The Big Picture (2 of 7)

September 5, 2017

Our new book (by our, I mean Carolyn M. Vella, The Helicon Group’s Founding Partner and my significantly better half), Competitive Intelligence Rescue – Getting It Right, is a powerful “how-to-do-it-better” book, that uses real-world case studies (carefully masked) to expose common CI challenges and presents a simple methodology for spotting problems, understanding how to rectify each problem, and testing and validating that the changes are working.

Several of the cases there show the issues in creating or adding a new competitive intelligence unit. In our experience, there are typically 7 major elements involved in that process: financial and personnel, guidelines, training, internal marketing, networking, customers and their needs, and products and feedback. It is important to see the big picture, so I will deal briefly with each issue over the next weeks.

I have already discussed the financial and personnel issues.

Here, I will comment on key guideline issues. By guidelines, I mean both ethical/legal standards and mission statements/job descriptions.

Very few CI teams, or even individual analysts, are ready to issue a statement setting out the ethical principles that will govern the new process. Too many just default to adopting the Code of Ethics of Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP), either by reference or by just copying the text.

Do this only as a stopgap. The best way to do heave the right ethical and legal standards is to work with your company’s legal counsel, inside or out, to develop this. That way, it will reflect what you will be doing, as well as the environment in which you will be doing it. Doing it this way has the additional benefit of educating your legal counsel about competitive intelligence, so that they understand it better, to serve you and your company better.

The same is true of mission statements and job descriptions. The more specific, the better. These should be developed in cooperation with your internal clients. That will also help advance the likelihood that they will use what you provide.

This is not the first time I have commented on these issues. Check out my past blogs, including these, for more:

Company Policies on Collecting Competitive Intelligence (part 1)

Company Policies on Collecting Competitive Intelligence (part 2)

Company Policies on Collecting Competitive Intelligence (part 3)

Social Media

August 8, 2017

Recently, I participated in a survey conducted by Contify – Is social media a source of Market Intelligence on companies? The firm sent me access to the results and has allowed me to share them with you. It is a fascinating study. You can access the document here.

Let me make a few comments on it and share a couple of my own observations on social media.

One of the key take-aways for me was that using social media to do research for CI assignments and\or to conduct regular monitoring can be useful. My observation is that you have to be willing to invest a lot of time, seeking the proverbial needle in the haystack. But, if it is there, it is worth it (in retrospect).

Another key take-away is Contify’s conclusion that social media tends to be more valuable when you are targeting a smaller firm:

“For a given period, small companies have lesser number of business updates to share, as compared to large companies. However, small companies are more likely to announce an important business update on social than release a press releases in traditional media.”

My experience is that when you are targeting a family-owned business, which tends to be smaller, social media can be quite helpful by identifying who is who, and by providing photos of everything from other family members to the inside of factories to new products to key customers. But, again there is the time issue.

Finally, always keep in mind that what you are seeing is only what someone else wants you to see – well, not specifically you, but rather some other audience or audiences. Consider LinkedIn. I am sure you can understand how useful LinkedIn can be to identify key personnel, to spot the occasional brag that can uncover new facts, and to identify potential interviewees.

But consider that each LinkedIn profile is written by that very person. So? I can tell you, from experience, that just because a profile says that person is working as the VP of Whatever Company may not be true, or at least current. People who have been laid off sometimes keep the page content static to enhance their chances of attracting a recruiter or otherwise improve their job-hunting chances.

The same is true for all social media – particularly messages and pictures on Facebook, as well as videos on YouTube. With all social media, while you may think it is a look inside a target, remember, seeing is not always believing.

It’s Out!

July 27, 2017

We have just received the authors’ copies of Competitive Intelligence Rescue – Getting It Right from our publisher. This is the latest book from Carolyn M. Vella ( Helicon’s founding partner and my significantly better half) and me. We are very excited about it.

It takes you behind the scenes of CI rescues – case studies of efforts to help clients get it right. It is an easy read, but filled with useful tips.

For more complete information on the book, you can go to It will let you see a little from the book.

You can preorder from now, at


Ten Things Outside CI Consultants Do Not Want to Deal With

July 5, 2017

On the relationship


  1. “I’m not the final client for this work.” That makes doing the work harder, since the consultant is going through a filter – you. And that means no opportunity for effective pushback or digging into the end user’s real needs, as opposed to its (different) stated needs.


  1. “We’ll promise you more business if you’ll cut your fee.” Unless you have that authority, and there is more business in the pipeline, do not hold out this faux carrot. And don’t you think this will impact the current work? Remember the saying, “There are three things possible, but you only get two: fast, cheap, or good.”


  1. “Your relationship is limited to the person who signed your contract.” (This involves a sad story in which a client was fired in mid-project, and his successors initially didn’t want to pay a pending invoice.)


On the submitted bid/proposal


  1. “We’ll share your proposal and/or approach with other vendors.” In other words, one consultant is now working for its competitors? Increasingly, proposals are submitted to potential clients with language forbidding sharing the contents. Respect it.


