Connections for Success

 

01.16.14

Knowledge is Power: Competitive Intelligence Gives You a Leg Up on Your Rivals
Brandon W. Vahl

Competitive Intelligence Gives You a Leg Up on Your Rivals

You are constantly looking to best your competition, right? And your strategy to achieve this likely involves looking internally. What can you do to improve your products and services and, ultimately, attract new customers? But does your strategy also call for looking externally? If not, it should. Gathering competitive intelligence can help provide strategic insights into your rivals’ future plans.

Gather Data

Years ago, the notion of gathering detailed information on competitors may have been negatively referred to as “corporate espionage.” Nowadays, not so much. This is the information age, when companies have a strategic imperative to analyze every bit of data they can on what the competition is doing at all times. It has become commonplace to review a competitor’s website, view their LinkedIn profile and peruse their Facebook account.

Of course, “at all times” does not mean “at any cost.” Competitive intelligence is the process of legally and ethically gathering data on competitors. And your purpose is not to undercut what they are doing, but to anticipate trends, compare best practices and target opportunities.

Specifically, you need to stay apprised of your competitors’ product and service lines, standing in the social media environment, and their position in the industry’s marketplace. You should also track whether the competition is expanding or contracting. Mergers, acquisitions or strategic alliances could mean you need to play defense, while closures or bankruptcy may mean it is time to go on the offensive.

Develop Policy

Before you take a deep dive into competitive intelligence, it is important to establish a formal policy governing your efforts. This policy should be communicated to everyone within your company and periodic reminders should be sent out as well. If you are already gathering competitive intelligence, perhaps slow down and integrate a policy going forward. Generally, a competitive intelligence policy should be authentic. When gathering information, do not hide behind secret identities or misrepresent your affiliation. For instance, if you sign up to receive marketing emails from a competitor, use an official company address and, if asked, state “product or service evaluation” as the reason you are subscribing.

Your policy also must respect all formal agreements. In the course of gathering competitive intelligence, you or your employees may establish sources within the industry or even with a specific competitor. Be sure you do not encourage these sources, even inadvertently, to violate any standing confidentiality or non-compete agreements. It is extremely important to always be transparent.

Because the technicalities of intellectual property law are complex, you must abide by all intellectual property rights and laws. It is not particularly difficult to run afoul of the rules unintentionally. When accessing or studying another company’s products or services, proceed carefully and consult your attorney before putting any lessons learned into practice.

Finally, be sure to monitor consultants closely. When it comes to competitive intelligence, the Achilles’ heel of many companies is not employees, but outside consultants. If you engage third parties for any purpose, be sure they know and abide by your policy.

Use Available Resources

The Internet provides a good starting point for competitive intelligence. Begin with your competitions’ websites. You should know the ins and outs of their sites as well as you do your own. How does your company’s website stack up against the competition? Look to relevant industry websites and blogs too. And do not forget social media: Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Additionally, there are several companies that provide public company profile information at a price.

The printed word is your friend, too. Assign one or more employees to keep tabs on newspapers, industry publications and journals and any other useful print sources. Your competitors’ brochures, catalogs, press releases, annual reports and other collateral should be must-reads as well.

Bear in mind that, at its most basic level, competitive intelligence can simply involve speaking with others. Encourage your employees to chat up virtually anyone who might hold a nugget of useful knowledge — customers and prospects, bankers, business contacts and referral sources.

Verify and Analyze Data

Naturally, you have to do more than just gather data. You must be able to verify its accuracy, a critical component of competitive intelligence and analyze it.

Ensuring accuracy comes down to quality sources and fact-checking anything of which you are uncertain. The task of analysis lies with you and your management team. Develop goals and criteria ahead of time that will allow you to focus on your company’s objectives.

Tip the Playing Field in Your Favor

In today’s ever-challenging economy, your business must use all available information to tip the playing field in your favor. Your competition, undoubtedly, is doing the same. Using competitive intelligence can help you learn what they are cooking up and determine if your plans hold their own. For additional details or questions related to competitive intelligence, contact Brandon Vahl at [email protected] or 312.670.7444.

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