“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles.” – Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Back in the 1980s and particularly the 1990s, Sun Tzu’s ancient text on warfare was a popular read for business and sales leaders, who were able to draw from its wisdom in devising their selling strategy. While it’s become less widely read in our current age’s spirit of cooperation, consultation, and relationships, its advice still holds. After all, sales is still a zero-sum game. Markets are finite and there’s only so many resources available.
And the fact is, this quote is especially relevant. After all, how can you become a Trusted Advisor if you don’t know the other options available to your customers? The question then becomes how you can learn about your competitors.
- Do an in-depth study of their online presence.
The first and easiest piece of advice is to look at your competitors’ online presence. That includes not only their website, but any and all social media campaigns. What products and services are they most heavily promoting? Which features are they highlighting as their value proposition and differentiators? Who are their apparent target markets and current clients? What’s their positioning and messaging? If they have a blog, what sorts of topics are they covering?
It’s a long list of questions but getting the answers to them is important for starting to build your dossiers on each of your competitors. In doing so, you can begin to understand where they’re similar to you, where they might have a competitive advantage, and where you might have the edge. You can also see what particular spaces you’re a direct competitor in and which ones where you’re not necessarily going head to head.
For example, let’s say you’re an architectural design firm that specializes in office and home design. You see a rival firm focuses primarily on residential, with a few small business commercial clients. While you’ll be competing with them in the home space and might well lose out there due to their emphasis, the medium and large businesses you’re courting wouldn’t consider them.
You might also want to consider accessing competitors' gated content, such as signing up to download their white papers or subscribing to their premium content. Important note here: The purpose of doing this is to engage in market research, not corporate espionage. The distinction is subtle but significant in its implications – one is fair game, the other could be construed as a violation of ethics.
- See what current and past customers are saying about them.
There’s a lot of valuable information you can glean by studying your competition from the outside. But to get a real sense of who they are and their performance, it’s best to hear what clients are saying. Back online you go to hit the review sites, such as Yelp, Google Reviews, Facebook, or Angie’s List. This primarily applies to B2C sectors – particularly retail and service providers. For the B2B space, there’s other methods that will be more effective, as we’ll discuss in a bit.
What you want to keep in mind with data mining online reviews is the aggregate. Sometimes people have a tendency to focus on outliers – such as a particularly positive or negative review – without considering what the reviews say as a whole. It’s the latter that most important, as it will allow you to better assess the strengths and weaknesses of a particular competitor.
But that’s just the beginning. After all, online reviews are a self-selected pool that’s just a piece of the whole. To dig deeper, or if you’re in B2B, when reaching out with prospects who are contracted to your competitors, find out what you can about the particulars of what they provide and the strengths and weaknesses of the service. Pay special attention to weaknesses – they might be opportunities for your organization to develop differentiation and competitive advantages.
If you’ve bid for a contract and lost to a competitor, ask the former prospect to conduct a win-loss interview, so you can find out what reasons led your competition to win – was it a specific offering or service? Price? A stellar presentation? This, again, is key intelligence that can also help your future selling strategy and positioning.
- Go directly to the source.
To truly gain inside information on competitors, interact directly with them. There are a few ways of doing this. If you’re both at the same trade show, make sure to check out their booth offerings, read their literature, and watch their conversations with customers. This is an under-utilized strategy that can potentially off dividends.
Another avenue is to join a trade association or industry group and network with your peers to learn more about the competition that way at events such as mixers or official members meetings.
However you go about it, compiling information on the competition will make your sales process more effective. It can generate possible talking points for your reps and allows you to provide the best possible consultative advice for your clients because you’ll be speaking from a position of full knowledge.