The Fine Line between Smart and Creepy when Researching Execs

By Sharon Gillenwater

In business, when does “doing your homework” on a customer cross the line into creepy, stalker-like territory?

This comes up a lot in our business. When someone sees one of our Executive Profiles for the first time, they often eye us suspiciously and ask, “Wow…where did you find all this personal information?”

To be clear, we’re not going through anyone’s garbage. Nor do we have any secret sources you don’t have access to yourself.

Our researchers are just really, really good at finding information about people on the Web and knowing what’s relevant and what’s not. They read earnings calls and interviews, watch videos of speeches, and look at social media profiles – and then they distill everything down to our executive profile template. They do everything you would do yourself if you had a high-stakes meeting with a very important person – except they are more experienced at this type of work and can save you tons of time.

In and of itself, having access to a bunch of publicly-available information on a person is not creepy. It’s how you use the information that can cross the line to creepy.

For example, say you find out that one of your prospects is an avid outdoors woman who hikes, sails, runs, camps, fishes, and hunts. There are two approaches you can take:

  • Smart and Authentic: After getting to know your prospect over a couple conversations, small talk becomes more natural. You find out she will be visiting your hometown soon, so you say, “Hey, I’m not sure if you will have any extra time, but there are some fantastic hikes in the area if you want to get outdoors and get some exercise.” After she expresses interest, you offer to send her a link to some information with a map of your favorite hike. Wouldn’t this be a nice surprise if someone did this for you?
  • Awkward and Creepy: You walk into your prospect’s office where you are meeting her for the first time. You shake her hand vigorously and immediately say, “I read you like hiking! I like hiking, too! Can I take you on one of my favorite hikes sometime?” After an uncomfortable silence, the prospect says, “Um…I don’t know…” and the whole meeting feels awkward and embarrassing.

My favorite example of crossing the line to creepy is this hilarious Modern Family clip from the “Flip Flop” episode. With the help of his social media-savvy daughter, real estate agent and dad Phil Dunphy gathers intel on a potential home buyer and then tricks out the house with all of his customer’s favorite things. The problem? The sweetly incompetent Dunphys go way overboard with what they learned about their prospect. The buyer gets creeped out, flees the house, and Phil loses the sale.

The Dunphys didn’t do anything wrong. They didn’t hire a private investigator. The buyer put all those personal details on social media, which he made publicly available. And the Dunphys’ intent wasn’t to stalk the guy; it was to please him and make the sale – which is probably the same thing you want to do when it comes to your customers.

While you may focus mainly on gathering business insights that make you look smart, thoughtful, and well prepared to discuss your customer’s specific business issues, it’s also exciting when you come across tidbits that CXOs share about their passions – whether it’s pets, a local football team, running marathons, or collecting rare French wines. When used in a non-creepy and authentic way, these little nuggets can help you make real connections with your prospects that can blossom into meaningful, long-term relationships.

Using customer insight to forge better connections isn’t creepy and it certainly isn’t stalking. It shows you care enough to take the time to learn something about your customer. Executives know information about them and their companies is in the public domain and most expect you to find it and use it to plan a conversation that is relevant – to them and their business.

So yes, gather as much information as you can on your customers and prospects. But be thoughtful about how you use it.

And please…don’t mention their dog’s name.

Sharon Gillenwater is the founder and editor-in-chief of Boardroom Insiders, which maintains an extensive database of the most in-depth executive profiles on the market – from Fortune 500 companies to independent non-profits – to help sales and marketing professionals build deeper relationships and close more deals with clients. Gillenwater is a long-time marketing consultant with expertise in marketing strategy, account-based marketing, and CXO engagement programs.