Intelligence About Competitors is Only Part of the Picture
Like most business owners, you probably cast eyes on competing businesses to find out where your business stands and to get ideas on ways to move towards the lead position. You probably check out competitor advertising, read news reports about them, attend small business events, monitor their Twitter feeds and even check out Yelp and other reviews about them.
As busy as you are, these practices represent time well-spent, but they only present part of the picture. If you want to be competitive, you have to take a close look at your information-rich internal intelligence as well.
Many Valuable Intelligence Sources are Closer Than You Think
Are you doing everything possible to spy on yourself? You have a number of resources that can accurately tell you how you rank with your customers and appear to prospects. Make it a habit to regularly connect with the following sources of internal competitive intelligence.
Your website visitors
Whether they surf directly to your site or they get there through links, anyone who visits your website deserves some attention — if you know how to get and understand information about their visits.
Google Analytics is probably the best known tool for monitoring how visitors use your website, and it’s free, but it’s certainly not the only option. A search for website analytics will reveal many tools that you can use on your website and in social media. You can learn everything from how visitors are getting to and using your website to how your website compares with those of competitors in terms of visitor-effectiveness.
Past, present and future-customers
There’s a reason why customers select your business, why they choose other vendors — and why they leave. Don’t be afraid to talk to them to identify the properties of your business that attract customers or cause them to seek greener pastures. Here are some scenarios that might qualify for a friendly call (or at least an email):
- One of your best customers starts buying fewer products or services: The reason may be as simple as reduced need. Even in this case, however, a call can put your mind at ease or even generate ideas on new products or services that will renew their interest. You might just as easily learn that they perceive a reduction in quality, longer ship times, or issues with customer service — all things that you can fix.
- After a sales call, a potential new customer chooses someone else: A few minutes on the phone might inform you about something that your competitors are doing that you never thought of. Once you fix these issues, you can try selling again, while providing something that will keep existing customers satisfied, as well.
- A customer stops ordering from your company: Not all customers try to work out their issues with customer service. They may just move on to someone new. Even if they do not contact you, they might surprise you with their communication abilities if you initiate contact and show genuine concern for their opinions.
Regardless of whether you are in a high-tech industry, provide basic accounting services or sell plain old widgets, technology changes so quickly that monitoring general business news reports alone cannot keep you adequately-informed. You need to monitor in-depth news that is specific to your industry to help you assess where you stand and what next steps will keep your business up-to-date.
Rather than scouring trade journals or the Internet for industry news that you can actually use, just about every online email service provides an option for news feeds (also known as RSS Feeds, RSS News Aggregators or some combination of the two terms). By adding links for industry news that actually applies to you, information comes to you on a single, easy-to-monitor page. Make it a point to check the page daily or at least weekly to prevent important information from passing you by.
Customer support calls
Whether you have real customer support reps, or if anyone with a phone might get a customer call, the first priority, of course, is to resolve the issues. But, each call provides a wealth of information that needs to be collected and disseminated. This is how you become a better company.
Every person who is even remotely connected to support issues (in other words, just about everyone) needs a way to regularly review what customers are saying. So, if customers are dealing with broken products, then whoever is involved with purchasing parts or manufacturing needs to know right away. Are you seeing too many errors in tax returns or financial reports? Then the people who run the software need to know so they better check their work for errors — or look for software that does a better job.
Before you start developing complex internal systems, take a look online for help desk software. You want a solution that aggregates customer communication from all sources (phone, email and social media, to name three common sources) and offers a friendly user interface that permits collaboration among all interested parties within your company.
Internal Spying is Always Ethical
It always makes sense to keep an eye on competitor activities to make sure that you keep up with the pack and move to the front. But, you have to conduct these intelligence activities with pinpoint integrity to avoid potential ethical conflicts.
As long as you treat every member of your team with respect and encourage them to do the same with each other, monitoring every aspect of your operations is not only ethical, but it helps make your business stronger.