Trade Shows and Business Conferences (Part 3)

May 29, 2013

Continuing on business conferences:

Many business conferences to have an exhibit hall, usually as a secondary feature, including vendors or even sponsors aiming to sell to the kind of companies that are attracted to that conference. Do not forget to take a look throughout the hall. As you know who is representing your competitor at the meeting (you had better by now), take a few minutes when you wander the hall to see where they are. Have they visited an exhibitor or vendor that is out of the ordinary? Make a mental note of this and don’t forget to record it in your written notes at the end of the conference.

 If you are working the conference with others from your firm, try to get together before you all leave the conference and compare notes on what you’ve seen, what you have learned, and most importantly, what you did not hear about. Do not wait until you get back to the office to do this. By that time you will have lost focus on the meeting and it will be difficult to get all of you together again quickly (if at all).

If you attend the meeting alone, take some time to make notes about meeting and whatever insights you’ve developed on your competitors. A good time to do this is NOT while you are sitting in some uncomfortable waiting area at an airport, an hour before you have to board. Make sure that you are writing your notes where other people can see you. I cannot say how many times people run into representatives of their competitors in airports and on board the plans, in some cases not knowing there were there. Under no circumstances should you dictate notes in a public place where anyone could conceivably hear you do the dictation. If you feel compelled dictate your notes, of use a function like Dragon Naturally Speak, go back to your room before you check out and dictate them there.

Trade Shows and Business Conferences (Part 2)

May 24, 2013

By business conference, I mean a meeting which is not a trade show, where the prime focus is one or a series of large halls with exhibits, booths and even tables. By business conference, I mean a meeting where the focus of the conference is meeting other attendees and attending speeches, workshops, seminars and the like.

For that reason, preparing to work such a meeting can sometimes be very different from preparing to work a trade show. But these meetings should be worked and can be done so successfully

The first thing you have to realize is that your conference badge tells people who you are. This is not a problem, but you do not have to make it easy for people to determine who you if you do not want them to do so. Enough said.

The next step is to find any sessions which are being run by or feature presenters from any of your competitors or other important targets, such as suppliers or customers. Make sure that you or someone else attends these meetings and gets all of the materials that are handed out. Be prepared to take pictures of any presentation materials that are particularly interesting if there are no handouts. This of course assumes that there is not a prohibition against using a camera.

At the end, make sure that you go to the front of the room and join in any group gathering around a speaker or presenter from one of your targets. Do not expect that this person will answer questions from you. Rather listen to what he or she says in response to the questions and comments that others raise. What these group is doing is building up, possibly inadvertently, the ego of the speaker by making him/her feel important. That can result in the speaker lowering his/her guard and perhaps speaking more frankly then they would like to do. Listen carefully and then leave.

If you sit down at a table, say for breakfast or lunch, and there are representatives of the competitor there, introduce yourself. By introducing yourself, you are putting yourself in charge. Since you spoke first, it is perfectly appropriate for you to ask questions. Minimize the questions. Rather put out open-ended statements and hopefully listen to others ask your competitor questions that help you. Never react to whatever your competitor says. If they make a joke about your firm, simply smile. Do not respond to it. Your job is to listen — not to talk.

More on business conferences next week.

Making sense of it

May 20, 2013

In analyzing data on a competitor, the first thing you have to keep in mind is they are not you. Just because you and your competitor are in the same business, making similar products or delivering the same services, and competing for the same clients, does not mean that they see the world the way you do.

Skipping past this is one of the most fundamental mistakes that novices, as well as experienced professionals, can make one attempting to analyze raw data.

The recent issue of Entrepreneur highlights this. A feature article[1] dealt with a technology firm’s decision about marketing its sign-on technology. As the article relates, the firm in question was showing 8% sales increases over the previous year, but wanted to do better. When it looked at its book of business, it made what, to its competitors, probably seemed to be an irrational decision. It decided to focus its marketing efforts on only one segment of its customer base, healthcare, that then made up 40% of its business.

