The Competitive Intelligence Circle of Life

As a CI practitioner, I’ve found one of the best resources has always been sales teams. I’ve witnessed different CI programs that neglect this fact and end up struggling. The storyline from them is usually something like this: “But our job is to do strategic intelligence—you know: early warning systems, KITs, trends—that kind of thing. We aren’t in the sales organization and don’t have time to support them.”

This is a major flaw. The sales teams face the competition every day and are typically the first people inside a company to find out what the competition is up to. Every day, they hear from your customers all the great things your competition is planning and why the competitors are better than you. It pays to keep track of these things too—it can help you build profiles, trends, and threats. It will give you the first view of what really is happening in your industry.

It also helps you, as a competitive intelligence practitioner. One of the most common complaints in the CI world is “The executives don’t listen to my advice.” Of course, they don’t. That’s because your advice doesn’t affect dollars. Get sales on your side and they’ll tell you exactly what is happening in the industry and how much it is costing your company. They are losing their commissions and not meeting their quotas every time they lose a deal to that new under-the-radar competitor or to the established competitor that just implemented a new technology standard. Piece together a few bits of information like that and you have first visibility into a longer-term trend and real threats to your company.

“But sales won’t talk to me. I can’t get time on their calendar.” That’s the next complaint of many CI folks. And the reason sales doesn’t talk to you is because you can’t help them close their deal any faster. When you can organize your intelligence so that it helps you with your strategic focus –AND- it helps your sales teams win deals faster, then you are in the perfect place. (Check out our previous blog post on this topic). The more love you show to the sales teams, the more they give back to you in those early bits of intelligence.

So go make friends with your salespeople. Show them you care. Show them you can help win their deals. And then use them to feed your strategic systems, which in the long-term help you win more deals and collect more intelligence. It’s the circle of life in the CI world. (You know the music that goes here.)

Stop babbling on the phone and start helping your sales teams win

In my years of working in the CI field, I’ve found that I was frequently responding to sales teams who needed “critical” help to win competitive sales deals. If you are a CI analyst, I’m sure you are aware of this scenario: you’re working on a research project and you are called off of it to support a sales team. The sales team is up against a competitor and they need to know what to do. So you put your research project aside and you help the account team gather information, and then you go back to your work. The next day it’s a different account team who needs something just a little bit different, so you set your research aside again and help them gather information. It’s a constantly interrupt-driven process.

But I’ve found that you can defray most of these “911 calls” if you make a certain set of information available to your field. Many times the “critical” help they need is just in where to find things. In essence, help them know the most commonly requested sets of information about your competitors, and you’ll get interrupted far fewer times.

The question is, what is the “right” set of information? The world of CI is vast and there are lots of different things to know about a competitor, but here are my suggested “Items to Know” that will empower the sales teams to effectively compete in most situations:

  1. Know your competitor’s products or services. It sounds basic, but I was often surprised by calls from sales teams who didn’t know the basic description of what the competitor was offering. But it makes sense—many companies spend a lot of time training sales teams on their own products, but relatively very little time on the competitor products. If you can let your field know at least what the competitor’s product or service is, what it looks like, and the high-level description of it, it puts them in a better place to understand what they are up against.
  2. Know your competitor’s positioning strategy. Again, sales teams are frequently provided guidance on how to position their own product. What they get less of is how the competitor is going to position and attack. Marketing will often tell the sales teams all the wonderful things to say about their own products. But don’t leave your sales teams blindsided by forgetting to tell them the objections your competitor is going to raise, and how to handle those objections. Also make sure your sales teams know how the competitor positions themselves and how to effectively deposition the competition.
  3. Know the major areas of cost for your competitor. In the early stages of a deal, the sales teams most likely don’t need your competitor’s full price list. What they need to know are the major components of cost: Is service included? What are the major options to the competitor product? What does your own product include that might not be included on the competitors? This will help address the “…but your product costs twice as much as your competitor’s product…” argument. Yes, it costs twice as much, but it includes two times as many features which are all extra-cost options for the competitor.
  4. Know how to compare the product or services. Sure, you can give your sales teams the competitor data sheets. But then you are requiring them to spend time building their own comparisons rather than spending time on the customer. It will be better if you allow them to see those things side-by-side with your own products, and let them know what areas to highlight. And you can go beyond the data sheets too. Consider the things that your customer is going to make a decision on—it might not be a feature of the product, but instead might be a quality of the company: the service and support mechanisms, locality, experience of employees, etc.
  5. Know where to get other information. Who are the experts that can be referenced regarding competitors, or where does the sales team find other documentation? This could be a Sharepoint site, an Intranet site, or an e-mail alias. Make sure the account teams know all the resources that exist for them. Sometimes they call you as a CI analyst because your phone number is the only one in their address book.

If you can have this information readily available to your sales teams before they approach the customer, your phone will be ringing far less. Unless you like answering the phone, then by all means leave them searching for information.

We think we are a Competitive Intelligence company, but you may not…

Over the years, I’ve participated in SCIP meetings, read all the articles, witnessed the rise and fall of many CI programs including the famed CI program at Motorola which was always referenced as a bellwether for the industry. I’ve read how Eric Garland left the Competitive Intelligence industry and took quite a few pot-shots on his way out (Peak Intel: How So-Called Strategic Intelligence Actually Makes Us Dumber). Even recently I was engaged directly in a debate on Linked-In about how to conduct competitive intelligence which turned into a debate on what CI really is…

Which makes me wonder. Is Compelligence, Inc. a Competitive Intelligence company?

What makes us different is that we believe, fundamentally, that the first role of a solid Competitive Intelligence program is to help sales teams win more deals.

Yes, I said it. Help the sales team’s win more deals. This is not the only thing that must be done, obviously. But we think it is critical for the long term success of a program. In fact, Compelligence as a software solution and as a process has advanced features of industry-analysis, trend-analysis, and financial reporting and comparison and most of these features support strategic level analysis – but more on those in a future blog post.

So, let’s get the facts out on the table. We are a young company. But we have customers. We are challenging the notion that perhaps there are different types of Competitive Intelligence that include both strategic intelligence and tactical intelligence (if you want to call it that, which could be a misnomer as the word ‘tactical’ implies less value – the opposite of what we think is actually true). But we didn’t come to this position by happen-stance. The senior partners have a combined 20 years of experience at 8 companies.

So, in the end, does it matter? Maybe, maybe not.

But if you want to change the strategic direction of a company with unique insights there are few things you should be able to do:

Have the head of sales on your side
Be laser-specific in the data that supports your strategic recommendations
Have a structured approached that drives consistency and a wide-level of participation

If you can do these things, we believe you’ll be more successful.

So, while you are debating what Competitive Intelligence really is, we’ll be helping sales win more deals, collecting more information, putting that information into a structured, global cloud solution, that turns the entire organization into the Competitive Intelligence team.

Let us know who wins the debate.