Below is a collection of project management and research best practices compiled to help you collect and analyze competitive information for your company. Since each step includes significant data that needs to be tracked, no “forms” are presented here, but can easily be developed as they are described through the process. The key – don’t throw anything away!
Focus is another key in any research project. It is easy to come across one piece of information that takes you down a path that is not in the direction of your project target. By using the process provided to develop a roadmap to your desired result, the data your organization is pursuing will be found and can be used as a strategic business tool. Be aware of the path once the roadmap is developed. Many organizations make the mistake of taking a “short cut” only to realize later that they are nowhere near their destination (their “trajectory” is off!).
Competitive intelligence is an important component to the strategy of any business. If you have a finger on the pulse of your business, you have a clear understanding of your competition. If you do not, you will simply wake up one day to realize your business no longer has a pulse and your competitor has eliminated their competition.
Any organization, small or large, can implement this comprehensive, yet simple strategy. Unless you are a Fortune 500 company, you probably do not have an organization dedicated to competitive intelligence. Regardless, any company can assemble a team and implement the process. Winning business and satisfying customers will be the reward for your efforts.
Step 1: Complete A Needs Assessment
Identify the goals of your project. A brainstorming session with the initial team is encouraged. Begin by listing all of your competitors. Be sure to include any company that may be on the fringe of your industry with the ability to cross over with emerging technology. My example would be the handheld computer market. Three years ago, only two or three competitors existed. If existing players did not anticipate the entry of several heavy-hitters into the lucrative marketplace, then they have been blindsided in their market today. By anticipating new participants, you will be able to better inform your sales teams and provide products and services to serve your customers better than new entries into the marketplace.
Use paper rather than a white board for your brainstorm. You could use white freezer paper and tape it onto the white board. Keep the paper as a reference until the ten steps are complete. It will serve as a roadmap and a reminder or your objectives.
Be sure to identify any outside resources you will need to employ and include them into the budget and timeframe. A contact in each group inside your firm should be engaged. People are key! You may find out that the new assistant engineer just left one of your key competitors and would be a great resource for non-proprietary information. If you do not engage anyone from engineering in your project, the information cannot be used. A complete team is also crucial. The core team should include anyone that will have ongoing responsibilities for implementing the 10-step process. A project team will include the contacts from each department. The core team should include the project team in all communication, although the core team will meet more frequently to access process. Be sure to set communication objectives immediately to ensure a strong foundation of the project is built and expectations are set by example.
Step 2: Plan Your Strategy
- MANAGEMENT TEAM
- FINANCIALS / OPERATIONS
- EMPLOYEE INFORMATION
- STRATEGIC PARTNERS
Step 3: Identify Targeted Information Sources
Begin by identifying the best targets that fit within your budget and time constraints. It is more beneficial to develop the budget and timeline first and plan within your means. Develop a company profile worksheet to ensure consistent amounts of information are gathered for each competitor based on direct and indirect resources. Beginning with the basics is the most effective strategy and then work toward filling in the blanks.
Direct sources are most vital to this exercise; however, many times an indirect source will lead you to look for specific information or additional details from a direct source.
Examples of direct sources are:
Company Website – Many companies unknowingly tip off the competition when attempting to lure customers with the information they make available on the Internet. Read every white paper, brochure, press release, executive biography, and any other tidbit that is of interest. When reviewed individually, most of the information is of no value, yet when pieced together it can provide missing pieces of the puzzle that would otherwise go unnoticed.
Shareholder Meetings (Public Companies) – Buy a few shares of stock and attend a meeting. Be sure not to provide your company name, even to your online broker! Ask questions. After all, you do have a financial stake in the company and have a right to information.
Government Agencies – Publicly traded companies are required to file information with the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC). The filings will provide the foundation for each competitor. The crucial document is the 10-K annual report, which provides the SEC with detailed financial information, including: Income Statement, Balance Sheet, product line sales, structure of debt, depreciation, dilution, auditor results, management overview, expectations of the industry’s future performance, and the details of any court actions. If further information is needed on the meaning of the information provided in the 10-K, visit the SEC website at www.sec.gov. Other agencies that provide industry specific information on companies are: the Federal Communication Commission ( www.fcc.gov), the Federal Trade Commission (www.ftc.gov), the Food and Drug Administration (www.fda.gov), the Interstate Commerce Commission (www.icc.gov), and the Environmental Protection Agency (www.epa.gov). Submitting a request and paying a fee to the appropriate agency can access most information that is not readily available under the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA). Each agency’s process is described on the appropriate website.
Federal Government Reports – The United States government publishes millions of documents per year, making them the largest publisher of reports, studies, and books in the world. A significant amount of information is available through the Library of Congress (www.loc.gov), the Department of Commerce (www.doc.gov), and the Internal Revenue Service (www.irs.gov). The information available at these agency sites provides the savvy collector a unique resource of industry information that can be used and disseminated to apply details to individual competitors.
State, County, and Local Government Reports – Public and private companies, if they are incorporated, are required to register with the appropriate Secretary of State. Registration is limited to location information, names of board members, and key management. Vehicle licenses, liquor licenses, Uniform Commercial Code filings made by banks, finance companies, and other institutions describing liens on properties and equipment. The latter is also available at most county levels. Business or operating licenses within various cities, counties and other jurisdictions provide the name of the company, location, and if it is a subsidiary of another company. Building and construction permit requests at the local level provide information on what is being built, location information, site plans, and project requirements. Be creative and you will surely find some of the information you are in search of in one of these easy-to-access venues.
Speeches – A popular method is to listen to changes in the voice of an executive or product manager during their presentation and watch body language, especially during the question and answer portion. If you want to know a specific piece of data, ask. Do not be surprised when you are not given the information outright. You will knowingly have your answer by the tone and pitch of the presenter’s voice and any posture change or gesture during the response.
