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Alex Blyth



Competitive Intelligence

Sales Director

Most would agree that a good salesperson knows about the product they are selling. They are able to identify a prospect’s need and then exploit that need by deftly matching their product’s features to that prospect’s requirements. However, only the lucky few are selling a truly unique product, and, increasingly, knowledge of competitive products and companies is becoming just as important as more traditional sales attributes. In today’s market, it is intelligence about your competitor that sets the excellent salesperson apart from the merely average, and a growing number of sales and marketing professionals are recognising that CI is not necessarily an underhand practice, that it can provide significant benefits, and that there are a growing range of technologies available to make its implementation simple and cost-effective.

However, in Britain the field of competitive intelligence is still in its infancy. The Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals has 7000 members worldwide, but only 140 in the UK. In the US it has been an accepted element of business strategy for many years. “This is simply because the UK tends to lag behind the US by two to three years in most areas of business. The UK is more advanced than the rest of Europe in CI practice, but still has some way to go to catch up with the States,” explains Robin Kirkby, Director of European Consultancy at Fuld & Co, the world’s largest CI consultancy. Steve England, Director of AWARE, a UK-based CI consultancy, believes this is an issue of perception more than anything else: “There isn’t enough recognition of the industry in the UK, even amongst CI practitioners. The role tends to be tagged onto marketing or market research, and so even the people doing CI work often aren’t aware that that is what it’s called.” Ever more though, larger UK companies are allocating human and financial resource to CI, and in many cases are appointing a CI professional to the role. An even greater number are beginning to call upon the services of CI consultancies such as Fuld & Co, AWARE, or the META Group. The benefits of hiring a professional in this area can be considerable, as Steve England illustrates, “We charge a fixed price for each project we undertake. However, for most of our clients the cost is not the issue – the issue is how many millions of pounds we can add to their bottom line. For instance, pharmaceutical companies invest billions into the research and development of new drugs. If they can find out, using us, that a competitor is about to have a patent approved for a drug similar to one they are about to begin researching, that is a great deal of money that we have saved them.”

Despite the obvious benefits of CI, many remain unaware of the practice and there is still considerable misunderstanding about what it actually involves. CI is, in short, the discovery and actionable analysis of competitor activities. Ashim Pal, a Partner at the META group goes into more depth: “CI involves various elements, some are quantative, for example discovering competitors’ market share, revenue forecasting, and yield calculations, whilst others are more qualitative, such as finding out about competitors’ recruitment plans, price structuring strategy, or research and development pipeline. It is looking at both what is happening now and what changes are afoot, and then, crucially, identifying the opportunities and threats associated with those developments.” All CI professionals are unanimous in rejecting the commonly held view that there is something underhand, immoral, or even illegal about CI work. Their attempts to reshape the image of CI have not been assisted by the stories rife in industry since the early 1990s of former Cold War spies hiring out their skills to big business. Steve England argues, “In defence of the realm searching through dustbins and bugging meeting rooms is probably justified. It is not, however, justified when helping to increase a company’s profits. Apart from the ethical considerations I have absolutely no intention of rummaging through dustbins to find information. Companies who do this are simply not good at CI. They do it because they have failed to find the information from legal sources.”

There are indeed many legal means to find information on competitors. There is the obvious and direct route of simply walking into the competitor’s retail outlet or phoning their sales department. They are, of course, unlikely to give too much away, but this can provide raw, basic data in areas such as pricing structures or in-store promotional activity. Further information can be found from their marketing materials or from their stands at exhibitions. However, the company will be guarded and there is only a limited amount of information that can be gained from direct enquiries of this sort. Interestingly, most CI practitioners find that the further you get from the source the more information you can find. So, they will scour the media for news and features on competitors, get all available information from official bodies, quiz new employees who have joined from a competitor, and where possible speak to their competitor’s employees. One of the most fruitful sources of intelligence is the customer and often the company’s own sales team is the best place to find out what customers want, how they view the company against the competition, and what products the competition is offering them or promoting to them. However, in the past five years the birth of the Internet has revolutionised CI practice. At the Internet’s conception two decades ago Tim Berners-Lee, its inventor, spoke of creating a way in which, “All the bits of information in every computer on the planet would be available to me and to anyone else. There would be a single information space.” The dream has been realised. There is now a vast amount of information on the Internet and the challenge for CI practitioners is moving ever more to ways in which they can find the relevant information and analyse it to best effect.

