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 http://abc-clio.com/ABC-CLIOCorporate/product.aspx?pc=A5235C. It will let you see a little from the book.
You can preorder from Amazon.com now, at https://www.amazon.com/Competitive-Intelligence-Rescue-Getting-Right/dp/1440851603/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1501184488&sr=8-1&keywords=vella+rescue.
July 5, 2017
On the relationship
- “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.
- “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.”
- “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
- “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.
- “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?
- “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.
- “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.
- “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
- “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.
- “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. 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?
 David Cay Johnston, “Raising the Curtain on a News Blackout”, The Quadrangle, Spring 2017, 32, 35.
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.
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.
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.
 John J. McGonagle and Carolyn M. Vella, The Manager’s Guide to Competitive Intelligence, Praeger, 2003, Chapter 15.
April 21, 2017
Three weeks ago, I wrote about listening to people who are talking about CI. 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.