Media Interviews – The same analysis approach as above applies to media interviews. Any of the hard-hitting news shows are “must-see” for intelligence gathering professionals.
Trade Association Activity – Many times a visit to a trade show booth or the attendance of a panel discussion will reap a great deal of information. Also, ask other competitors for their opinions of each other to gain alternative views (indirect). When attending a trade show to perform intelligence gathering, be sure to register under another affiliation since it would defeat your purpose to have the company logo on your nametag.
Databases – Dun & Bradstreet, Hoovers, and University or Public Libraries provide information that is directly from various government filings described above, specifically the SEC.
Colleges and Universities
Suppliers & Distributors
Step 4: Collect Data
Once you have identified the key sources of your targeted information, the searching and collection begins. Be sure to develop a detailed list of approaches to each area. Using search engines is a tedious and time-consuming approach. Eventually, you will find many of the information sources you need, yet an effective tried and true approach is to begin with the industry association websites.
Trade associations tend to provide interesting articles on various companies within the industry they support. The links are the key. The purpose of associations is to provide a service to their members by providing the best industry information. From that point you will know the next step to take based on the roadmap outlined in Step 1. Stick to your roadmap. If you are not finding the needed information, revisit and revamp your strategy.
Step 5: Organize and Inspect
Each member of the core team must organize the data they collected. On the date specified on the timeline, the entire project team must meet to inspect the data. This is a critical step.
Each member of the project team should offer an objective viewpoint to the information.
Provide each member with a standardized feedback form. Ask several specific questions to guide the feedback and allow for generalized feedback.
Review the data several times prior to moving on to the next step. By doing a thorough job on this step, you will increase the effectiveness of your process.
**Be sure competitive information that is gathered is available to anyone who may need it via a corporate collaboration tool or network folder. A central database would be ideal for a mid-size company to maintain accessibility. Larger pieces of information should be broken down into smaller pieces for others to use.
Step 6: Identify and Retrieve Missing Information
Using the original brainstorming sheet, mark off the information that was targeted and identify any gaps. Members of the core team will have this opportunity to employ the project team in assisting in retrieving any missing information to complete the project. Be sure to make a tight deadline for the missing information. If the information is not available, the team will not waste more time than necessary to come to that conclusion.
Any unavailable information must be replaced by assumptions by the member(s) of the team responsible for that specific area. For instance, you do not want an engineer to make a marketing assumption. To ensure the highest probability for accuracy, test the assumption on a minimum of one person from the specified department prior to accepting it for the analysis.
Step 7: Analyze
The most challenging piece of the process is the analysis of the information. Again, employ a consistent process to analyze your data. Many firms use a SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) approach.
By using the Company Profile Worksheet as a focal point, a variety of alternative approaches are available and should be used, when appropriate. Those include:
- Financial Analysis through completing a variety of ratios to determine financial viability of your competitors.
Trending Events of competitors in an attempt to anticipate what they will likely do next. Be sure not to use this method of analysis alone. It is definitely beneficial to be unpredictable from a strategic perspective in today’s economy.
Analysis including patents, personnel, and mergers can be productive, as well. The use of these depends upon the result you are seeking.
Benchmarking is another method of analysis. By identifying specific competitive products or services and measuring the performance of each based on features and benefits. By engaging in this method of analysis, you are able to make changes to your products and services, and measure the impact of the changes in a competitive manner.
Scenario Planning is the game of anticipation. If your competitor takes any of the three possible alternatives, you can plan the result. Once you have identified scenarios for each of your competitors, the team must predict the most likely scenarios and make recommendations accordingly.
Step 8: “Infotelligence”
Information can be overwhelming. Taking information and transforming it into intelligence is powerful. By engaging in the analytical activities in Step 7, the team is able to make that transformation. Keep in mind that you must make recommendations when intelligence is delivered. Be sure all assumptions are identified and documented. The core team members are now experts and should act accordingly. Management will expect you answer any questions they may have. Prepare, anticipate, and believe in your recommendations.
Breakdown the results from Step 7:
SWOT (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Threats) Analysis
Build on the Company Profile – Use the information provided in the 10-K for public companies as a template. The About Us page on a company’s website will provide a great deal of information to complete this exercise.
Industry Life Cycle – Build a Competitive Benchmarking Spreadsheet to measure each company’s position in the industry.
Step 9: Present to Decision Makers
Prepare a 1-3 page intelligence summary with your recommendations highlighted at the beginning and supported with the intelligence provided. Be sure to tailor it to the management style of your audience. If the individual, or team, is formal in nature, possibly a short 5-slide presentation will be in order.
Sample Presentation Structure:
Slide 1: Introduction/Overview
Slide 2: Highlights of Analysis Results
Slide 3: “Infotelligence” Summary
Slide 4: Best/Worse Case Scenarios
Slide 5: Recommendation with Explanation
A less formal approach is a review of the intelligence summary with a Q&A session to follow. Ensure all core team members and any subject matter experts are in attendance for the presentation. All questions should be answered in the meeting. Bring up your assumptions and come to a conclusion based on the analysis performed in Step 7. The meeting should conclude with an implementation plan.
Step 10: Evaluate/Post Mortem
Once the campaign or product is launched, merger has closed, or customer service solution is implemented, the competitive intelligence project results must be evaluated. Was the campaign, product, merger, or customer service project successful? Was it well received? What was the reaction of your competition? One of the best ways to evaluate a project is to send out a brief questionnaire to customers, employees, industry association members, and anyone else you would want feedback from. Use the information you receive back to refine the process and prepare for the next project that edges out your competition a little more.
By knowing and understanding your competition, you have an edge. The one with the edge is the one that will eventually have the largest share of the market.