Five Secrets to Gaining Great Competitive Intelligence

For B2B Tech Companies

As I discussed in my last post, competitive intelligence is not something that can simply be summoned on demand through a few hours of Internet research. Good intelligence is amassed over a period of months or years by collecting snippets from various disparate conversations.  Here are five of the ways that I have seen good intelligence being gathered:

1) Partners – Many of the management consulting, systems integrators, and other professional services firms that get involved with large IT projects partner with not just one but several vendors in any particular market. The vendors hate this, but the consultants do it anyway. Why? Not only do these consulting shops want the flexibility to offer their customers multiple technology options, but they want to place multiple bets on different providers to ensure they end up aligning with the winner. But this is a game that you can win if you choose to play it right. Find a “friendly” and/or coach at the partner organization who has a vested interest in your success. These individuals are often willing to share their insights on your competitors over a beer, a dinner, or sometimes even just an informal phone call. These consulting organizations often sit in the vendor evaluation sessions with the end-customer. As a result they can provide deep insights on the strengths and weaknesses of the competitor products. Furthermore, they can often provide feedback on the competitor’s sales approaches and the customer’s reactions to their positioning.

2) Analysts – Another great source for competitor intelligence is the industry analysts. The big three analyst firms such as IDC, Gartner, and Forrester can be a great source of intelligence. In many cases, the so-called “Tier Two” firms that specialize in particular technology niches have even greater insights. Many end-customers engage the analysts early in their buying journey to identify a shortlist of vendors. Others consult the analysts when making final vendor selections. And many keep in an active dialogue with the analyst after a purchase is made. Analysts are often called upon to provide therapy sessions for buyer’s remorse syndrome when implementations go bad. Through all three of these interaction models, the analysts gather an immense amount of detail about the strengths and weaknesses of the different vendors from the customer’s perspective.  As a result, the analysts can be invaluable to helping you understand your competitive positioning. You may be thinking “Analysts won’t share our competitor’s secrets. They are working under an NDA.” This is true. They won’t share proprietary information collected directly from the competitor, but they often will share the perspectives about other vendors that are gathered from customers and partners. Additionally, they can often point you to information available in the public domain information that you didn’t know existed.

3) Former Employees – By far the best way to collect intelligence about the competition is to hire away their top talent. Whether it is their top producing sales rep or the head of product management, recruiting these insiders can be a game changing move. Ideally, you want the individuals that know the fatal flaws of their former employer’s product roadmap, technical architecture, and support capabilities. These individuals can point you to the kryptonite that will render your competitor’s superpowers inoperable. Of course, you have to be very, very careful how you approach poaching competitor talent. Legal challenges such as non-competes can create showstoppers in certain situations. But if you ask people in your network you will find that many companies are able to successfully navigate around these seemingly “air-tight” contracts.

4) Sales Prospects – Your own sales team also can be a great source of intelligence about competitors. Sales reps are on the front-lines being challenged by prospects to explain how your product compares to the “other guy’s solution.” During these periods of head-to-head competition the customer will often share details about other vendors product feature gaps, pricing discrepancies, and support service limitations. In the spirit of finding the best solution for their company, the customer is often willing to divulge much more than they should about the competition’s offerings. In some cases, the customer may be willing to share the competitor’s RFP response or price quotes. It’s unlikely that you will find these documents attached to the opportunity record in your Salesforce CRM system. These details often travel out of band from the normal email channels via word-of-mouth, text messages, and iPhone photos. To capture this intelligence you will need to actively seek it out by maintaining close relationships with the sales team or by conducting interviews about won or lost deals.

5) Customers – Just as you might try to steal away the competitor’s top talent, you might also try to win over some of their top accounts. Disgruntled former customers are often more than happy to share the failures and frustrations experienced with the competition. And unlike analysts or partners, real customers can tell you the differences between what the competition claims to do and what they actually can deliver in practice. Stealing customers is a good strategy, but it could take several years to play out. A faster way to get customer feedback in the short term is to conduct win-loss analysis on deals that the competition won. If the request is positioned appropriately, customers are often to share constructive criticism on how your products could be improved by drawing comparisons to the competition.

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