This had the effect of cutting 60% of its business away. The results? The firm reports that it’s 2012 sales have increased 40% in one year and showed significant overall growth since this critical decision. Digging into the details indicates that the decision was made, in part, based  on a study of the customer base, showing that the healthcare portion was the one positioned for the greatest growth, and that the largest segment, financial services, was facing substantial growth, even survival, issues.

But if you had looked at this firm in 2009 and saw evidence of its apparent release of 60% of its business, you would not have appreciated what was really going on, because it seemed counterintuitive. Counterintuitive is intuition, not analysis.

[1] Kristan Schiller, “A Narrower Focus”, Entrepreneur, June 2013, p. 46

See something, say something?

May 14, 2013

Last week one of the commentators on Fox News’ The Five observed that the Ben Ghazi, the  IRS political reviews, plus matters such as the Boston Marathon bombing and the kidnapping of three women in the Midwest could all be linked by one concept. The concept was that people who saw things should say something, a nod to the Department of Homeland Security’s “If you see something, say something” campaign launched in 2010.

Whether or not you see that connection is really not an issue, but the discussion raises an important point. Much of the competitively important information that you will need, estimates run as high as 80-90%, can actually be found within your own organization. The problem is getting people who see something (or know something) to say something. Let me give you two real examples.

The first is an industrial company that began what we call intelligence audit. That process involves talking to major managers throughout the enterprise to find out what sources of information they had that might be useful to a competitive intelligence team. During the process, a CI manager talked to a director of manufacturing. The manufacturing director asked why the CI manager wanted this information. The CI manager replied that, “Well, what if our major competitive was working on a new technology, such as [example]”. The manufacturing director replied that,  ”They were, but are no longer doing so.” After he picked himself up off of the floor, the CI manager asked why no one had told him about this fact, which the manufacturing manager had deduced from the resumes he reviewed of people who had formerly worked at the competitor. The reply was “We didn’t know you were interested”. Opportunity lost.

The second is a consumer company that operates in many product markets. One product manager was told by a field representative that a new product had suddenly appeared in some local stores adjacent to her product. The new product was produced by a particularly troublesome private competitor, but was not directly in the market space managed by this product manager. However, she then talked to an individual who might be affected, and that individual began to pursue inquiries about where this product was made, how far along its competitor was in marketing it, whether there were national rollout plans, etc. At the end of the story, the client was able to uncover the planned construction of a new, state-of-the-art, manufacturing facility that would fundamentally change this market space. It was able to move before that new plant was even completed. Opportunity found and exploited.

The lesson is, whether you’re doing competitive intelligence full-time or part-time, let people know that you are doing it and that you are interested in anything that your peers, employees and representatives see or hear that is slightly different. Make sure they know that it is better for them to just drop an email than to drop the ball.

Trade Shows and Business Conferences (Part 1)

May 10, 2013

Most discussions about trade shows in competitive intelligence focus on how to “work” the trade show. Here I want to attack it from a slightly different angle: how to protect yourself at a trade show.

The first thing to do is to check out the geography. Who will be in the booth adjacent to you, in back of you and across from you? The companies or individuals stationed there will have the greatest opportunity to overhear, whether on purpose or by accident, conversations and presentations in your space, as well as to make important observations as to your level of staffing, what potential customers or clients you deal with, etc.

At a business conference, who is seated next to you? Who is listening in on the chit-chat at the reception?

Second, secure your space. Working the space at a trade show was not easy, but you must take care that the area is never, I repeat never, left unattended. All the competitor, or even a thief, needs are 15 or 20 seconds to make off with competitively sensitive information, in the first case, or industrial samples in the second.

In the case of a business conference, do not bring a computer or tablet into the conference that has any sensitive information on it. If lost, that can cause real issues. Also, people get lazy about reading email or working on presentations so that they do not notice who is now sitting next to them.

