Gathering competitive intelligence is all too often confused with corporate espionage, but practitioners say it really has nothing to do with planting a mole inside your competitor's HQ or hacking into a computer system. After all, that's against the law. Still, there are perfectly legal, ethical and effective ways to find out what your competitors are doing.
1. Know where to look
Up to 90% of the information companies want to know about their competitors is freely available to anyone with a little passion and tenacity. The media is one obvious source, but so are analyst reports, and financial disclosure documents filed on SEDAR (www.sedar.com) or EDGAR (www.sec.gov/edgar). Other good places to check include job search engines, business and academic partner sites, and trade shows. And don't forget to talk to your own employees.
2. Know what to ask
Schmooze competitors' customers, partners and, if you have a knack for asking the right questions, their employees. How they react to a loaded question is often more important than what they say, especially since most companies force employees to sign confidentiality agreements. For instance, if you spy a competitor in a bar after a trade show, tell him, “So, I hear you're introducing the Amazing Widget?” If his eyes open wide and he says, “Whaaaattt? Where'd you hear that?” there's something cooking.
3. Know what is useful
Not everything you gather is useful. Most things will be small parts of a much larger puzzle. The key to avoid getting excited about everything is to separate the actual signals from the noise using a healthy dose of paranoia and savoir faire. Is there any other information to support a rumour ? Does your competitor have enough cash to make the move? Does it have a track record of doing what its executives say? The last thing you want to do is feed incorrect or useless information up the line.
4. Know when to talk
Determine the worth and validity of the information–or what insiders call “sense making”–before telling others. No one wants to be the little boy who cried wolf, so figuring out what to say, when to say it and to whom you should report is critical. It all boils down to how confident you are that your information is correct. The decisive question: If you were the CEO of this company, would you be furious if somebody didn't pass this information along? If the answer is yes, then go for it.
5. Know how to plan ahead
Competitive intelligence has many uses: planning compensatory moves; arming salespeople with comparative product knowledge; mobilizing R&D to get something better out first. But you don't have to wait passively for news. Keep sharp by playing marketing war games (two teams role-play a competitive sales pitch). Pretend to be the competition in a cutthroat game called Kill Your Company. Create what-if scenarios to see where your own strengths and weaknesses are.
6. Know how to outwit opponents
If somebody scooped you with a press release just seconds before your own announcement, your corporate confidentiality shell has been punctured. Employees have to believe in confidentiality agreements as a corporate and a personal value. But if you know a partner or customer has loose lips, give them something completely incorrect to lob over to the other side. Disinformation–or counter-intelligence–is risky, but when it works, there will be high-fives all around.