Getting Help

April 27, 2017

Let’s face it, when you are a DIYer in competitive intelligence (doing it yourself, for the newbies out there), you can’t do it all. Sometimes you will have to go outside for help. I am not going to cover all the issues involved here, because they are many and I have covered them elsewhere.[1]

I want to deal here with a couple, from the perspective of the company you will be dealing with. Here are a few of the most common issues you may face when doing this for the first time:

  • First, always protect yourself and your firm. Before you get into sharing any details, get all potential contractors to sign a non-disclosure agreement. Also, make sure that they do not have a conflict of interest.
  • Do you know exactly what you want? If so, write it down, including the deliverables, timing, and your intended use. If it is clear and complete, you can ask for a RFQ, request for a quote. What you will get back is a dollar amount and, only if you asked for it, a statement of the firm’s relevant qualifications and experience.
  • If you cannot do that, you need a RFP, a request for a proposal. Here you provide as much basic information as you can, and then let the firms explain the how, what, and when. If you need it by a specific date, say so at the beginning. If you are dealing with multiple firms, and a firm asks a question which you answer, to be fair, share that exchange with all the other firms.
  • Decide what criteria you will use when selecting a winner in any RFP competition. In fact, write that down before you start. It is just lowest price? What about speed? How about prior experience? Anything else?
  • When you get the proposals, decide quickly. If you ask for a response to your RFP in 10 days, be prepared to decide in 10 days. Play nice. The firms  competing for your business put a lot of time and money into doing these RFPs.
  • Are you prepared to explain your decision? Some firms may ask you for a debriefing if they lose out. Having your criteria written down in advance will make that a lot easier.

[1] John J. McGonagle and Carolyn M. Vella, The Manager’s Guide to Competitive Intelligence, Praeger, 2003, Chapter 15.

Listen to what they did (not) say (Part 2)

April 21, 2017

Three weeks ago, I wrote about listening to people who are talking about CI.[1] The point was to pay attention to and listen to what they may really be saying. Here are some examples of statements that do not communicate information, but rather often reveal ignorance:

  • When talking about CI, someone says “We can get most of what we need online”, what they are saying is – well – they do not know what they are talking about, because they probably have not “gone online” looking for competitively sensitive data. When on in Internet, not everything can be located by a search through Google. There exists what some call the “hidden Internet”, vast amounts of data which search engines cannot locate and index. For example, some publications make their archives accessible only to subscribers. A Google search cannot penetrate these.

In addition, let’s not forget about “Fake News”. Just because it is on the Internet does not mean it is true.

  • A more sophisticated, but also often erroneous, assertion goes something like this – “There are commercial sites which can tell us what we want to know, you know, like credit reports”. First, ignore the point that developing actionable CI is not the same as running a credit check. Now, for private companies, did you ever wonder where the services get their data? From the firm? Will, what if the firm did not give the credit service a balance sheet? And, if there are facts there, how old are they? Can you tell? To ask these is to answer them.

In general, using commercial sites are better than aimless searches, but, as with finances, “garbage in garbage out”.

  • One of my favorite statements comes from the manager who declares “We do not need outside help. We can get whatever we need. I mean, at the trade shows, we always check out the competition’s booth”. Where to start? Does this mean you or your staff can just call up a competitor and chat them up about new products and prices? Before asking that, check your firm’s rules and maybe discuss with your attorneys talking prices with a competitor.

Will ex-employees of your competitor cheerfully talk with you, once they figure out they are not being recruited for a job? If they do cooperate, is it because they are disgruntled former employees? Does anyone really think that what they will say is likely to be true and complete?

As for working a trade show, good move. But, again, how much will the competition show you and tell you once they look down and see your badge with your firm’s name? What would you do in that position? And please, do not tell me you just remove your badge. Not having a badge is like saying “I am trying to hide my identity”. Please.

