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5 Steps to Competitive Intelligence Success

Derek Heiss

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April 12, 2019

A framework for internal competitive intelligence professionals to demonstrate and expand the value they deliver.

According to the 2019 State of Competitive Intelligence, businesses reported seeing more competition than ever before, with the average business competing with as many as 25 rivals.  

Why is this important for you?

Chances are if you're reading this article, you're not in a sales position, so it doesn't effect you, right?

Wrong.

Increased competition is affecting every department in your business. The impact is more obvious and immediate in some, but the impact is universal nonetheless.  

Consider Alibaba, a leading platform for global wholesale trade serving millions of buyers and suppliers around the world. It offers hundreds of millions of products to buyers located in 190+ countries. Businesses like Alibaba are increasing competition on a global level.

What should you do with this understanding? 

The globalization of our economy has created a faster pace of change than at any other time in our history, including during the industrial age. For those that track their competitors and perform a careful analysis of their competitive environment, this change presents great opportunity. 

During our more than twenty year history providing competitor research, SWOT analysis and market research services, Cipher clients have consistently asked this one question:

"When and how should I apply My new competitive knowledge of what’s possible to justify my work and expand my influence?"

Our simple answer to this question:

When: Quarterly How: With an analysis of information that clearly identifies areas of improvement within your business. Let’s get into the details on how you do this...

Step One: Position Yourself as an Intelligence Consultant

Most of the work you do, including market analysis, competitor tracking and more, can be divided into two general categories: consulting and services.

Most competitive intelligence (CI) professionals are a part of the services group. They are typically seen as “report providers” and not much more. By contrast, the most valuable CI professionals are viewed as business partners focused on reducing uncertainty for their stakeholders.

Strive to be a trusted business adviser, first and foremost. Competitive Intelligence and market intelligence consulting provides long term value for your executives and long-term opportunities for you and your team.

Here’s what a consultant does to differentiate themselves from every other run-of-the-mill CI professional:

  • Align your competitive research strategically to your audience’s key performance indicators (KPI's) 
  • Identify critical challenges and opportunities
  • Prescribe CI processes to address challenges or realize opportunities
  • Interpret results and make recommendations

These activities build trust and establish you as a strategic partner and adviser.

On the other hand, traditional competitive deliverables will always become commoditized. If your goal is to simply provide deliverables like Battle card Templates, Kill Sheets and report results vs goals without context and analysis, you are at risk.

These activities are more easily replaceable. Advances in artificial intelligence and natural language processing are expanding the scope of information that can be delivered with little to no analysis, making the human providers of these types of deliverables unnecessary. 

Whatever you do, don’t let your work be a commoditized service that can easily be replaced. Leverage technology and tools to increase your ability to perform analysis. Our research shows analysts who automate routine tasks such as information collection and organization spend up to 45% more time on analysis. 

Instead, be recognized for your expertise like any good plumber does: Let’s say you pay a plumber $100 to repair your sink. The plumber looks over your pipes, taps the pipe once and it’s fixed. You just paid $1 for the tap and $99 for the experience to know where to tap. 

I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.

It is surprising how many in the competitive intelligence industry talk about the value of analysis, but when it comes to what they deliver, it often stops with a handful of templatized market and competitor intelligence reports with battle cards.

When given a deliverable, restate your stakeholder's request with the goal of uncovering where you will add value. Understanding the real opportunity or threat is where you will deliver your greatest business value.

Step Two: Stop Delivering Competitive Reports, Start Delivering Competitive Analysis

Showing your value requires you to interpret and analyze information gathered and make recommendations based on your conclusions.

Often the difference between reporting and analysis is lost.

Reporting is simply extracting data and presenting it in a format that can be easily understood, whether that’s a PDF document, a spreadsheet, or email.

Analysis goes beyond reporting,

Analysis involves a detailed examination of the elements or structure of something. Breaking down something complex into smaller parts allows us to gain a better understanding, including uncovering possible new relationships and dependencies. 

Your analysis will answer questions like:

  • What actions are your known or traditional competitors likely to take? What about novel, innovative market-disruptors?
  • Which Mega, Macro and Micro-trends is your company vulnerable to? Which ones can it take advantage of?
  • What are your competitors’ likely actions in response to a product roll-out? Where are your competitors geographically weak and how can you penetrate that space?
  • Why did a competitor make tactical movement X? What does it say about their larger strategy?

These answers will lead you to changes in your scope of work and perhaps new analysis that justifies a larger audience or more resources for your team.

Step Three: Give Updates Monthly; Make Big Recommendations Quarterly

This cadence is the easiest to start, especially when first developing a market or competitive intelligence presence within your company.

You must establish a baseline assessment of your competitive landscape and key players, actively monitor trends and set up indicators and a warning system to anticipate and communicate changes in the market.

Even if only part of your day is spent on CI activities, you’re probably swimming in data. Email newsletters, RSS subscriptions and Google Alerts together can deliver hundreds of results to your inbox.

In our experience, most CI professionals have little interest in or capability to monitor daily or weekly changes. The task is simply too overwhelming. And with many clients, this time frame is too short to gain enough insight to make recommendations.