Accompanying the Internet explosion has been a plethora of new technologies to assist the CI practitioner. Principally these enable either the collection or the organisation of information, finding the relevant intelligence and presenting it in a user-friendly way. C-4-U Scout is one of the simplest and most accessible tools on the market. Once the user has identified certain websites, usually those of competitors, the product runs in the background, alerting the user to any changes to those sites. Although it only provides as much information as the competitor publishes on its website, it can provide vital information such as price changes, corporate news, or product developments. It is available free of change from and is universally recommended as a first step in an automated CI programme. For those who are able to invest more labour into the CI process, Caesius Software have developed WebQL, a query language, similar to the commonly used SQL. It searches the Internet and online databases to produce deeper and more precise results than traditional “web-harvesting” and so for companies aiming to gather considerable amounts of data on competitors can prove an invaluable resource, as evidenced by the recommendation by Dean Kimbal, Chief Technology Officer of Memetic Systems: “A task that took days can be performed in minutes with WebQL. The software has cut labour costs by 95%. Next year, the savings could be in the hundreds of thousands of dollars." Wisdom Builder provide a unique resource for finding information on the Internet by identifying hidden but important relationships in unstructured texts such as websites, news releases, message board and even data inputted by the user. As Ken Keisel, Wisdom Builder’s President explains, tackles the key issue faced by CI practioners in using the Internet as a source of information: “While the Internet has provided the opportunity to have more access to data, it’s caused a problem in that there’s now too much data. Wisdom Builder provides an easy-to-use method of extracting relevant intelligence out of all that data and making it readily available to the professional knowledge worker in a way they can easily relate to."

These are just a selection of the many products coming onto the market to assist the CI professional. It is an indication of the growing interest in the subject globally and in the UK. These products are, of course not without their problems. As Ashim Pal, of the META Group, says, “What is easy to use is often difficult to build and all of these new technologies come with very high user expectations that can cause IT departments considerable headaches.” He goes on to argue that finding intelligence is, to an extent, only half of the process: “Often CI programmes begin with grand plans that become empty spaces because nobody is able to use the intelligence that has been gathered.” This is where products such as Epiphany’s E.6 suite come in useful. Whilst primarily a CRM application, it is also proving useful to CI practitioners as a link between CI results and sales strategies. Brad Wilson, E.Piphany’s Global Product Marketing Manager, describes the product in this way: “It takes data from many sources such as call centre responses, or Internet searches, and then analyses it to ascertain which information will be of most use to the user at any given time. It does this through a combination of customisation at set-up and then dynamic learning – each time the user interacts with it, it learns a little bit more about what is most useful. In essence, we are trying to reinvent the sales tool from the point of view of the rep, by presenting him with an interface that will provide only relevant intelligence and then enable him to use it in his sales process.” Finally, Knowledge Works, from Cipher Systems is perhaps one of the most advanced CI technology tools on the market. The software was designed specifically for a CI application and as such it works with the user through the entire process, defining CI strategies, implementing dynamic web searches and text analysis, integrating of other data such discussion boards or formal reports, and then provides suggestions for analysis, all driven forward by a workflow system.

Although CI processes are becoming ever more automated, it is clear that software packages will never be able to replace fully the role of the CI practitioner. The key to successful CI is the ability to think laterally about where to gather information and, as Robin Kirkby of Fuld & Co argues, it is unlikely that this role will ever be performed by a software package: “There are four elements to CI: people, process, content and technology, and technology is the least important. Professional analysts are by far the most important part of any CI system and software cannot replace the human element.”

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