In the previous post, Introduction to Competitive Intelligence, I provided an overview of CI and introduced a high-level CI process. In this post I discuss the process in further detail and provide CI guidelines and best practices. CI is the process of research and gathering information on the target markets, the competitors and their products and customers, synthesizing and analyzing the information, and delivering it in a consumable form to various internal teams — sales, marketing, product management, product marketing, and the leadership — who may use the CI analysis for better decision making in their respective areas. Below is the CI process.
As described in the previous post, the important activity that is implicit in this process, is analysis of the target markets, mapping out the competitive landscape, and identifying the key competitors. Here we assume that we have already conducted that activity and simply focus on research and analysis on a competitor.
In this section I go through the steps and stages of this CI process.
1. Research and Gather Data from Various Sources
There are many sources to use to gather information about a competitor, such as the competitor itself, the sales team, the customers who use the competitor’s product, analysts who cover the competitor, and the media. Some of these sources may involve primary research (e.g. sales and customers) while others are considered secondary research such an analyst report. For primary research, formal research techniques such as surveys may be used.
A competitor’s website, collateral, pricing, product demos and perhaps the product itself, financials, webinars, events, press releases, job listing, management listing, and social media channels all provide a great deal of information about a competitor. Just beware that part of all that may be just commercials and not all factual or not the whole story. Just listening to a competitor is not good enough for CI analysis. There is a large amount of data available for public companies. For private companies however it is much harder to find with financial data.
By learning about the leadership (senior management and board member) that are usually listed in the company website, one can get a sense for the company culture. Further information on members of the senior management can be obtained from their LinkedIn profile. A company’s jobs listing can also provide good insight into what’s going in the company in terms of areas of expansion and investment and specific technologies used in the products.
I said “the product itself” above. This is easy to do for consumer products (e.g. hand-held devices, mobile apps, or cloud file sharing services) and have low price points. However, it is not so easy for enterprise products which are typically quite pricey and may require going through a 3rd-party to legally obtain the products, deploy them (which may require services) and test them.
The sales people who compete against a competitor have insight into how the competitor is selling, its strengths and weaknesses, and the FUDs that they may use against others. It is useful to know the key sales people and talk to them regularly or do formal interviews on competitive wins and losses. It may be harder to get data on losses than on wins.
There is typically a considerable turnaround in sales organizations within each industries. Sales people move around often and they most often end up with competitors. They often have good information about the competition that may be their past employers. This also applies to hires in other departments. However, certain key hires may be under legal obligation not to disclose sensitive information about their past employers for some time. They should keep their legal obligations.
If if legally there are no issues in sharing competitive information, getting sales people share competitive information may not be easy. There needs to be a convenient and efficient way for them to submit and share their knowledge. Creating incentives and acknowledging them for sharing competitive information may also help.
Customers and users of a competitive product can be a great source for insight into the competitor and its products; how the company engages and sells, the quality of the service and support it provides, the good and bad in the product. The trick is having a good enough relationship with the customer to get such information.
Major analyst firms such as Gartner, Forrester and IDC covering the market and the key players may cover the competitor and rate it in their reports; e.g. Gartner Magic Quadrant, Forrester Wave, and IDC MarketScape. Their reports and services can provide good competitive information and strategic guidance. Just keep in mind that the analysts also talk to the competition.
In addition to the major analyst firms there are also smaller tier two analyst firms that may also special on particular markets and industries. Depending on the market, these may also provide a good source of information and research. These smaller analyst firms can also be hired to do costume research projects on a market or a competitor.
Trusted partners who sell your products (e.g. channel) or help with implement your solutions may also have good competitive information. They should also benefit from the CI analysis. However they may also partner with the competition or sever the alliance in favor of a competitor.
Both traditional and social media can be good sources of information about a competitor. Primary and relevant social media channels should be monitored for mentions of the competitor.
There are good online resources that provide extensive (though not always accurate) information about companies. These include:
- Business information services such as Dun & Bradstreet (D&B), One Source, and InsideView. These are not free and require paid subscriptions. These are particularly useful when researching private companies.
- “Deep web” search services such as Dow Jones Factiva and CI Radar. These also require paid subscription.
- Financial news sites such as Yahoo! Finance, Google Finance and Seeking Alpha (for public companies).
