November 15, 2001

What you need to know about your competitors

  • Get a leg up on the competition by forming a database about them


    ZweigWhite’s 2000 Marketing Survey of A/E/P & Environmental Consulting Firms tells us that nearly three-quarters of firms in the industry do not have a database of information on their competitors.

    This makes me wonder what would happen if other professions had the same approach to competition:

    Reporter: “Coach Shanahan, what’s the plan for the Broncos’ big game against the Colts this Sunday?”

    Shanahan: “Just go out there and do our best.”

    Reporter: “But what about Manning’s gun? He led the league in passing yards and touchdowns last year.”

    Shanahan: “Don’t know a thing about him and don’t care to.”

    Reporter: “Haven’t you watched the films of the Colts play?”

    Shanahan: “No, no, no. That would be unethical. It’d be like spying.”

    Reporter: “But you must wish you had a back like James on your club.”

    Shanahan: “James who?”

    Reporter: “You know, Edgerrin James. Rushed for 1,700 yards and scored 18 touchdowns last year.”

    Shanahan: “Oh. I guess we could use a running back. All ours are hurt. We’re using our punter at tailback. But I don’t want to go around stealing people. That would be wrong.”

    Reporter: “Didn’t half your defense sign with other teams a few years ago?”

    Shanahan: “I suppose so. But there’s an ethical line out there, and I just won’t cross it.”

    Reporter: “Let me ask this: How do you plan to counter the Colts’ four receiver formation?”

    Shanahan: “Stop. I don’t want to hear any more. If we’re going to win this game, we’re going to do it on our own merits, not with your dirty, underhanded ‘competitor intelligence’ techniques.”

    Reporter: “Good luck, Coach. You’ll need it.”

    OK, we’re not the NFL. But that doesn’t make the notion that collecting intelligence on competitors is unethical any less ridiculous. Don’t have the time or resources? OK, it’s a cop-out, but we can accept that. Just please don’t call it unethical to know as much as you can — and to tell your people as much as you can — about the competitors that are trying to beat you on every job you go after.

    We’re not talking about hiding a miniature XCAM2 in R.A. Rival & Associates’ board room. We simply mean you should be as educated as you can about the opposition and you should collect and disseminate that information in the most efficient way.

    Below are some of the reasons it’s important to collect information on your competitors and make it available to your staff, as well as how to do it and where to look for this intelligence.

    1. You can only stress your strengths in relation to the competition if you know what they are. You’ve got a client presentation coming up and you know your team has a lot of experience doing similar work.

    Is that your trump card? Maybe.

    Or maybe your main competitor has more experience and your focus on experience actually highlights the fact that you’re less experienced than your competition. If you know that going in, you can shift your focus away from experience and toward an area where you do have an edge.

    2. You can only tell you’re the best if you have something to compare yourself to. Every firm we work with claims they want to be the best at what they do. Almost every mission and vision statement we see includes phrases like, “leading firm in our area,” “best at what we do,” and “pre-eminent organization.”

    But if you don’t have the data to benchmark your firm against the field, how in the world can you tell if you’re the “best” or “leading” or “pre-eminent”?

    3. You can market your firm more effectively if you know what your competitors are doing marketing-wise. Do they have a four-page client newsletter that goes out every quarter? Maybe you should counter with a one-page newsletter sent out every month. Do they have a regular column in a regional magazine? Maybe you can get a cover story or column in a higher-profile publication. Do they have a non-technical salesperson making cold calls to drum up business with potential clients? Maybe a personal visit by a technical seller-doer from your firm would be more effective.

    4. You’ll only know what your firm and your people are capable of if you know as much as you can about what your competitors and their people are doing.

    “That Geoffrey is the best danged PM in the tri-state area.” Or so you think. But is Geoffrey really that good? Does Groom, Leeders & Associates have someone as good? Or maybe even more experienced, more efficient, and more effective? Someone who might someday be interested in coming to work for you?

    5. Your competitors may be doing something, saying something or selling something that you should be doing, saying or selling. We all have to face the fact that good ideas occasionally come from places other than ourselves. By monitoring what your clients are doing, you’ll be able to better react when they roll out a new service, try a new marketing tack, or enter a new client sector.

