Competitive Intelligence

Complete the following five sentences about your spouse, partner, or significant other: [1]

Ok, so maybe pants size wasn’t fair. How did you do? How many of the answers were you absolutely sure of? After all, they are arguably the closest person to you in your life. Did you get all five? Really?

I led a strategy program with an organization that was the leader in their market. For the dozen senior executives in the room, the average length of industry experience was 23 years. After two days of strategic thinking exercises on the industry, customers, competitors, and their organization, one of the main conclusions they arrived at was this: “Coming into the session, we figured we knew everything there is to know about the business. What amazed us the most is how little we really know about the competition.” And this is from a market leader who had performed exceptionally well during the past five years, but was beginning to lose share to the competition.

As we saw in the personal partner quiz, just because you occupy the same physical space doesn’t necessarily mean you know everything you potentially should about your loved one. The same can be said for competition. Just because you occupy the same market space doesn’t mean you know all the critical things about them that can help you develop strategy to deliver greater value to customers. As you worked through the Competitive Advantage Profile in the previous section, there may have been some things you simply didn’t know. This lack of awareness can have very real consequences for your business. A survey of 1,825 senior executives found that “only 23 percent learned about a competitor’s new product launch early enough to respond before it hit the market, and only 12 percent learned about a price change in time.”21

One of the questions I often receive during the strategic thinking programs I lead is: “How can we possibly be expected to know all of this information about our competitors, especially, if they’re private companies?” My response is generally: “You may not know it, but your prospective customers will when they are deciding between your offering and the competitor’s offering.” The differences in the areas of investment and the value delivered by you and your competitors are the factors on which they’ll most likely be basing their decision.

Here are three introductory steps for ramping up competitive intelligence efforts:

1. Question: The first step to ensuring you have strong competitive intelligence is to pose questions to your team. An effective means of posing these questions is to utilize a strategy survey prior to an off-site strategic thinking session. This enables managers to devote time and thoughtfully consider the key business issues from their perspective without the immediate influence of others. Not giving people time to develop their thoughts individually either prior to the meeting or during the meeting results in a chain reaction of comments based on the first statement, instead of a range of individual viewpoints. It’s important to structure the session with a methodical and comprehensive set of questions and tools to stimulate thinking in order to explore the competitive landscape fully. Following are a sample of questions that can catalyze the discussion:

о Who is your most dangerous competitor and why? о What are potential substitutes for your offering that are not direct competitors, but can perform the same function? о Which of the following indirect competition is having the biggest impact on your profitability: suppliers, customers, substitutes, or the status quo?

о What are the top five factors of competition in your market: the places where you invest to win (e.g., sales force, marketing, IT, product innovation, etc.)?

о Keeping in mind those top five factors of competition, what is your relative resource allocation (time, people, budget) versus the competition for each factor?

о What is the quantitative value your offerings provide to customers relative to that of the competition?

о What are the top three reasons you’ve lost business to competitors in the past year?

  • 2. Link: During the competitive discussion, numerous insights will be uncovered that can have a dramatically positive impact on the business. Not only will you want to visually capture those insights using competitive models, you’ll also want to link the competitive insights with customer and market insights. Additionally, an objective look at your internal capabilities is crucial in establishing realistic competitive positioning moving forward. Completing the Competitive Advantage Profile provides a concise way to capture people’s thinking on the key aspects of the competitive landscape.
  • 3. Act: Develop communication channels for your frontline people (sales, business development, managers), across functional areas and up through levels. This ensures the people with the greatest access to new competitive insights have the ability to share what they learn with others in the organization. This enhances everyone’s decision making because strategy and tactics should never be set in a vacuum. It also informs your team members that strategy is everyone’s job. Educate people at all levels as to what insights are and how to share those insights, reminding them that strategy is indeed their job. The beginning of the definition of strategy is, “the intelligent allocation of limited resources. . . .” Everyone has resources, including time, talent, and budget. How they choose to use their resources will determine the company’s real strategy and ultimately, their success or failure.

  • [1] His/her favorite flavor of ice cream is . . . 2. The name of the high school he/she attended is . . . 3. His/her favorite musician or band is . . . 4. His/her favorite food is . . . 5. His/her pants size is . . .
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