Reading Comprehension 027

Passage

Competitive intelligence, or CI for short, is all about collating information about your competitors, analyzing it and using the results to formulate plans and strategies to gain the competitive edge in the marketplace. Sadly, many people confuse this with spying or other cloak and dagger activities. Nothing could be further from the truth. Competitive intelligence uses legal and ethical methods in obtaining the information – anything else is not acceptable. Data must come from the public domain but this is not limited to published articles alone, indeed much information can come from interviewing people with experience or knowledge of the target companies. What is not acceptable is bugging, overhearing conversations behind closed doors or even attempting to gain trade secrets. Coca–Cola’s secret formula for example is a trade secret and no faithful CI practitioner would over attempt to discover it, but then Pepsi does not need to know what the formula is in order to compete effectively. CI practitioners abide by a strict code of ethics and these are far tighter than any legal constraints. If a method sounds in the least bit shady it’s not one that they would adopt.
So where does the information come from? Information becomes available for a large number of reasons: financial information due to legal obligations and (in the case of public limited companies) duty to shareholders; product information to promote the company etc. This data emerges in the from the annual reports, marketing material, applications for patents the list goes on. You must first have an understanding of why information becomes available, then think about where it might be obtained and then you can begin to work out how to obtain it. It’s important to realize that information is very rarely held by only a few people. Normally the same information will be shared across a great number of sources and/or people. This is called the ‘information chain’, and understanding it and following it is vital to the CI process. For example competitor prices are not only known by the company doing the selling but by the customers that have bought the product or service, so instead of trying to get the information from the competitor, try to get it from those that the competitor has already given it to! The information chain can be quite complex. Usually, actually obtaining the information is easy, it is thinking about where to get it from that is the difficult part. This can involve deep discussions in house and lateral thinking is a prized asset to have in this industry.


Often the person who holds the information seems quite far removed from the heart of the matter – a company security guard for example. It is such people who not only have the knowledge, but they don’t know how valuable it is and therefore don’t mind divulging it. Why should your competitor’s supplier care about telling you they are just about to supply them with three new units? What harm can that do? Interviewing to obtain information is a skill in itself, being too keen makes an interviewee very defensive and careful about their answers. One approach is to treat the most important question as the least significant, a question that it seems you wouldn’t be bothered if it weren’t answered. Long pauses also yield fantastic results as people don’t like silence and will fill in the gap, though this requires much self–constraint.
Not all information comes from first party (or primary) sources, Indeed, not only is it sometimes quicker and easier to obtain from published (or secondary) sources where possible but it is also essential to conduct such searches before attempting to interview for further information. Company reports hold huge amounts of financial information about a company and they are available to anyone, for a small fee. But this is raw data and the accountants who drew them up usually hide sensitive information very well. A good CI practitioner is able to dissect these accounts, sorting through all the available data to produce some valuable analysed results. The rule of thumb is to start at the back and work to the front since much of the interesting data is in the “notes” section. Dependent upon the size or organization and other factors typically it can be possible to uncover basics such as profit margins or sales by area through to sales per head of the sales force giving a very good benchmark by which to compare your own performance.


Results don’t always present themselves as a single definitive answer that is available from one or more sources (but always the same answer). Rather like a jigsaw puzzle, pieces must be gathered together, inspected to see where they each fit, until finally the bigger picture is revealed. For example many companies do not operate from a fixed price list as such but rather calculate a price based on the variables involved. In such instances one price may be obtained from one customer of the competitor, and another from a one–time prospect that didn’t buy. By piecing together all these snippets the bigger picture can be revealed – this might be that a straightforward rigid price list is revealed or (given enough pieces) that the calculation used to derive the quotes can be seen. Continuing the jigsaw analogy you must be careful along the way not to collect pieces that actually belong to a different puzzle, or even waste too much time collecting “blue” pieces that you already know make up the “sky” when what you are after is a detailed picture of the cottage in the middle of puzzle!
Competitive intelligence is at its best when the results are used proactively. For example before committing large amounts of capital to a new development or research project, companies engage CI professionals. Being told that they will be beaten to market since the competitors are much further down the line, can save companies small fortunes and divert efforts to areas where they will be first to market. Microsoft once concentrated their efforts on the development of Windows 95 at the expense of their browser. Consequently they lost considerable market share to Netscape in doing so. Leaving from their errors Microsoft now has one of the largest CI departments of any company.


In conclusion there is not much information on a competitor that can’t be obtained or calculated. Competitor’s sales brochures, product information and pricing structures – all are in the public domain and therefore accessible. In fact short of trade secrets, just about anything can be uncovered. Companies seem quite happy to spend many thousands of pounds “poaching” people from their competitors to gain information (which in itself can raise legal issues). They are then committed to employing that person in future years thereby increasing the expense year on year after the initial value of the information gained has worn off. Companies seem unaware that for a fraction of the price they could have had the same information supplied using methods that are both legal and ethical competitive intelligence.

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