that become overly talkative. Stick to your interview guide and prevent potentially dangerous tangents.
About Michael Brown
Michael Brown is President of StrategyMark, a Yorklyn, Delaware-based firm providing buy-side analysis and consulting services to the chemical industry. He also serves as an advisor to the board of Inhance Technologies. Earlier, Mr. Brown was a managing partner with TZ Chemicals International Pty Ltd., the global director of coatings at Quaker Chemical Corporation, and a vice president of ChemQuest Group.
Mr. Brown also has extensive expertise advising clients on how they can best engage GLG Network Members. He has been in the GLG network since 2004 and has conducted more than 3,000 consultations with GLG clients, giving him a unique perspective on best practices for getting the most value out of GLG products.
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