Collecting competitive intelligence is like a scavenger hunt; nuggets of information are hidden everywhere. Your challenge is to go out and find them. But you cannot conduct the hunt as random bursts of effort if you want to develop truly effective competitive intelligence.
In a world where the competitive environment is constantly evolving, ad hoc approaches will never develop and maintain a comprehensive profile of the competition. To keep up, you’ll need a methodical, disciplined approach to ensure that you always have a handle on what your competitors are doing.
Where to Find Your Competitive Intelligence
You’ll be surprised at how many places you can find competitive intelligence. It’s a little like walking through the woods. Wildlife is all around you, but if you’re not looking for something specific, you’ll never find it. You have to be paying attention. Here are just some of the places that you’ll find competitive information:
- Presentations by executive management that provide information about future strategies of the company
- Annual reports and regulatory filings
- Articles, news stories, and other features created by someone inside or outside the company
- Product-specification sheets and other company literature distributed at conferences, trade shows, and other events
- Physical observation of competitor activities at your customer sites, trade shows, or investor events
- Special studies, research papers, and analyst reports about an industry and/or company
- Interactions with customers, suppliers, and other industry participants
- Industry-specific social network sites
No single source is likely to produce all the competitive intelligence that you’re looking for. Instead, you’ll pick up tidbits of information from many sources and need to assemble them into a comprehensive profile for each competitor.
Who Does What
An effective competitive-intelligence system requires these four primary activities:
Responsibility for each of these activities is summarized in the table below.
All organizations that have regular contact with the market
Leadership for ensuring robust competitive intelligence falls squarely on the marketing team. They need to ensure that a system is in place, that everybody understands their role, and that the intelligence is used to inform value-based strategy.
The best place for collecting detailed competitive intelligence is in proximity to where your competitors and customers conduct their business. Competitive-data collection needs to be a formal part of the job description for those organizations that have regular contact with the market. This includes
- Marketing, and
The analysis process to turn raw competitor data into true competitive intelligence belongs to the marketing function. It’s their job to figure out what the data means to your business, reconcile conflicting data, and figure out how to respond.
Finally, for the competitive intelligence to be useful, it has to get into the hands of the people in your organization who need it. All the collected intelligence and analysis needs to be packaged into a useful form and then disseminated to all the key stakeholders. This responsibility for disseminating competitive intelligence falls squarely on the marketing and product-management functions.
Establish a Closed-Loop System
Developing competitive intelligence is a perpetual process. You are never finished. The data is always changing, incomplete, or requiring further validation. You need a closed-loop management-and-control mechanism that ensures a rigorous, dependable process.
The system shown in the figure below establishes a routine to regularly identify gaps against the target intelligence, collect data to fill those gaps, and then update your analysis and disseminate it. This process also inserts a regular inspection point to ensure that the system is working.
Before embarking on any competitive-intelligence update mission, you’ll need a framework to identify the specific information needed.
To get your system started:
- Create fill-in-the-blank templates that identify all the competitive-intelligence items that you need collected and analyzed. It’s helpful to structure these in presentation format. That way, when it comes time to disseminate and communicate, your materials are ready to go without additional work.
- Fill in all the blanks in your new templates with the data that you already have.
Now you are ready to enter the closed-loop portion of the process. Your first step is to identify gaps. This is pretty easy to do—the gaps are now the holes or outdated data in your templates. With a clear list of the gaps, assign the responsible stakeholders to seek out the specific information to fill those gaps.
When the data comes in, it’s time to aggregate and analyze it. You’ll have to reconcile conflicting data points, perhaps validate certain inputs, and then update your templates. Once that’s complete, disseminate the fresh competitive intelligence. Send the composite analysis to stakeholders, and thank the team for their help.
