November 15, 2001
What you need to know about your competitors
By JERRY GUERRA
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?
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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