SCIP AMA - Ask Me Anything
EFFECTIVELY USING TECHNOLOGY IN STRATEGY & Intelligence
SCIP: Which CI methods/techniques provide the most ROI for medium size organizations?
BEN: Tracking industry/competitor growth, partnerships, pricing, product developments, or technological advancements over time are all worthwhile and can be done without much cost, if any, using basic online tracking tools. Use that intelligence to populate competitive customer journey maps, simple benchmarking tables, comparative growth charts, and competitive product walkthroughs/teardowns. A few selected strategic frameworks such as the VRIO framework are very helpful in structuring how competitors stack up across areas of competitive advantage.
In medium-sized organizations, the biggest cost when doing CI is the time it takes to do these things, however. Most organizations aren’t particularly interested in investing time in CI, usually because they already think they understand who they compete with and on what basis. So far in my career, I’ve never found an organization that understood these things as accurately as they initially thought. Worse, each manager in the organization thinks about competition in conflicting ways and there is a battle of competitive perspectives. Real competitor understanding takes time. By investing even a little bit of time in assessing and analyzing the core resources and capabilities of your competitors, you can produce insights that will drive better and more impactful decisions. Drive effectiveness and not just efficiency.
BEN WUNDERMAN - RINGCENTRAL
Ben is a marketing, strategy, and competitive intelligence director with extensive experience driving rapid growth for innovative companies. An expert in using competitive intelligence and empirically-driven marketing strategy to drive rapid growth and sustainable competitive advantage, Ben has worked collaboratively across business strategy, marketing, sales, product marketing, brand development, communications, product developments, partnerships, and regulatory affairs in autonomous vehicle technology, ridehailing, delivery logistics, and unified communications. He is currently Director of Competitive Intelligence for RingCentral.
SCIP: What are some low-to-no cost digital solutions to address information overload in CI? It's important to use tools to reduce the time spent gathering information, but stakeholders aren't always ready to open the checkbook.
BEN: I’d first say that it does depend on what type of intelligence is relevant to your organization, team, or project focus. I often find—both for myself and the organizations that I work with—that information overload occurs when we don’t know what we are looking for or aren’t sure where to get started. Are we looking for a general overview of the industry? Consumer insights? Financial data? News on M&A activity? Updates on where competitors are expanding? Competitive partnership deals signed? Data is only useful as far as you can analyze it and act on it. Start by carefully narrowing your focus and building a view of what is actionable for your organization. Do you really need to track everything there is to know about twenty different competitors or are there two or three players that your organization needs to care about as strategic priorities?
Once you have your key questions or areas of inquiry roughly categorized use Google Alerts, webpage/content change trackers (such as Visualping or Wachete), Moat (for digital advertising), industry reports/PR, job listings, and competitor’s own online materials to track what is going on and begin to build a framework for understanding the competitor and its place in the industry. If you have the right questions, even basic tools can be very powerful and predictive. As you start to see which competitors are growing faster, pose hypotheses or ask new questions about what is happening and use these to narrow how you use your tools to collect data that are even more relevant. If competitors act differently than you expected, ask new questions.
Even in complex industries or multi-industry corporations there are usually a few competitors that matter more than almost all the others. Do deep research on those players, and then use industry, technology, process, or consumer-specific questions to categorize the areas of interest across the rest of the competitive landscape. Assess each major player by their key resources and capabilities, zooming in with targeted research for more detail on how those resources and capabilities are being leveraged throughout the value chain. I often find that a key technology or process being used by a competitor is what is truly threatening, and I’ll start tracking the specific uses of those elements over other noisier developments.
SCIP: What specific areas in digital transformation/innovation can CI professionals assist in and through what type of deliverables?
BEN: Most companies are compulsive replicators and not true innovators, even when they think they are innovating like crazy. Why? Because true innovation is risky and most (but not all) organizations are reasonably averse to serious risk. Sometimes copying competitors can be a great strategy (Uber is a good example) but often it may just seem like innovation or digital transformation without a plausible route to financial returns or market growth. Many companies will leap in to avoid being left behind. Sadly, many executives expect analysis and strategy to leap after them.
CI professionals can help guide companies through this process by understanding competitive forces and the different market landscapes better than anyone else. Get down into the details where most others don’t have the time or energy to examine. Look carefully at the value you are creating for the customer and analyze where you can enhance that value through digitization or through greater access to new customers. See where newer methods of intelligence gathering such as location data, credit card aggregation, or geospatial data can be used to understand the competitive landscape with greater fidelity. Understand the rates of change and growth in your industry (and adjacent industries) and present those findings in various ways. Use creative charts, memos, maps, industry reports, product walkthroughs/teardowns, and images to tell your story. By providing a deeper level of data, analysis, and understanding that is missing from a generic approach to strategy, CI professionals can come to the table with insights that drive growth and create value.
SCIP: What tools do you recommend for gathering information about competitor messaging and activity from online sources?
BEN: I like to look at company websites and content marketing, executive/leader press interviews, and marketing communications. Most of that can be done with Google Alerts, Moat (for advertising), and social media tools like LinkedIn, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook. Study your competitors' marketing communications and look clearly at what they are trying to tell prospective customers. Do those claims stack up against market data? What do they think is distinctive or differentiated about their brand, product, or service? Do their marketing claims fit with what the CEO is saying about the company and the competition?
SCIP: What are a few effective tactics for field sales reps to use to gather competitive information from their prospects?
BEN: To begin with, figure out what competitive information collected from prospects would be useful in delivering results. Formulate open-ended questions around that inquiry area. If you think (or know) that awareness is the biggest company/product challenge you face, ask “how did you first hear about us?” or “where did you first learn about our product?” Listen to their full response. They will often freely mention competitors that they think are relevant. If product changes are more actionable, ask “which feature is most important to you?” or “are there features you wish we had that other products offer?” Responses will vary from prospect to prospect and scaling these efforts can be challenging, but most customers are very willing to give up this information if asked correctly and if you give them the chance to share how they feel without burdening them with quantitative structure.
If you are pressed for time/resources, only ask these questions when talking to a selection of strategic accounts. I’m constantly surprised by how few sales reps actually ask me these kinds of questions! Instead of making the prospect feel as though the rep is mining for information, asking them usually makes the prospect feel that the rep is more involved in the sales process and actually cares about the outcome of the sale.