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Increasing Your Company’s Competitive Intelligence

Perhaps you run a small business and have a belief that you simply don’t have the time to consistently monitor your competitors and your market as you should. Keeping the business afloat is paramount to you, and hiring additional staff to address this area isn’t an option at this juncture. Consultants aren’t an option either because they’re costly, or your company can’t sacrifice the time necessary to properly educate an outsider about your inner business workings. For any of these situations, there is an alternative if you truly want to keep tabs on your competitive landscape: have your current employees take responsibility.

Tasking your existing employees with developing competitive intelligence for small portions of the overall endeavor isn’t that time consuming, and it will allow them to feel like they are part of the strategic planning process. If your company has a sales or marketing department, these employees serve as the ideal candidates for undertaking competitive analyses. They should be familiar with the market to begin with and have contacts throughout the territory which may provide some inside information. To think your sales or marketing staff doesn’t communicate with a competitor or two is rather naïve—it happens, and it’s a reality you can use to your company’s advantage if it’s encouraged instead of frowned upon.

What kind of information do you need from each employee as it pertains to the competitive landscape? Capturing the following competitor data is a good start:
• Strengths
• Weaknesses
• How your company can take advantage of their weaknesses
• How your company can minimize potential threats from the competitor
• Product and service offerings & changes
• Pricing structure & fluctuations
• Plans to expand or consolidate operations
• Management & staffing changes

Most top sales and marketing reps will know this kind of stuff inside and out (on your strongest competitors) without having to do a ton of “homework,” but that doesn’t mean the information is being shared throughout the ranks. Often times it’s not, and that’s a contributing factor as to why there is typically a great divide between the top and bottom performers. This presents an opportunity to improve overall sales performance in addition to other benefits mentioned in this article.

Once you’ve gotten your employees to gather and analyze competitive data, how are you going to efficiently distribute it amongst the ranks? Why not host mandatory weekly strategic meetings to feed this information into your organization’s collective mindset? As co-workers demonstrate a solid understanding of a specific competitor or issue, they become the so-called defacto in-house “expert” on that competitor or issue which their co-workers will value. It will raise mutual respect levels and give employees the opportunity to develop better presentation and teaming skills. Other workers will follow suit, thus increasing your entire company’s competitive intelligence. Choose to focus on one competitor or issue per week, and the meetings won’t infringe too much upon the normal work day. The weekly strategic meetings could be conducted over lunch, as an internal lunch and learn, where you order food for all in attendance in exchange for their undivided attention. Yes, you’ll have to pay some money for food, but it’s cheaper than hiring additional staff, and it raises the bar across the board for your organization to become a more competitively focused entity.

To summarize, the resources are likely within your reach to gather and distribute competitive intelligence throughout your organization if you desire to make this important for your organization. Smaller companies simply don’t devote enough attention to expanding their competitive intellectual capital, and this is a creative way to get more people involved in your strategic efforts and team build while maintaining some cost control.

Roger Bauer is Founder and CEO of SMB Consulting, Inc., a Louisville, Kentucky based small business consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, web design, SEO, sales and marketing, and business analysis. To learn more, point your browser to Business Consulting. To contact a small business consultant today, e-mail info@smbconsultinginc.com.

Product Differentiation? Hardly.

By Roger Bauer

It struck me the other day during lunch at a local Moe’s Southwestern Grill that a new phenomenon has swept the restaurant landscape in the form of poor attempts to differentiate from the competition—renaming accepted terms of business with cutesy nicknames. This is readily visible in the faster food sector, and it’s becoming more prevalent as companies struggle to connect with the consumer in manners which create loyalty and/or preference.

Take Moe’s as a primary example. Personally, I believe they have a very good product to offer, but they’ve gone and out “cuted” themselves with ridiculously silly nicknames for their fare which only serve to confuse and frustrate the customer. It’s easy to see them thinking behind the scenes, but it’s a risky attempt at product differentiation. They’re in fierce competition with franchises such as Qdoba, Baja Fresh, Chipotle, LaBamba, Taco Bell, and Tijuana Flats, (plus many others) but those competitors don’t require a translator to order a simple burrito or taco. Try popping into one of those places one day or night to order a “Joey” or an “Alfredo Garcia.” You’ll get looked at like you have three heads (with good reason).

What would possess a franchise to resort to childish nicknames to try to differentiate themselves? It’s probably an executive’s poor excuse of a marketing concept designed to separate from the competition, but that’s not the type of separation that enables your concept to survive long term. It will ultimately separate them all right—the competition will eventually gain as the initial shtick gives way to annoyance and turns consumers off to the point they prefer the competition even with all other factors being relatively equal.

Sure, things look great for Moe’s presently, and the concept seems “fresh” today, but that can change on a dime without warning. Their current growth could be sapped with one false step because there is less room to wiggle when you’re attempting to retrain your customer base to conform to your concept. What happens if the consumer collectively says “I’m no longer in the mood for Moe?” Would being “cute” be overruled by a desire to becoming truly different (i.e. better)?

Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of positives. Their restaurants are well laid out, the décor is modern, the lighting is appropriate, and the food is tasty not to mention reasonably priced. The physical atmosphere is hip and inviting. There are glaring negatives, too. The staff collectively insisting on yelling “Welcome to Moe’s!” at the top of their lungs as a new customer enters doesn’t make me want to setup shop for very long. I can’t wait to get out so I don’t have to hear that any more than I have to. I’d like a little peace and normalcy with my meal Moe, thanks.

Topping off the frustrating concept Moe’s obviously insists upon cramming down the consumer’s throat is the staff correcting the customer when ordering by the desired ingredients instead of its nickname. You’re not training me Moe, you’re supposed to be providing a quality and quick meal which I am going to ring your register for—don’t correct me, simply make the food, take the money, and let me eat in peace!

Moe’s is not alone in this feeble attempt at differentiation, and they won’t be the last, but the lesson to be learned is to keep customer service just that—customer service. The customer is paying so don’t believe you’re going to train the customer as long as the equation is structured that way. If you begin to pay people to come into your franchise or business, you’re well within your rights to try to train them to do business your way. Stick to doing business as the industry dictates until you develop a better way of doing things. Then, and only then, you will have a true differentiator. Simply renaming a common item or process doesn’t make you different—it makes you contrarian. Don’t confuse the two.

Roger Bauer is Founder and CEO of SMB Consulting, Inc., a Louisville, Kentucky based small business consulting firm specializing in strategic planning, web presence, internet marketing, SEO, technology, and business analysis. To learn more, point your browser to Business Consulting. To contact a small business consultant today, e-mail info@smbconsultinginc.com.

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