Next is the regular inspection. This step is necessary because competitive-intelligence acquisition has no natural deadlines in the course of conducting day-to-day business. If you don’t do it, you’ll still make the quarter’s numbers, shipments still go out on time, and employees still get paid. But, as you know, nothing ensures that a project will get done better than a highly visible deadline. Therefore, you have to manufacture a deadline for competitive-intelligence acquisition within your company’s management systems. Try including a competitive-intelligence review as a regular, standing agenda item in one or more of these forums:
- Product-line reviews
- Strategy reviews
- Sales meetings
- Marketing-staff meeting
Provided that the forum occurs on a regular basis, it will serve as a constant reminder to maintain your competitive intelligence.
How to Plug the Tough Holes
Even with a robust competitive-intelligence system in place, you’re still going to have some tough holes to fill. Very often, those holes are the specific details that you need in order to fully build out your value proposition or ensure that your positioning is effective.
One way to close those gaps is to go to the market with your best assumptions about your competition, and then let the market help you make corrections along the way.
Take the set of sales presentations that you already use to articulate your advantages and value proposition. This will be your starting point. Make sure that these presentations are very specific about how you are different from the competition. Instead of going “vague” in places where you don’t have sufficient data about your competitor, stay very specific, and use your best guess to describe your competitor’s capability.
For example, if you were trying to draw a distinction between you and your competitor on the cost of consumable parts, don’t fall back to qualitative comparisons like:
“Lowest consumables cost.”
Instead, use your actual costs and your best guess for your competitor:
“Less than $150K/year in consumables versus $225K/year for our competitor.”
Next, gather up those sales materials and get on the road. Present them to your customers, suppliers, prospects, and other industry participants.
When you present “Less than $150K/year in consumables versus $225K/year for our competitor,” at some point on your road trip, someone is going to correct you and say, “The competitor’s consumables cost only $175K/year.”
Bingo! You have your data.
Obviously, you need to handle this process very carefully. Your approach will vary depending on the norms and culture of your industry. Be thorough enough to achieve your objective, but don’t compromise important industry relationships or anyone’s integrity.
Why Sales Fails to Get You Competitor Data
“No matter how many times we ask, the sales team never seems to come up with the competitive information that we need. Yet they’re not shy about banging on us for wimpy marketing materials that fail to address the competitive issues.
Why can’t they just help us out?”
If you’re a product-marketing manager experiencing this frustration, you’re not alone. You need detailed competitive information to position your products effectively. No one has better access to that information than your sales and service teams. So why is it so hard to get it from them?
If you are still reading this and thinking that you’re about to learn how to expose this bad behavior by the sales force, you can stop now. To fix this, product-marketing managers, you need to consider that the problem might be with you.
If you are open to this possibility, keep reading for your three-step improvement program.
1. Know Specifically What You Need
That’s right. You must know the specific gaps in your competitive intelligence that are keeping you from effectively positioning your products.
For example, if you’re positioning your product on “fastest setup time,” then you need to know what your competitors’ setup times are. If you don’t know, there’s your gap.
2. Be Specific with Your Requests
Do you want to know the biggest mistake that you can make when asking the sales force for help with competitive intelligence? It’s this:
Send an e-mail to the whole sales team, asking them to send you anything that they have on the competition.
Two bad things happen. First, everyone on the “To” list will assume that someone else on the list will respond to your request. Usually, this results in no response.
Second, “send anything you have about the competition” is so ambiguous that the sales team won’t know where to start. So, they don’t.
Instead of shotgunning your request, take a more specific approach. Ask individual salespeople to help you find specific morsels of competitive intelligence. This will convey a sense of accountability to the salesperson and give him or her clarity of task. Note that it is OK to ask more than one salesperson for the same information because your competitors’ position and performance can vary by customer.
3. Reward Their Effort
This is a very common complaint from the sales team: “We send in all kinds of competitive information. But it’s like feeding a black hole. Nothing ever comes back.”
You cannot expect the sales force to provide a steady stream of competitive info unless they see a return on their efforts. A salesperson is no different from the rest of the human race in this regard.
As the product-marketing manager, you need to turn the data that you get from the sales force into updated competitive analysis, sharper product positioning, and better selling tools. Get these new materials into the salespeople’s hands and acknowledge the individuals who provided you with the data that made the new materials possible.