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March 21, 2019

On the road to intelligent prospecting

Photo d'Éric Dequenne, vice-président, Affaires internationales


In June 2018, the International Affairs Division of Investissement Québec (IQ) undertook a thorough review of its competitive positioning to improve how it identified potential clients, gain a better understanding of the business environments of international subsidiaries operating in Québec, and support its field teams through artificial intelligence.


We met with Éric Dequenne, Vice President, International Affairs, to ask him some questions on the subject.


Éric, what has changed in the field of prospecting since you started in 1999?


Prospecting for foreign investment is still a fairly traditional sales profession. We rely on a network of contacts, identify trade fairs to visit by targeting potential clients and seek opportunities through various information channels. The challenge is to identify the right opportunity at the right time and address it with the right message. To help us meet this challenge, we have integrated artificial intelligence into our ways of doing things. So we've undergone a real sea change in technology!


At IQ we’re also notable for the importance we attach to digital technology. For example, our manufacturing tour is aimed at encouraging the shift to Industry 4.0. And not just encouraging it, but leading by way of example and being a catalyst for digital innovation in Québec.


I think it’s imperative we ask ourselves what are the benefits of new technology such as artificial intelligence. We want to do more than optimize processes. Our goal is not to replace humans, but to better equip them by rethinking how we do things. That’s why we’re looking at how best to collect data and make optimal use of it. We want to add our human capital to technological capital by linking it to our business development actions.


This transformation should also enhance our ability to anticipate and better understand markets while facilitating decision-making. Is this the right prospect to approach? The right time? Analysis of big data from our internal systems coupled with multiple external sources could provide us with answers.


How did you decide to take action?


When I was director of foreign subsidiaries, we had been wondering for several years how to better prepare ourselves to meet with prospects. So when you have access to technology that improves your ability to collect, process and understand data, you see right away that you could be more efficient. With technology to back you up, you have a better understanding of where the client is going and what they want to accomplish. And if you have that ability to see what lies ahead, you’re one step ahead of the game.


But what was the trigger?


Analyzing the technology market with the invaluable assistance of our IT team, we understood that artificial intelligence had the potential to revolutionize how we did things and provide a tremendous boost to our combined efforts. And the fact that the sector is very active in Québec was also a spur that got us thinking outside the box of conventional foreign investment prospecting.


So, how did you go about it?


The challenge was to find a directly applicable solution, without taking years to develop it. We didn't want to lose sight of our goal of being faster and more agile. So we launched several experiments. We identified companies whose digital solutions could pick up signals from companies that were ripe for prospecting. And once the prospects were identified, we had another application to conduct highly targeted marketing campaigns.


We are currently in a pilot phase, and the good news is that it’s even more promising than we thought. Like all organizations seeking to reinvent themselves and become better, we’re in brand new territory! It’s a sea change in the way we do business. It will modernize our work, support our professionals in the field, and add more value to what we do. The challenge is huge in terms of execution—it pushes us to do more and better, to forge ahead and take risks, but with the potential to generate opportunities that were pretty much beyond our grasp before.


What’s next?


The next critical step will be to conclude our pilot phase. If it turns out positive—and I hope it will—that will mean it’s time to roll out on a much broader scale, to move from the experimental phase to the industrialization phase. So that it’s not just a turn at bat, but a
base-clearing home run. And make no mistake about it, integrating AI into the DNA of our prospecting efforts will serve a noble cause—that of economic development.