Learn from new clients, new suppliers and new staff

The other day I was reflecting on how different it is today to set up and grow a small company compared with 15-20 years ago.  It is completely different and much of the transformation has been due to technological developments.  This is as true in sales as in every other aspect of the business.

Now, by spending 30 minutes on Google, you can find out about your prospect and your competitors.  You can learn about your competitors’ products/services, their clients and their staff.

This, together with their filed accounts, you can work out how successful they are both at winning new clients and at retaining their existing clients.  If they have differentiators which they use to position them apart from their competitors, you should find what they are via Google.  Not all your competitors will have differentiators, these are the me-too suppliers.

Twenty years ago, doing this online was impossible.  Doing it at all was very time-consuming.  Companies would take steps to protect this sort of information from falling into the hands of their competitors.  To obtain information about their competitors, small business owners needed to be more like private investigators.

I recall working with one software company that produced a glossy brochure that was freely available.  It didn’t contain much in the way of tangible information, just the usual marketing fluff.  If prospects expressed an interest and wanted to know more about the software or see a demonstration, they were asked to sign a non-disclosure agreement.  This, in theory, prevented a prospect divulging the information to a competitor.

Such an approach was common at the time.

As a sales executive at the time, one of my biggest problems was knowing with any confidence, what competitors were doing and the exact specification of their products.  Of course, this was before the Internet had been fully established and the concept of downloading a PDF version of a product specification did not exist.

Suppliers had to adopt other ways to get hold of information about competitive products.  There were three main sources of up to date knowledge that I tapped into regularly.  Indeed, they are still useful sources of “inside” information today.

The three sources are: new clients, new suppliers and new recruits.

Whenever we won a new client, they had invariably been previously supplied by one of our competitors, who we had either replaced or supplemented.  If we had been given a trial order to become a backup supplier, it was less likely for the staff of our new client to give us any valuable information.  This was fine as we wanted out information protected by the client and not divulged to our competitor.

If we had replaced an existing supplier completely, it usually meant there was some sort of issue with that supplier.  This issue was obviously serious enough for our new client to reach the decision that their best course of action was to switch suppliers.  We always made a point of finding out the real reason behind the switch and fed that information into either our product development or marketing teams.

New suppliers are also good sources of competitor intelligence.  They may be supplying your competitors or still be selling to them.  Either way, they may know information that will be useful to you.  New suppliers are always trying to help their newest clients.  This is why requesting information about your competitors from new suppliers is more effective than asking your more established suppliers.

New members of staff who you recruit from your competitors can tell you about the internal processes of their ex employer.  This is very valuable if they appear more efficient than you in some aspect of their business.  Finding out how they organise themselves in this area might give you an insight to what needs to be implemented in your business.

ACTION IDEAS

  1. Think about how your new clients, suppliers and recruits could help you build a better understanding of your main competitors.  Identify some good questions to help you initiate a dialogue with these people.
  2. Find ways to neutralise any advantages you identify which gives a competitor an edge over what you offer.  This might relate to product specifications or operating processes.
Posted in Competitor / Market Knowledge