  1. “We’re really just looking for good ideas for our own people.” Why not pay a consultant to work with your team to learn how to develop better skills and approaches?


  1. “You’re column fodder.” That means you need to get three bids, but want only vendor #1. The other two bidders are there to fill out the columns on the evaluation matrix. Don’t do it.


  1. “Your bid is a bargaining tool.” Sometimes bids are solicited on an existing piece of work to keep an incumbent “in its place” cost-wise and otherwise. See number 6 above.


  1. “You’re not bidding on the same scope of work as others.” It is amazing how few companies issue formal RFPs or other engagement specs for CI these days, so they are often getting competing “apples and oranges” proposals.


On fees and payments


  1. “We always bargain harder with small vendors.” High quality small vendors without big time “brand names” are often seen as more likely to cut fees to win work. See number 2 above.


  1. “We only pay on 45 (or 60 or 75) days.” When that comes from a (large) firm which requires its own customers to pay in 10-15 days net, it translates to “We ride our accounts payable to enhance our cash flow.”


May 19, 2017

This week I was reminded of law school when I saw an article mentioning the “famously demanding questions” of law Professor Arthur R. Miller.[1] As a victim, and beneficiary, of some of those questions, I commend the author for his accuracy.

But that memory got me thinking about “push back” in competitive intelligence. You know, when someone asks you to get (develop) some information (intelligence) on a competitor, your proper response, also called the drilling down. You have to find out what decision or action hinges on getting this CI.

If a decision or an action (including the decision to do nothing) depends on this CI, then it is actionable intelligence, able to be acted on. If not, it is not actionable. Recall, that this distinction is also captured by the contrast between “need to know” and “nice to know”. You do not want to waste your time and your firm’s resources on “nice to know”.

But doing this is not always easy, particularly if the request comes from a superior, not a peer. There are several questions you can consider using or adapting to ferret out this critical information, as follows:

  • “Is there a deadline or meeting that you need this for?” That is, is this a part of something larger? What is that?
  • “Why is this a concern right now?” Or, why now? You heard a rumor? A sales rep reported losing a long-time customer? Sometimes knowing the trigger helps lead you to the CI.
  • “Has anyone else looked at this issue before? What did they find?” In other words, is this just an itch that you are scratching – again? Or did prior research come up short? Can you get a copy of it? It sometimes helps to know what was not satisfactory to do it right.
  • And my personal favorite: “Therefore what?” (A tip of the hat to said Professor Miller) Once you have this, just what are you going to do with it? What does this all mean?

[1] David Cay Johnston, “Raising the Curtain on a News Blackout”, The Quadrangle, Spring 2017, 32, 35.

Pushing Back

May 5, 2017

One key skill among competitive and strategic intelligence specialists is mastering the art of the “push back”, also known as drilling down. That describes the vital interchange between the end-user (AKA customer) and the analyst (AKA provider) of the intelligence at the beginning. The goal is to make sure that the analyst provides actionable intelligence to the end-user.

So how does this relate to the DIYer? In many cases, you are both the analyst and the end-user. No, I do not expect that you will talk to yourself – although we have all been there, haven’t we? What I do believe is that there are lessons to be learned from the push back process to help you sharpen your own research and analysis processes.

Let me be a little more specific. In the push back process, here are a few, almost predictable, exchanges, which I will briefly dissect here. Now view them from you own perspective, when you are starting a research and analysis project. Are you at the beginning, the middle, or the end of this dialog?

An intelligence task is being presented in very general terms: “We need some current information on the Competitor”. [Bah!]

First push back: “What kind of intelligence – sales, new products, investments, new hires?” [Note the switch from “information” to “intelligence”.]

“We are concerned about a rumor that they may be acquiring one of our distributors.”

Next stage, push back a little more: “Do you know which one?’

“Yes, well, we think so.”

Press a little more: “What did that rumor come from? How did you hear it?”

“In a sales field report last month.” [Warning! Why so long to have the question come up? Is this going to be an unnecessary super rush job?]

Again: “Why do we need to know this” [What this means is “What will we do with the intelligence that we cannot do right now?” but you cannot usually speak that bluntly.]

“We may have to buy another distributor, or bring some of the logistics in-house.” [Now, we are getting somewhere.]

Closing it up: “Is there a meeting scheduled to consider this? If so, when?” [Setting a likely deadline]

“Yes – in 3 weeks.”

Now wind it up: “So we need to confirm the possible purchase of this distributor? Anything else?”

“Yes. Also, it would be nice to know [Warning! Keep vagueness from creeping in at the end.] what they are paying in case we want to make an offer as well.”

“Is that important?”

“Oh, yes, very.”

Bingo! Now we have a clear direction, with the goal of getting actionable intelligence to support identifiable action, and, not surprisingly to those of us who have been through this, which is well off on a tangent from the original, vague, directions.



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.