And, when you call an industry reporter, a trade association, a supplier to your competitor, or one of their good customers, are you (mistakenly) assuming that your competitor will not soon hear about your firm’s sudden interest? Think about it.

[1]Listen to what they did (not) say (Part 1)”, March 31, 2017.


Answers and Questions

Sometimes a CI project does not go well is the eyes of the end-user (the only eyes that matter). Why is that? Let’s look at three common negative feedback comments. Each may mean more (or less) than what it seems to say.

“We did not learn anything that we did not already know.”

  • The assignment, as given by the end-user, may not have been focused as it should and could be. If it included phrases like “Tell me about…”, “Is anything new…”, focus is certainly lacking. It should have included a description of what decision/action depends on the results to give focus.
  • If the focus is there, then the end-user should consider that a confirmation that he/she is correct is valuable. It means that his/her decisions will be based on current, not dated, information, which is too often the case. It also serves to reduce risk – just how certain was the end-user of the “facts” before the assignment was given?

“We did not get value from the assignment.”

  • Was the cost (in terms of time and/or disbursements) excessive? Why? Was everyone aware of the range of likely costs that at the beginning? If not, why not?
  • Did both the end-user and researcher agree on what was needed, when, and how it was to be actionable?
  • What was the end-user expecting? Was that expectation reasonable? Was it clearly communicated to the researcher at the start?
  • Did the researcher evaluate the likelihood of success on each element  and share that estimate before starting?

“We still have questions.”

  • Were those questions a part of the original brief? If not, why not? This can indicate a failure in tasking the initial assignment. That is quite often a problem when the assignment comes from A through B to C, where C does not have the opportunity to “push back” directly with A. Intermediaries rarely add clarity to the process.
  • If these questions were a part of the brief, why did the researcher not answer them? Common reasons are that they cannot be answered by CI (i.e., they are trade secrets), or that the target has not yet made an expected decision or taken any action. The researcher should never gloss over missing elements. If a question could not be answered, just say so and explain why.

Listen to what they did (not) say (Part 1)

March 31, 2017

In business as well as in life, person-to-person communication is vital. When doing competitive intelligence, listening skills are critical. But you need to do more than just listen and assimilate. You must pay attention to and listen to what they may really be saying – at least to themselves. This is true whether you are doing an interview, getting or giving a briefing, or reading a report or email.

What is the difference?

Let me give you a couple of examples:

When a senior executive says that “We know that our competitor is doing …”, unless his firm just finished doing some legitimate CI work, and he read it, what he means is that “I think (or hope or fear) that our competitor is doing …”

When an interviewee says “I have been in this business for 20 (or some other large number) years, and I know that…”, take it with a very big grain of salt. The longer she has been in that business, the larger her blinders will be.

When an expert tells you that “The very long-term trend in this is …”, what he often means is (a) “The long-term trend I am predicting is one best positioned to make companies hire me”, (b) “That long-term trend is one that you probably cannot effectively challenge right now”, or (c) “The possibility of that trend actually occurring makes me very pleased (or frightened).” In some cases, it can be all 3.

When a supervisor says “I do not see the need for doing that (CI) research at this point”, what she often means is “My mind is already made up and I do not want any new facts getting in the way.”

When someone asks for “some intelligence on…”, but declines to describe how he will use it, it sometimes means “I have no idea what you are doing, or what you can provide, so give me something and I will figure out if and how I can use it after I see it.”

Depressing? No. Confusing? Yes.


