Elicitation: An Essential Skill

Elicitation conversation is a key component of my approach to discovering what customers really want …and why. This skill is an art as well as a science. People acquire it by real world practice, practice, practice.

As described by the FBI:

“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 person, elicitation seems to the listener as a 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 skilled at elicitation conversation. He solves problems that baffle Scotland Yard’s police. He gathers new information from strangers. He is unobtrusive when he guides the conversation in search of meaningful information. Then he puts together the information collected and solves the problem.

“Elicitation is not interviewing” … Nolan

Nolan sees interviewing as all about pointed questions. The questioner uses a rigid Q&A format: Yes/no or close-ended questions to gather the information.

  • Elicitation is all about open dialogue, dialogue with a purpose. A market 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 see if patterns are emerging in the gathered information.

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.