I am a member of an online resource where clients seek bids from independent consultants like me. The projects tend to be on a range of topics but yesterday I noticed a competitive intelligence engagement. An executive at a firm (the website does not require clients to disclose their names) placed the RFP and was asking for quotes to find out the strategies of their top six competitors. If you are a business executive who wants to do the same, please read this carefully.
- The last thing you should do when you want to collect intelligence on your competitor(s) is to let them and others know what you are up to. It completely corrupts the process and makes it nearly impossible to get the job done.
- If you need to use an outside competitive intelligence consultant, do not post the RFP on the Internet. Using the photo of the executive on the profile of the project sponsor and employing a few tricks that I have perfected, it took me no time to find her LinkedIn page. From there, I got information on the company. Another hour of research and I knew the top competitors. It is fair to assume that this information will eventually reach the target(s).
- The right way to find a consultant (of course I would love you to call me directly) is to approach a few directly. Ask them to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Discuss with them the program and once you find the right professional, start the research.
- Use utmost secrecy internally. Use code words for the targets and the overall project. Only those company executives who need to be involved should know the details of the project.
As a competitive intelligence expert, one of the most frustrating part of my work is dealing with clients, who once decide to engage in a conducting competitive intelligence, want to get it done right away and get exactly the information that is needed.
I have to then spend a great deal of my time educating my clients that this is not how it works and emphasizing to them the importance of have an ongoing competitive intelligence program. Pretty much like the spy agencies are always collecting intelligence and even keep track of the information that may not seem relevant, any company that takes its business seriously must always keep a tab on the competitive landscape.
If you do not have a competitive intelligence program in place or the competitor is new to you (this can happen for many reasons), there is no guarantee that you can get all the answers in a defined time window. In my experience, I have gotten lucky in some cases, but competitive intelligence, like any spy or private investigator will tell you, requires time. One must wait for the right individuals to find and interview so that information can be triangulated and we can tell you with a high level of confidence that what we have learned. Unfortunately, this adds up in costs as well. Many clients expect that they can get actionable insights on their competitors by merely surfing the web (I typically hire a teenager to do that and you can too). In my opinion, though, the best insights comes from speaking to people up and down the supply chain who are knowledgeable about the target. This requires waiting for the right professionals to be identified and be available and no smart CI consultant will do these interviews over the phone. My preferred mode is to hire these individuals for a short-term engagement (it can be as simple as paying them for a few hours of consultation or even hire them for a few days) and then work through the details in a conference room.
To conclude, if you are serious about competing in the marketplace, you cannot cut corners on gathering competitive intelligence.
For competitive intelligence consultants like me, the Internet has been a blessing. It has lowered our cost of doing business and has improved the quality of our output. Not only are companies providing a lot of information online (oversharing is a problem not just among regular folks — even smart business professionals are engaging in oversharing, and giving away valuable information to their competitors, merely to gain followers or fans on social media or receive minor bump in sales), a lot of documents that we needed to make photocopies at remote town halls are now accessible with just a few clicks and maybe tens of dollars (rather than thousands that it cost us to get on a plane and then spend all the time in driving to town halls and often waiting for a day or two to receive copies of documents).
So is it really true that there is no need to leave your desk and you can do it all yourself? This is a very tempting feeling but the competitive intelligence business would have been dead by now if the Internet had all the answers. I always encourage my clients to find whatever they can on the web if they have the resources to do so cost effectively themselves (we can do this part of the research quite cost effectively because I have low-cost, trained colleagues who specialize in this work). It is better to use this as the base research to build on with help from consultants like me. The value consultants like me provide is our ability to connect with industry insiders and make sense of all the public information. It is through these discussions that we can develop a context for whatever is reported online. It is also through these discussions that we can verify if press releases and media coverage is accurate (it is fairly routine to release confusing and/or misleading information for competitive reasons).