- Sites for technology startups and those that track VC investments such as VentureBeat and CrunchBase.
The CI analyst must sort through all the research and the collected data and come up with a cohesive profile of the competitor that includes factual data as well as deduced information about its every aspect — products, marketing, sales, partners, the geographies and industries they serve, culture, strengths and weaknesses, how they sell, why they win and lose, the potential objections and FUDs that may be used against them, the objections and FUDs that they may use against others, etc.
Depending on the needs of a CI project, analysis techniques such as SWOT, gap analysis, and 3-circles can be used to answer some of these questions and uncover insight. There are tens of analysis methodologies and visualization techniques that can be used. Here is a list of 50!
There will be gaps and unknowns about the competitor. There may also be differences and contradictions in the gathered data that must be reconciled. So certain assumptions or educated guesses must be made. The analysis should include recommendations and call to actions for each target audience. Should the positioning and messaging be tweaked? Are there any missing product features and capabilities that if added will help win more deals? What should sales do to improve the win rate against the competitor?
The thing to avoid here is analysis paralysis. The analysis must be pragmatic. For example, too much detail on minute feature and function of a competitor product may be of little use. Even of a sales engineer says she needs it to win a deal, she may already be losing the deal. The big purchasing decisions are usually made at higher business levels. And at that level, the details of product features may not matter much.
3. Deliver and Communicate to CI Customers
CI analysis typically has several internal customers:
- Sales (and channel partners) need it to win more deals against the competition.
- Marketing needs it to better position and message, design more effective lead gen programs, counter competitive takeout programs and perhaps design appropriate competitive replacement campaigns of its own.
- Product management needs it from a technical perspective so they can improve product capabilities and usability against the competitor product.
- Strategy needs it to plan and execute strategic initiatives such as new product development or M&A activity.
- Leadership needs it to make the right strategic decisions and support the relevant activities and initiatives in other organizations.
The challenge is how the CI analysis is communicated and delivered to each of these groups. Is the analysis a document or a presentation that is emailed to all those interested, or dropped in a shared folder? Is it a blog post in a CI portal? Is it a podcast or a webinar? Or is it a combination of any of these? Accessibility and consumability of CI analysis is important. For example, a long technical CI report on a competitor may not be of interest to sales, while it may be useful for sales engineers or product management. Since CI has different audience and each group has its own needs and interests, the report they get may have to be customized for each group.
4. Validate and Update
Competitive information can become stale, outdated and inaccurate quickly. A new vendor may emerge as a strong competitor or an existing vendor may become a competitor because of a new product launch or an acquisition. Furthermore, there are typically unknowns that CI must work around. Making a wrong assumption or working from an incorrect data point, may result in inaccurate analysis. So CI must regularly iterate over information gathering and analysis.
So how does one know if a CI investment is paying off? Ultimately improved sales and revenue may be a sign of a CI program success. But one would want to see more specific evidence of CI’s effectiveness. This is one of the challenging areas in CI. There are certain metrics that may be useful to monitor and measure. For example, improved win rate against a competitor, trend in number of requests for CI, number of downloads from a CI library or number of hits on a CI blog.
CI is Strategic
CI’s primary responsibility is typically to help the sales win business against the competition. However, CI can and should also serve a strategic purpose. CI can work with the products teams (i.e. product management and product marketing) improve the offerings to be more competitive. CI can also help develop a better understanding of not just the competition today but of potential and emerging future competition. This clearly is of great importance as it can help with strategic planning that may lead to acquisitions or a new product development initiatives.
CI is not Espionage
CI is a lawful and ethical practice; it is not industrial espionage. In doing CI there may come a time when one gets access to proprietary documents and information of a competitor. Employees leaving a company may take such documents with them and pass it on to a competitor. It i’s best to play by the rules and not cross the legal and even ethical boundaries. Deviation from legal obligations can be the bases for lawsuits and turn quite costly.
Where Does CI Belong?
CI works with and supports different groups within an organization including sales, marketing, products, and strategy. Where does CI itself sit? CI can be part of product marketing, product management, sales, or event strategy. Sometimes it is split between different groups. For example, I know of companies that have technical CI within product management, where they may do competitor product “tear-down and testing, as well as within product marketing where the focus is on positioning and messaging. In some companies it is part of sales enablement within the sales organization. Regardless, its responsibilities and objectives are more or less the same.