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As a Competitive Intelligence (CI) practitioner and service provider for the past 15 years, I have dealt with many clients. The vast majority of these clients have turned to us because they have a problem that they need help solving. Sometimes, they are struggling to make a key business decision because they lack critical data. Other times, their competitors have been poaching key customer accounts and their sales force can’t get ahead of the curve. Still other times, they need to diversify to stabilize their revenue base but cannot figure out where the most lucrative opportunities lie. They are willing to make a considerable investment in an outside service provider to get the focused intelligence and strategy recommendations they need, but how can they ensure they maximize the return on that investment?

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Here’s a hint: Don’t commission eight competitor profiles and sit back to wait for the data to flow in. Over the years, I’ve seen three very common mistakes clients make when soliciting and managing external CI service providers. Here are some ways you can avoid them:

Mistake #1: Not tying the research effort tightly enough to actionable decisions. Decades ago, CI was often consumed in standard packages filled with dry statistics such as number of employees or revenue breakdown by product. The competitor profile and the market study are two classic examples of “snapshot” CI, which is how we used to describe these efforts 15 years ago in phone interviews: “I’m trying to piece together a snapshot of the market, and I’m going to be talking to all the major players…” The issue with snapshots is that they capture one moment in time, from one perspective. Some of what they reveal is immaterial, and some targeted insights are often missing. Snapshots are dated from the moment they are taken, and are less likely to inform actionable, forward-looking strategic decisions. Ensure that each question in your scope of work is crafted to provide the answers you need to make a better decision. Beware of “table-stakes” questions, data points such as a competitor’s number of employees that may satisfy idle curiosity but fail to translate into decisions that enhance corporate ability to compete and succeed. These types of questions will add cost to the engagement without providing actionable insights. Tip to avoid this mistake: Know in advance what you hope to accomplish by commissioning the research, and how it will fit with your corporate strategy and goals.

Mistake #2: Not participating fully in the process. Tailored insights are dependent upon give and take between internal champions and the consulting team. At the most basic level, you don’t want to pay for what you already know, you want to advance and deepen your knowledge. In the past, clients sometimes refused to share the state of their current knowledge, under the guise of wanting third-party consulting teams to generate “unbiased” intelligence to confirm or question their own corporate decisions. On the one hand, this seems a logical outgrowth of the third-party consultant’s value proposition to see past your internal corporate biases to recommend a clear-eyed solution. On the other hand, why would you hire a research team to sift and weigh the assumptions held by an entire market, when you don’t even trust them to see past your own? If there is one thing at which a CI consultant worth his or her salt can be assumed to excel, it is in not taking anyone’s perspective as gospel. Share your current knowledge, share contact names, and collaborate with the research team on deeper and more nuanced understanding of the insights collected from competitors and customers. It is not uncommon for clients to express great excitement over the research and its potential outcomes during a kick-off meeting, and then fail to answer follow-up e-mails. This hobbles the process, and can impact the overall quality and usability of the outcome. We know you are overextended—that is part of the reason you’ve reached out to a third-party firm—but a little time invested in the process will greatly enrich the final result. Tip to avoid this mistake: Hire a service provider you trust, share your current knowledge and understanding of the problem with them, and stay engaged in the process.


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Mistake #3: Not having a coherent vision of how the research ties to corporate goals. Since the best research will positively impact the business as a whole, even if centered around one specific product or business challenge, it is important to involve stakeholders from different departments and functional responsibilities. At times, this process can get messy, because each stakeholder has his or her own pet questions, and tries to tack them all together in an overly long, unfocused, and sometimes redundant scope of work. This is typically a result of either too little CI research—so all stakeholders view the current project as their one chance to answer burning questions—or too much attention to detail at the expense of wider corporate vision. CI is highly effective at shedding insight on specific corporate issues that are too narrow or too idiosyncratic to be covered anywhere else, but even these questions should be grounded by a strong sense of how they fit into the context of the business as a whole. When everyone keeps in mind the collective corporate good, collaboration can lead to creative thinking about the best ways to achieve business goals, rather than spark infighting about the relative importance of each stakeholder’s questions. Tip to avoid this mistake: Designate a lead point-of-contact within your team. Charge him or her with ensuring the research stays tied to corporate goals or the strategic decision at hand, and empower him or her to adjudicate disagreements among stakeholders about the scope of work.

In sum, to maximize the value you get from an external CI service provider: don’t pay for “table-stakes” information, requested by the person in the third cubicle from the left for his April sales presentation to the boss, and then disappear. Avoid these pitfalls, and you’ll be sure to make your research count.


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Cipher is an innovative boutique consultancy focused on providing strategic and competitive intelligence services and technology solutions that help clients make smarter, faster decisions.

For more information about Cipher’s capabilities and services, please contact us at info@cipher-sys.com or visit our website at www.cipher-sys.com.

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