Competitive Intelligence: Understanding the Secret Techniques Your Competitor Is Using Against You

Bill, the Chief Marketing Officer at a large manufacturing company in the Midwest seemed puzzled as he sat down to lunch with me recently.

“I just don’t get it,” he said. “I have some of the top talent in the country on my staff, I have a leading brand and our company has a real tradition of innovation. But over the past couple of years it seems as if we’re always behind the curve. We always seem to start out with some new and unique ideas but somehow by the time we get to rollout, our biggest competitor has already launched something similar. We’ve lost millions in market opportunity and it puts our sales reps in a defensive position — and me in a bad mood.”

Bill went on to explain that he had originally suspected some kind of ‘mole’ or inside employee feeding secrets to the competitor, but security had checked everyone out and found no unusual behavior or activity that would indicate a leak. They had done awareness training with those that handle sensitive information and Bill felt that, while worthwhile, his strategic situation still hadn’t improved.

“I’m at a loss” he said, knowing that I had built and managed competitive intelligence departments for some major corporations in the past, “where do I go next? We’re still getting beat to market and it’s not improving. I’m starting to feel like our CEO is wondering what’s going on and I don’t have any answers.”

As I pondered his question I could see that this was no idle chit-chat. Bill needed to explain what was going on and start putting together a plan to turn it around or he feared he’d be looking for another job before long.

“Listen Bill” I said, “it sounds like you’re doing everything right. You’re playing the game the right way…”

“Yea, but I’m not winning…”

“OK,” I began, “If your CEO is starting to competitive intelligence wonder what’s going on with you and your product development processes, maybe we should start by trying to understand what’s really happening with your competitor.”

“How would you know that?” He asked. “You don’t even know our industry that well.”

“That’s correct, I am not well versed in your industry,” I agreed, “but I know the discipline of Competitive Intelligence, or CI. Let’s start with the fact that I know your competitor is active in the intelligence discipline. I met a couple of their intelligence folks at a national conference last year. I believe the CI Director came from a pharmaceutical company and joined your competitor a couple of years ago.”

“That’s about when I started noticing we were playing catch-up,” Bill replied.

“It may be just a coincidence,” I said, “but she has been involved in the discipline for years. She’s even published some articles and the young analyst I met with her probably accompanied her to your competitor. Going from Pharma to your industry would require some learning on her part, but certainly not difficult.”