A beginner’s guide to Competitive Intelligence

Scoping out competitors is one of the most important things a business owner can do, and SMEs can use that information to build Competitive Intelligence (CI).

What’s in it for me?

CI looks at the activities of competitors to identify potential short and long-term business disruptions and opportunities, develop and test counter-competitive strategies, identify business blind spots and benchmark rivals.

The aim is to stay one step ahead.

Predictably, many multinationals spare no expense compiling sophisticated CI, often creating dedicated departments that use big-data analytics to develop intricate strategic overviews.

This level is out of reach for most SMEs, and most wouldn’t need to go to this extent.

But given two commonly stated problems for SMEs are that they either have too many competitors or that their competitors are larger, it makes good sense to find out what they might be planning.

Fortunately, all SMEs can access effective and inexpensive ways to gather data and extract competitive value from it.

The key is to take a diligent and forensic approach.

Start from within

“Sixty percent of the information you need could already be within your organisation,” said Ray Harrington, a retired CI expert.

“After about six to eight weeks, reach out to and interview new customers and prospects that were lost to competitors.

“When all the factors that influenced the win/loss ratio are stored and shared, over time you will discover underlying trends and competitors’ unique selling propositions, marketing differentiators, misconceptions about your product or service, or features you can change or add value to.”

Get out and about

One of the biggest CI Meccas is industry events: expos, conferences and seminars.

Talk to experts, prospective customers, suppliers and competitors who attend, but go in with a plan. Know which specific areas and questions you want to research, or even just stay and listen.

Be aware that competitors will be on their guard. Even assigning internal staff to gather intelligence at trade functions can be problematic given name badge requirements.

Using someone from outside the company could raise ethical issues. Anything perceived as spying or deception could damage your reputation.

At a minimum, establish dialogue with industry journalists, bloggers or regulars on the speaker circuit.

Most are usually happy to talk shop, and networking can provide a holistic view of what’s going on behind the scenes in your field.

Mine for valuable nuggets

Go data mining, not just through traditional catalogues and brochures, but by subscribing to competitors’ Google Alerts, Facebook, Twitter feeds, e-newsletters and RSS feeds.

Monitor what they say about themselves, and gain insight into their brand values and visual identity, new products or services, promotions, advertising and PR campaigns.

Audit their websites through the eyes of a consumer. How easy are they to navigate? Are they easy to purchase from? How do they compare to yours?

Larger competitors’ annual reports, often published online, may detail a business’s concerns and strategies for future growth (which may directly impact you), along with HR and recruitment activity.

Keeping tabs on the types of skills rival firms are seeking is important – it could signal that your top talent is being headhunted.

It could also indicate that a competitor is planning to expand, possibly into your geographic or customer niche.

The agility of small- to medium businesses is one of their key advantages, but quick responses rely on timely information and early warnings.

Without effective CI neither is likely – and you can bet the competition knows that too.