Basics to avoid embarrassment
What you don’t know can hurt you. Consider this: What if you spent weeks with your R&D, marketing, and sales staff creating you next product introduction, and one month later, read in the trade press about a similar announcement from your competition? How would you feel? What would your boss say? What would your customers think? Why didn’t you know about the competition?
As Yogi Berra said, “You can observe a lot by watching.” There are several good reasons why otherwise savvy companies are ignorant of their competitors. Most assigned to the task of gathering competitive intelligence loath the job. They feel it’s a painful, drawn out process, and mostly pointless. They don’t know how to start, where to go, whom to call, or what to ask.
Gathering competitive intelligence is actually fun and easy to do. It can make you a hero in your own company. You’ll avoid “stepping in it” and you won’t be doomed to repeating the failures of your predecessors. Your well-thought-out marketing plan won’t be shot down since you can demonstrate that you know what the competition is up to. With a successful plan, you’ll get more marketing dollars.
When you know more about your competition they know about you, they’re dead! Make yourself the “Corporate Colombo” and have fun sleuthing your competition.
Some Ways to Sleuth Your Competition.
Adjust your viewpoint.
Most sales and marketing people look at their competition with disdain and contempt. These emotions create barriers to clear thinking and effective planning. Fear and loathing lead to competitive blind spots where you are vulnerable. View your competition as your prospects and customers do. They are curious, open minded, and excited. They’re trying to solve a problem. We tend to be more critical than most customers. We usually focus on things that they don’t really care about, such as, “I hate that color,” or “That’s a bad place for the on/off switch.” When you analyze your competition, do so as if you were a prospect, someone with positive expectations. Go in with an “I’ve-got-money-to-spend” viewpoint. Or better still, watch a real prospective customer review your competition’s products to get an idea of what they think is important. The next step is to look at what your competitors sell as if it were the first time you’ve ever seen them. Or ask someone who’s unfamiliar with the competition to review it. You’ll be surprised at what you’ve missed. In the passion of looking for dirt, more than one company has been baited by false information, or worse, has redirected their marketing plans down a dead-end path. Savvy guerrillas don’t let the competition blindly set their strategy. Objective intelligence leads to a precise and successful market attack.
Create your own intelligence network
Enlist your colleagues, associates, and vendors in your quest for competitive intelligence. Let them know that you’re always interested in competitive information. Then reward those in your organization who become “industry experts.” Make competitive intelligence gathering part of your everyday awareness, and you’ll never be blind sided by your competition.
Watch for their publicity
Have your entire staff looking for news items and advertising about your competition. Watch the employment help-wanted ads. Often they’ll reveal information about upcoming projects. You can determine a lot from staffing requirements, especially when you’ve been watching them for a while.
Get all the literature you can
Call your competition and ask for their catalog, samples, brochures, and literature. Tell them who you are, and what you do, and that you’d like their literature so you have a clear understanding of what they tell your customers. If they balk, call back, this time giving your home address, or ask one of your neighbors to request the information for you. Ask your customers who may have used the competitor in the past to share their experience. Study their literature, just as if you were an excited customer getting ready to buy. Punch these materials for a three-ring binder and add them to your training library.
You’d be surprised what information you can get by asking your competition. For example, Mike, who’s the sales manager at a major hotel in New Orleans had an association executive previewing the property for an upcoming conference. Mike asked, “Where was the best conference you’ve had?” The exec mentioned last year’s conference at a high-profile hotel in Las Vegas. After the meeting, Mike called the sales manager of that hotel. “Hello, I just had one of your customers in here raving about you. Would you do me a favor? Would you fax me last year’s contract?” Mike patterned his proposal after the Las Vegas contract and won the business. Just because you wouldn’t give your competition the information doesn’t mean that they won’t give it to you!
Go where they hang out.