    Maybe you’ll say they’re crazy and decide you wouldn’t follow their lead unless God Himself ordered you to. But at least you wouldn’t be surprised by their techniques — and you’d be making an educated decision one way or the other.

    These are just five reasons to keep tabs on what your competitors are doing. There are more — for example, keeping an eye on merger or acquisition opportunities or tracking trends in the industry.

    So when you finally decide that competitor intelligence isn’t the devil’s work, what do you do about it? One possibility is to establish a competitor intelligence section on your intranet. Several firms have done this successfully. You can include links to key competitors’ Web sites; develop a resume database of competitors’ staff; start a file of competitor press releases, press hits and marketing material; and create a scoreboard to track your success rate in direct competitions with each competitor.

    How do you get started?

    • Establish a profile for each competitor. Include information such as key managers, branch office locations, revenue, target markets, key clients, and so on. You can get much of this from the competitor’s Web site, but you can also access it online at sites such as or through Dun & Bradstreet. This could be the basis for your intranet competitor file.

    • Create a press clipping file on a search engine like Excite or Yahoo! or an online clipping service such as Lexis-Nexis, Bacon’s or Dow Jones Interactive. You can set up a clipping folder that searches for a competitor’s name and key personnel in the firm, then tracks their press hits in key publications.

      The results on the search engines may be spotty, so another way to track press hits is to search the archives of individual business, industry and regional publications in which the firm (and your firm) may appear. For example, if you’re a retail architect in Boston, search (where possible) The Boston Globe, Boston Business Journal, Architecture, and all the industry-specific magazines that your clients read. This might cost a few bucks, but the expense is relatively minor. You could also hire a PR agency to perform the same service.

    • Conduct debriefings of all clients following presentations, win or lose. To the extent you can, ask questions that compare your firm with your competitors. If you lost, ask what the winning firm did to tip the scales in its favor. Ask the client to rate the quality of your firm’s presentation materials, delivery, technical qualifications, and so on in relation to those of the winning firm. Don’t be shy about getting as much information as possible. They may not tell you what you want to know, but it can’t hurt to ask.

    • Do a client perception survey or continual client monitoring. In the course of your survey, ask specific questions about the competition such as who they are, what they do best and who their best people are.

    • In some states, you can invoke the Sunshine Law to gain information about a competitor. We’ll admit that this straddles the ethical line. But if there’s a critical bit of information that you need about a competitor’s presentation, people or approach, it might be worth risking their wrath to pursue this course. Proceed with caution, however.

    • Run a Dun & Bradstreet report. If you’re interested in the financial health of a competitor (or client or potential partner), pull a D&B. You can find out everything — from who’s running the firm to how many people it has to how good it is at paying its bills. In some cases, you can find out the firm’s book value, its revenue and other financial data. Most of the time, the information you get will provide you with a frame of reference. But occasionally, you might find out that a firm is in trouble and may be vulnerable.

    • Encourage your staff to gather competitor intelligence and feed it back to the database. Some of the best competitor intelligence comes from personal interaction between your staff and your competitor’s. This can come in the course of project work, at industry conferences and professional organization meetings, or through a concerted effort on the part of your staff to gather information. The key is to create a culture of intelligence gathering, establish a place it can be stored, and encourage it to be used.

      This is a controversial subject. Otherwise, more than 27 percent of the firms in this industry would have a competitor database. We also understand that maintaining good relationships with your peers can be as much a key to success in the design and construction business as maintaining good relationships with clients is.

      But there’s nothing wrong with knowing as much as you can about your competitors, updating that information regularly and keeping it in an easily accessible place for people in your firm. You’ll be amazed at how quickly the information you gather will give you the insight you need when you go head to head against the competition. You may even be able to predict how they’ll react to certain situations, what their presentations will feature, and even how much they’ll propose in fees.

    Having that information make a big difference in your game plan.

    Jerry Guerra is a principal with ZweigWhite, a Natick, Mass.-based management consulting firm for the design and construction industry. Guerra specializes in market research, market positioning, client studies and business planning.

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