Conducting Primary Research: The Information Dance

Let’s say you have identified a specific company as a prospective acquisition. To get to know that company, you must do primary research, not just secondary (online or library) research. This involves getting on the phone and talking to people who deal with the company on a regular basis, and eventually to the principals themselves.

Primary prospect research often requires a deft handling of phone conversations. This is what I call ‘‘the information dance.’’ Through years of experience, I have developed some general guidelines on how best to conduct yourself when eliciting information about a specific company.

Be prepared with a plan and appropriate contacts: Before you dial, know what information you are trying to uncover and whom you can best get it from. For example, if you are discussing a technology, the engineering department is probably your best starting point.

Be informed about the prospect and the market: Through your market research and secondary prospect research, you should have obtained a baseline of information that gives you credibility when speaking to a source.

Be honest: As with market research, honesty in prospect research is always the best policy. This doesn’t mean that you need to reveal your entire strategic plan to a stranger on the phone. It means don’t lie. You can reveal as little or as much information as you feel comfortable with, but understand that your own disclosures may not be enough to persuade the other person to reveal the data you seek.

Be creative: When discussing a company, you often want to start off slow before zeroing in on specific information. You can even ask questions you already know the answers to in order to get the conversation rolling, and then move on to more significant areas. You need to gain the trust of your source before extracting the gritty details of a company.

Be persistent, but not annoying: Leaving messages is fine, and if you don’t get a call back, wait a few days and then try again. There is no need to call every day or multiple times in a day. If there is no reply after the first few messages, move on to another source.

Be realistic, and prepared for rejection: Some people are so skeptical of your motives that they simply won’t want to talk to you. Others become uncomfortable if you ask them to reveal too much information. You may hear the word ‘‘proprietary’’ over and over. Don’t let this get you down. Just move on to the next source.

*This post was adapted from David Braun’s Successful Acquisition, available at

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