Too short of a cadence with no strategic outlook does not allow for good analysis. To use a common metaphor, this is just jumping from tree to tree, without seeing the greater forest.

We recommend a monthly cadence to update your existing knowledge, and then once a quarter, review your intelligence and make recommendations.

The process we use always involves establishing a regular review plan before implementation, and analysis only after enough information has been gathered to be statistically significant and actionable. Quarterly recommendations fit well with this model.

We follow a four-step process that bridges the gap between tactical updates and strategic implications when serving long-term client engagements:

  1. What has changed over the last month?
  2. What do these changes indicate? Can we determine a greater trend?
  3. What is likely to happen in the next month?
  4. How do we effectively incorporate findings into the company-wide strategy?

When your stakeholders see that you’re using data to make recommendations, they get used to the idea that you’re bringing your expertise to the table and will help you identify more ways your work will add value.

Step Four: Construct Your Findings Into a Story

Like business intelligence, market intelligence, and other research, CI findings are best delivered and most memorable when they are presented as a story.

We recommend two key strategies to have the greatest impact with your leadership team or key stakeholders.

  1.    Bottom Line, Up Front (BLUF) writing style
  2.    Construct your deliverables to answer: What? So What? Now What?

BLUF-style writing is the industry best practice for concisely delivering your insights to key leadership. Senior and C-suite executives often don’t have the time to read through a lengthy quarterly report. Instead, they rely on the top-line.

When you’re building your document, constantly ask yourself what the most important takeaway of the research is and how to portray that in the most effective way.

A common competitive intelligence story line is the "What? So What? and Now What?" approach. Each step has its own analytical component to it.

The What refers to the actual incident that happened or update to existing knowledge that you have prioritized over other industry noise.

The So What is the beginning of identifying insights. This is when you assess the event’s impact on the business.

Finally, the Now What is your recommendation to leadership and its incorporation into the company's strategy.

As you get a better understanding of your decision-maker, you can amplify the impact of your analysis by customizing the format of your deliverable to better serve their specific needs or preferences. For example, some executives will prefer text while others prefer visuals.

Step Five: Utilize the Intelligence Cycle

If you can’t tell yet, we are big believers in processes. If you don’t have established CI processes, it doesn’t make sense to re-invent the wheel.

Below is the intelligence field’s best practice for conducting intelligence analysis across any industry or market. You might find the need to make some minor adjustments, but the core categories should not change.

Intelligence Cycle

The process begins with the requirements of the problem brought to you by your stakeholder. During this stage, you must be actively engaged to extract important details needed to build a framework and understand the problem. (Remember what you read in Step One, and be sure to position yourself as a trusted adviser)

Next is the most labor-intensive phase - collection, which is the gathering of data. It’s time-consuming work that involves web searches, interviews, identifying sources and monitoring, to name a few activities.

This stage is also the one most disrupted by recent advances in technology, particularly AI and Big Data.

Knowledge360 Company Dashboard

See how a tool like Knowledge360 automate data searching, organizing and presenting information in easy to view dashboards.

If you’re not ready for a paid tool like K360, check out our top eight free CI tools you should be using today

Once the raw information is accounted for, it must be analyzed critically and with a CI professional’s keen expertise in order to develop intelligence. The key difference being:

Intelligence is information that has been processed, is timely, actionable, and reduces uncertainty around the original problem statement

The production stage is the actual building of the final product. This is where the strategic adviser’s analytical findings are polished and put into a digestible and effective deliverable.

Visualizing your data and your recommendations is critical and helps generate buy-in.

Trend-Monitoring-Dashboard

The final stage is the dissemination of the product and its subsequent feedback.

An important note to incorporate from earlier in this article is that this is the perfect opportunity to expand your influence. If the executive has more questions around a specific topic, be proactive and start building those questions into a key focus for the next quarter.

Thus, the cycle begins again.

One of the most important aspects of the Intelligence Cycle is that multiple analyses can be going on simultaneously and applied across all temporal considerations (tactical alerts versus long-term, multi-year, strategic documents).

Your success will be built on your ability to become a trusted adviser to your stakeholder. Showing that you have a clear, replicable process to those who ask questions of you is a useful and trust building exercise.  

Delivering Value is Key to Continuing and Expanding Your CI Role

There are many ways organizations can use competitive and market intelligence. The greatest impact CI/MI can offer your company is to give it a strategic advantage over competitors (current or future) and a proactive position in its market. Too many companies are reactive in their strategies. As a result, they wind up blind-sided by their competitors and are constantly playing catch up.  

To effectively grow your value within your organization you must:

  1. Establish yourself as an intelligence expert and trusted adviser
  2. Stop reporting and start analyzing competitive information
  3. Make recommendations on a regular, at least quarterly basis
  4. Construct findings into a story
  5. Utilize a proven process like our Intelligence Cycle

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Derek Heiss
Derek Heiss

Derek Heiss is the Director of Cipher’s Consulting Practice and is specialized in competitive intelligence and market strategy consulting. Cipher is a consulting and technology firm, based in Annapolis, with a 20+ year track record of delivering solutions to the Fortune 500 and Global 1,000.

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