Saturday, February 2, 2013

Confessions of a Corporate Spy

What do you think it means to be an expert in "hard-to-get elicitation"? It means people tell you things. A competitive intelligence consultant discusses things that can help a business--at the expense of another.

When I strolled into a Talbots near closing time on a Wednesday night, I wasn't expecting Phipps Plaza in Atlanta's ritzy Buckhead neighborhood to be so dead. Perfect for me. Less so for the store manager. I entered keenly aware of how completely out of place I must have seemed--a heavyset thirtysomething black guy in Walmart dress slacks, trying to look casual while fondling Hil­lary Clinton-esque blouses. If I were on staff, I might have briefly considered the possibility that I had come in only to knock over the place while things were quiet.
And I would have been about right.
I'm a competitive-intelligence researcher. A spy, of sorts. I don't break the law. But I always feel like I'm right on the edge of it, never mind my rigid ethical standards. The information I secure is given freely and obtained legally, and I don't lie to get it, but in the back of my mind I'm always thinking, You probably don't want me to know this. I found myself on this perverse shopping trip for a smart green pleated skirt because a company had hired me to learn the sales targets and promotional activity from Talbots store managers. I had been recruited to attempt face-to-face social engineering--basically wheedling out the information in person.

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