How to use competitive intelligence to win business

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I recently held a great webinar with Sean Campbell of Cascade Insights on  gaining deeper competitor understanding to improve decision making.

As a follow-on I thought I would ask him to respond to some questions:
Q: How do the businesses that you work with typically organize the CI function?

A: CI departments tend to be organized in a few different ways. And though there will always be some room for variation, the following are some typical ways in which we see competitive intelligence groups organized.

Embedded in Product Marketing

A “compete” function embedded inside a product marketing group is something we see a fair number of times. This could be an individual who is more focused on beating the competition than on growing his or her own company’s market share. The same individual might be measured based more on how much a given competitor decreases its market share rather than on how much the company’s own products increase their market share.

Embedded in Market Research

At other times we see a competitive intelligence group placed inside a traditional market research group. This is the type of structure generally found in an organization that has a strong independent market research group that wants to extend its reach into competitive intelligence projects. This model is fairly good at returning competitive intelligence insights focused on the company’s own customers and their perceptions about competitors rather than on insights derived from conversations with a competitor’s customers, partners, channel, and select individuals who work for the competitor. This model leads to a limited number of Open Source Intelligence (OSINT)–focused projects being conducted, due to the inability to easily classify an OSINT project as a Qual (IDIs, focus groups, etc.) versus A Quant (surveys, trackers, etc.) effort, which is the typical meme that market research teams use to classify work outputs.

Aligned with a Product Marketing Team but Separate

More infrequently we see competitive intelligence teams established as peer groups to product marketing and market research. This model allows the competitive intelligence group to chart its own course as it establishes strategies, tactics, and listening posts that target competitors and the total competitive landscape. As we see it, establishing a competitive intelligence team as a peer group is a best practice. Doing so allows the competitive intelligence team to develop insights spanning both the immediate horizon (upcoming product launches, etc.) and long term (sea changes impacting your industry, etc.) while still framing these concerns collectively for executive leadership.

Embedded in Sales

At other times, competitive intelligence efforts, typically as part of a more tactically focused “compete” function, can be seen embedded in sales teams; specific marketing channels; or, in the case of larger companies, even subgroups that target entire countries or industries. The trick with this model is ensuring that the competitive intelligence team remains independent enough from what might be the daily whims of the sales channel as the team looks for better intelligence on current sales in the pipeline versus having a slightly deeper view of what competitive intelligence can bring to the table.

But in sum, all the above models are better than having no compete group at all or simply having compete reside in the hands of an individual whose claim to competitive intelligence fame might be past employment by one of your competitors.

Q: Could you share a couple of best practices you have seen in companies?

A: A competitive intelligence group can quickly and easily become inundated with requests and feel as if it’s “stick fetching” for the rest of the company. It’s very easy for someone to ask the competitive intelligence folks for information that is interesting but not material. To triage the requests effectively, ask, “What decision will be impacted by this information?” If no decision would be impacted directly by the information, then maybe there are more important things to research.

Another key service that CI groups can provide is looking for the asymmetric and disruptive threats. It’s very easy to look only at competitors that look very much like your own company, but often the biggest threat is something that could disrupt your whole industry, and it’s very easy for a company to be blind to such a threat until it’s too late.

Q: How do companies share this information internally in the most effective manner?

A: At a high level, organizations take a variety of approaches. At the recent conference of the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals association, a senior individual in Best Buy’s CI team laid out the team’s approach, which involved a great deal of use of wikis, as well as contributions from internal team members, store managers, and store employees, based on information they had discovered about the competition.

In the case of more complex B2B sales cycles, however, the content may need to be more structured than a wiki providing news updates and competitor “quick hits.” You may need to provide such structured documents as field playbooks, battlecards, and other content that can tell the complete story surrounding a competitor’s offerings while still remaining within a single document.

Many organizations create compete newsletters that basically provide levels of strategic analysis and competitor insight tailored to the intended audience (i.e., executives vs. field sales vs. product planning vs. product marketing).

And in reality there are as many ways to distribute competitive intelligence information, both strategic and tactical, as there are ways to craft marketing deliverables. So, in essence, the possibilities are fairly limitless.

Q: Have you seen differences in the business performance of companies that do this well versus those that are not so skilled?

A: As we’ve said from time to time, competitive intelligence helps you better the odds of winning. While you don’t want to do research simply for the sake of doing research on your competitors, good, focused execution on competitive intelligence projects will help your organization better the odds that your sales teams will win the deal, that your product planning teams will include the most impactful features they can in the next release versus your competition, and that you aren’t blindsided and lacking a response when your competitors release their next wave of products targeting your market.

In short, organizations that perform well have some sort of competitive intelligence competency; it may be well defined or diffused throughout the organization, but organizations that beat the competition regularly in tough markets most likely are doing some form of competitive intelligence on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

To reach Sean you can email him sean@cascadeinsights.com / Twitter: @Sean_Campbell

If you are interested in the 1 hour webinar you can see a recording by signing up here.

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