We are social creatures. Even the most introverted people typically enjoy a good conversation. We especially enjoy conversations about topics in which we are interested. However, in the cut-throat world of business, not everyone is a friend and some conversations may have an ulterior motive.

Imagine you are at a trade show. Of course, you want to talk to customers and potential customers about your products or services. But, as you know, your competitors are there too. Now, imagine further that one of your competitors with whom you are “friendly” comes by to chat. While you don’t want to be rude, your radar should go up. It is very possible your friendly competitor is engaged in elicitation.

What is elicitation? According to the FBI, it is a technique used to gather information. It is a conversation in which the purpose is to collect information that is not readily available and do so without raising suspicion that specific facts are being sought.  It is usually non-threatening, easy to disguise, deniable and effective.  Someone skilled in this technique will appear to be engaging you in a normal social or professional conversation, but will obtain meaningful information from you without you even realizing he has done so.

Some companies employ competitive intelligence collectors trained in elicitation tactics. Their job is to obtain non-public information from competitors that can be used to compete more effectively. Trade shows are often teeming with people either formally or informally trained in this technique.

Back to the trade show… your friend who happens to work for a competitor may ask if you have been working long hours or traveling a lot. While these questions may seem innocuous, they may actually be for the purpose of gathering information about your company. If you work in R&D and you admit to working long hours, that could be a small piece of information that helps the competitor estimate the timing of the release of a new product. If you are in sales and talk about traveling to a particular locale frequently, the competitor may be able to deduce what customer you are speaking to. There are countless other small pieces of information that can be obtained from a “casual” conversation and that a competitor may piece together with other information to learn more about your business than you have or would want to disclose publicly.

As with confidential and trade secret information that is committed to paper or stored in an electronic format, you need to be careful with information in your head that may seem to be harmless, but may constitute valuable corporate intelligence for a savvy competitor.