Planning CI Research and Analysis

February 2, 2017

There are a lot of tricks to planning and executing effective CI research and analysis. Here are three proven ones:

  • Drill down on what you are trying to find out. Whether it is for you or for someone else, before you start your research, ask what decision you (or someone else) can make or action you (or they) can take once you are done. If you cannot answer that, step back and rework the assignment. That way you avoid wasting time in the “nice to know” swamp rather than staying on the “need to know” highway.
  • Scope out where you will probably be looking before you start looking. Divide the potential sources – and leads to other sources – into primary and secondary. Start with and plan to finish the first round of secondary before starting the primary. Save the primary for when you have “mastered” the issue, so your interviews will be short and to the point. You can avoid wasting a valuable, hard to schedule, interview getting what you could have collected from reading.
  • Again, before you start, write down your key question, the core of your assignment. Then, list the 3 or 4 questions you must answer to get to the core question. If necessary, break down the sub-questions one more time. You now have your research outline. Think it through. How likely is it that you can conduct the research and produce the necessary analysis – under your time and cost constraints? Put a number on it. You and I know it is only a rough estimate, but you are already calling on your subconscious (or your gut, your call) to help on your project. Look at the numbers you assigned: why is it the third question has only a 25% likelihood of success, while the fifth question is at a 90% likelihood? How you can restate the third question to make it more likely to succeed in answering it?

In other words, don’t start until you have it clear in your mind where you are likely to go – even if you do not always know where that is.

When Perfect is not Correct

December 2, 2016

When you have finished your CI research and analysis, stop and look at the results – very skeptically.

Let’s assume you are doing a profile of a competitor, a private company, so you do not have the (un)helpful SEC filings to walk through. Despite that, you think you have produced a pretty d*mned good product, covering all the basic information on that target.

Step back. Is what you see too perfect? By that I mean, you do not see any obvious omissions, everything seems linked. That perfection may be a warning sign.

Now really think about that. How likely is it that this could really happen? Did you ever get that complete a profile before? Next consider where you got all this great data that supported your analysis. Was virtually all of it from the target, directly or indirectly, that is from its website, local news articles, press releases, industry articles, etc.? Was any of it from filings with local/state/federal government or from third parties that (supposedly) verified the facts?

  • The former can be, and often are, manipulated by the target. Think disinformation. Disinformation is “Incomplete or inaccurate information designed to mislead others about your intentions or abilities. When used in the arena of international politics, espionage or intelligence, the term also means the deliberate production and dissemination of falsehoods, fabrications, and forgeries aimed at misleading an opponent or those supporting an opponent.”[1]
  • With the latter sources, there is at least a chance that the filings were made under oath or that the verification was properly done, so maybe you have something closer to the truth. But that is not always the situation – remember (here fill a reference to in your favorite example of a business fraud).

A tip-off may be that the data you developed is largely from the targets and is too consistent, too uniform, too, well, what you expected to find. Stop and look hard for what is missing. If you were starting over, what facts about the target that you would expect to be able to develop but which are just missing? Is that “perfection” possibly a sign that you are being drawn into a picture painted by the target, while missing what it is painting over?

Be skeptical of your own results. Sometime a perfect result just means that you are seeing only what the target wants you to see, not what there is to see.

[1] McGonagle and Vella, Proactive Intelligence, p. 11.

Look Back?

November 16, 2016

One of the common, and key, mantras of CI is that it is forward-looking. You have almost certainly been told, at least once, that CI is not a rear-view mirror, looking at what is behind you and your firm. Rather it is something that should be used to anticipate what is coming and provide support for decisions to deal with coming events and trends.

Yes, that is true, but that is not always the case. Sorry.

A character in a novel I recently read, The Power Broker (Stephen Frey), made this point rather well.

“Everything happened for a reason, and it was always best to know what that reason was. Having information, knowing why something happened – whether it was good or bad for you – was the key to success.” (p. 110)

Keeping this in mind, we should use CI during our annual reviews, which should accompany our strategic planning activities. You are doing that kind of review, right? When looking back on the previous year (or even previous quarter), we should be checking off the successes we had and the failures we suffered. But, don’t just assume that you succeeded because of a great plan and failed because, well, stuff happened. Life is not like that.

We need to do more – use CI to find out why things went poorly as well as why they went well. Knowing that is critical to developing and executing effective plans going forward.