Third, do not let fatigue cloud your decision-making. After about one full day at a trade show, most individuals tend focus on whatever is working well for them and to look, frankly, just getting through the event. It is at this time that you and your fellow employees are most vulnerable to elicitation (probing interview) efforts by your competitors. In particular, always make sure you know to whom you are speaking. If the badge is unfamiliar, do not automatically assume that individual does not work for the competition. Using a substitute badge is one tactic some use. Some may also give employees who are checking out competitors a badge in the name of a subsidiary that is not well-known, so they appear to be innocuous visitor to your booth. The same is true at a business conference.

Fourth, when you are cleaning up at the trade show, take a good look at the materials that you still have. Are any of your flyers not yet public, so that you would want to keep from the hands of competitors? Do you have scratch notes of discussions that might reveal things like pricing? When cleaning up the booth, make sure that such sensitive materials are not placed in the trash for disposal by the convention hall personnel. Take responsibility for them and bring them back with you or see that they are shredded and disposed of for you leave for home. At a business conference, if you have used a breakout room, the same is true. Also, see that the white boards are cleaned off. Do not assume that the hotel staff will get it done quickly.

Why not just pay someone else to do all of it?


May 6, 2013

Well, as a competitive intelligence consultant I suppose I could selfishly say “what a great idea!” But that’s not right

Whether you hand off a competitive intelligence task to someone else or develop critically important intelligence yourself, you have to understand what you are trying to find out and what you expect to do with that intelligence once it is developed. If you cannot explain it to another person, how can you expect them to do a satisfactory job helping you? If you cannot answer some simple questions, you will fail a do a good job on your own.

Realistically, you can never hand a competitive intelligence assignment off completely to someone else. Ultimately, as the end-user of intelligence, you have to answer some basic questions, whether to yourself or to another person. These questions are “What is it that I really want to know?”, and “What would I be able to do/decide if I had that intelligence that I cannot do right now?”

If you do not have an answer to both of these, then it’s unlikely you will be able to collect and develop useful intelligence on your own, much less direct someone else to do it for you. Why? Because the task is pointless. You are not seeking actionable intelligence, that is, intelligence that supports new actions.

So the question is really a trick question. If you truly are not involved in developing at least the definition of what intelligence is needed and what it will be used for, then you’re not a part of the process at all.

Where do I start my research? (Part 3)

May 2, 2013

Continuing the discussion of where to start research, I want to expand it.

As you recall, our focus was a plant owned by a competitor. Now that we have dealt with the issue of employees and labor costs, let’s look at the plant itself. How and where can we get information about the plant itself?

Keeping in mind the suggestion to follow the trail of the information, the earliest data on the plant would be from the engineering company and construction companies that actually built the plant. If it is a relatively new plant, you may be surprised to see a photograph of the plant and even details on the project on the home pages of such a company, even without information detailing the owner of the plant. Never overlook that source.

The next location of information would be in local zoning and building offices, which have to approve plans for the facility. They would have the original plans of the facility, plus those for updates and expansions over the years.

Now don’t forget other state and local offices for such information. In some states, every time you add equipment to a facility, there is a taxable transaction. That means these tax offices will have a list of equipment purchased to be used in or added to the facility. Similarly state offices that regulate air quality and water quality make well have filings about the facility. Getting those will longer than local filings, but they may be very useful once received.

If the facility is of recent vintage, there may have been participation from other state and local agencies before and during its construction, providing direct financial subsidies, relief from taxes, job-training assistance, and the like. Each of these programs is run by an office and represents a potential source not only of documents but also of people to interview about the facility.

Next, do not ignore the owner of the facility. Some companies proudly post, and then forget they left online, information about the plan, such as its capacity, the number of employees etc. Search for those – never assume they do not exist.

In addition, explore YouTube. If the facility was featured on cable shows such as “how do they make that”, there may be a copy of that show posted on YouTube. In addition, plants celebrating anniversaries or the completion of major projects often will prepare a video for local media, which ends up posted on YouTube as well. Now, in searching YouTube, you may see the same video multiple times, but that is much better than missing it completely.