Where do the workers go after work for a drink? Where do they go to lunch? You can pick up lots of interesting information by just sitting back and listening. Or encourage them with a round of drinks and then listen to them complain. We’ve heard about more than one industry secret revealed in an overheard conversation in a restaurant, bar, or airplane.
Interview disgruntled ex-employees.
Check the grapevine for someone who has just left your competitor. Invite them out for dinner and drinks. Pick their brain by asking questions such as “What do you think they do really well, better than us? Where are we falling down? What three things should we be doing that we’re not?” Steer clear of asking them to violate any non-disclosure agreement they may have signed. You may be liable for misuse of obviously confidential information.
Take your competition’s customers to lunch
If you want to understand your competitor’s marketing strategy, ask your sales force about a deal that was recently lost to the competitor, and offer to take the buyer to lunch. Explain that you’re only interested in finding out how to improve what you sell so that next time around, you’ll have a shot at earning their business. Sure, this feels like eating humble pie, and so you might be tempted to reject this idea. But you’ve already lost the sale, so swallow your pride and don’t lose the intelligence the sale generated.
Objectively, without arguing with you hear, ask questions such as:
How did you find out about them?
What steps did you go through as you made your decision?
What were the factors you used to decide?
Comparing how we did with them, what did we do well?
What could we have done better?
Focus on what the competitor does to win customers, not on how to save the deal. When customers are pushed to reconsider a decision, their natural reaction is to defend and exaggerate the deciding factors. You want the unvarnished truth from them. So consider the lost deal an investment, perhaps an expensive investment, in planning the next battle.
Call a discount stockbroker and order one share of your competitor’s stock. You are now, in the truest sense of the word, a shareholder. You are entitled to all the information and privileges of a shareholder, and the company information will be automatically sent to you. You are also entitled to attend the shareholder meetings. If you really want to have fun, buy a share of stock for everyone possible in the company. Take a road trip to the annual shareholder’s meeting, and sit on the front row. Don’t disrupt! But can you imagine the impact on your competitor’s CEO when explaining how they will increase sales next year, and the competition is literally hearing it first. Enjoy the look on their face when you ask for a plant tour.
Become their customer
Experience your competitor first hand. Buy from them. When most companies buy from the competition, they rip apart their purchase and look for the bad things to point out to their sales people. This works in creating a traditional competitive analysis. But you still don’t have an insight on why others buy from them. What works better is to use the competition’s products just as their customers do. Most buyers gleefully bring their new acquisition into their lives. To truly understand the mindset of your competitor’s customer, you must (begrudgingly or otherwise) do the same. We suggest treating your competitor’s orders as you would for your most important customer. Scare them with your exceptional customer service. They’ll assume that if you give this level of attention to your competition, you must really be going out of your way for customers.
Use trade show reconnaissance
A great source of competitive intelligence is trade shows. The booths are often staffed by those in-the-know who haven’t been briefed on what topics are safe, and which are out-of-bounds. Because of the unfamiliar show environment, these people are just insecure enough to feel that by talking about “insider information,” they’ll command respect. It only takes a little prodding to get them started. At trade shows the unwritten rule is Caveat vendor: Let the seller Beware. Walk up and start asking questions. Entire marketing plans have been unwittingly revealed to competitors at trade shows.
Compile competitive profiles that include on-line research from Dow Jones, Lexus, Nexus, DiaLog and the World Wide Web. Go to newsgroups that customers are likely to frequent and post questions about competitors’ products as well as your own. You’ll find the responses pointed and pragmatic.
Take mug shots at the show
On the opening day of the show, have one of your people take pictures of the competitors’ exhibits, particularly close-ups of their staff (a telephoto lens is handy). Have a one-hour photo finisher develop the film (or better still, use one of the new digital still cameras that download the pictures right into a computer.) Make up a “Wanted” poster, so that your staff will recognize them if they come snooping.
As always plan to fail if you don’t plan. Employees must take the process and internalize the goals or you have the wrong message or the wrong employees.