Elicitation: An Essential Skill

Expert elicitors have uncommon listening skills

As described by the FBI: 1

“Elicitation is a technique used to discreetly gather information. It’s a conversation with a specific purpose: collect information that is not readily available. … The conversation can be in person or over the phone.”

Conducted by a skilled collector, elicitation will appear to be normal social or professional conversation. A person may never realize they were the target of elicitation or that they provided meaningful information.”

Sherlock Holmes, the fictional consulting detective, is an expert elicitor. He solves problems that baffled Scotland Yard’s police. He elicits new information from strangers through conversations. He is unobtrusive when he guides the conversation in search of this information. Then he puts together the information collected and solves the problems.

“Elicitation is not interviewing” 2

  • Interviewing is all about questions. A questioner uses a rigid Q&A format. Pointed questions (both yes/no or open-ended) are put forth to gather information.
  • Elicitation is all about open dialogue, dialogue with a purpose. A customer researcher conducting elicitation is: 1. Often speaking to many sources, 2. Gathering seemingly unrelated bits and pieces of data and then, 3. Stepping back constantly to whether patterns are emerging in the aggregate.
  • For elicitors, questions are not a good thing. Questions draw attention to the information the elicitor is obviously interested in obtaining. Questions impede the elicitor’s ability to move up, down, and sideways in conversation to gather additional insights.

One productive phrase I use in elicitation is a statement, not a question.

“I don’t understand”

Most potential customers, in the role of a Professor, will share previously unknown knowledge to help an Intelligent Pupil.


Useful Beginning and Ending Statements


In every elicitation I put the prospect into the “Professor” role, and I remain in the “Intelligent Pupil” role.

I make 3 statements.

My name is George Castellion from Solid State Chemistry Associates.

Is this a convenient time to call?

I’m a consultant working with clients in the front end of new product and service development.

I’ve made these 3 statements In thousands of elicitation conversations. The 1st sentence signals that I have a technical background and am a consultant. The 2nd sentence is magic. A prospect, be they an equipment operator or a Sr. VP will interrupt to ask “ What’s this about?.” Which leads to the 3rd sentence and often the beginning of elicitation. Or, sometimes it leads to “I can’t talk with you now, but call me back at x time.” Or “I’m not the person you want to talk with but Charlie is the person to talk to.” Or “I’m not interested and my firm isn’t interested.”


At the end of the elicitation, I make another simple statement

“I enjoyed talking with you and I learned a lot. Was there something I should have asked you but were too early in the game to know enough to ask the question.”

Now and then, the “Professor” mentions a latent need. A desired need which hadn’t floated to the top of the “Professor’s mind during the conversation.

Often this need leads to an opportunity to develop a profitable new product.



  1. Accessed 10-04-2019 Elicitationpdf, U.S. Dept. of Justice
    https://www.fbi.gov › file-repository › elicitation-brochure .
  2. Nolan, J. (1999) Confidential Harperbusiness, New York, NY