Competitive Intelligence Acquisition, Management, and Sales Ethics
From Competitive Intelligence and the Sales Force: How to Gain Market Leadership Through Competitive Intelligence
By Jöel Le Bon, PhD
(A Business Expert Press Book)
Competitive Intelligence Acquisition, Management, and Sales Ethics
If you don’t know your customers, you don’t know your competitors! —JLB
Chapter 3 described how key individual and organizational factors can be leveraged to foster salespeople’s competitive intelligence attitude (CIA) and motivation toward competitive intelligence missions. Because intelligence quality and sales performance ultimately happen at the salesper- son–customer dyad level, this chapter exposes salespeople’s field investiga- tion strategies, describes how to organize incoming intelligence, and notes ethical issues at stake with regard to competitive intelligence activities.
Competitive Intelligence and the Infiltrated Salesperson
Strategies for Customer-Based Intelligence Acquisition
As stated previously, organizations should be open to any kind of compet- itive information. Overall, quality pertains to exhaustiveness, frequency, speed, and source trustworthiness. However, for a salesperson to obtain quickly what sales and marketing managers seek, they must turn to their relationships with key customers. Overall, the quality or quantity of com- petitive information collected and transmitted fully depends on the salesperson’s willingness and ability to get it from the right customers.
“For me it is important. I am very sensitive to this because of my experience in a marketing department where I became aware of the importance of information we get from the field…. To get this information, you need to make people talk, build trust. But first, you need to be curious. I know my market very well, I look at everything. Now, for competitors’ negotiated terms and prices, you have to obtain it from the customer. And for this, you need to have great relationships with them! Each salesperson should have one or two customers with whom they get along very well and to whom they can ask many things. This is what my Director of Sales requests. Relationship is what matters! One day you help your customers, the next one they help you.”
—Sales representative, consumer goods company
“It is about intimacy. If you don’t know the right people, it does not work. This is part of privileged relationships with buyers. A relationship happens through long-term, not short-term. I can judge my relationship if I can ask something without embarrassing the person. A relationship makes you get confidential information. When there are big negotiations, people don’t give you the price, but they make you understand it. The mistake is not to listen and not to let the customer divulge himself.”
—Sales representative, B2B company
“For example on X, the market leader, decided to change the pack- aging and have a smaller bottle. Our marketing department knew it was coming, but we did not know the new bottle price. We were in a meeting, we took a break, and we all called people we knew. Ten minutes after, we got their price! Then we changed our pack before them and priced it below their price. The market leader had to put a promotional sticker on each of their bottles to be less expensive than us, and they did not have the time to change their bottle either. So they ended up having a bigger bottle than us, but a lower price. It cost them a fortune!”
—Sales representative, consumer goods company High quality, relevant, timely intelligence sharing happens in the buyer–seller relationship. It is personal!
An organization would not even have to establish a competitive intelli- gence strategy to assemble information from the market and work hard on cross-validating it if its sales force was always kept informed by key customer sources. Just as in a crime scene or news investigation, if the culprit was to confess everything and information sources recounted everything they knew accurately, the job would be easy. But this is rarely the case, and likewise, orga- nizations must strategize about their intelligence collection and consolidation.
For salespeople, intelligence gathering happens through market infiltra- tion, an approach as old and efficient as the very history of intelligence. Even government intelligence agencies know perfectly well that human abilities and sources cannot be replaced fully by technologies or systems if they want to look for, transmit, and interpret sensitive information.
We do not mean to compare salespeople to spies, though as human sources of information, they are the eyes and ears of their company, the ones shaking hands, having lunch, or playing golf with customers and com- petitors. They know whom to talk to, they know when, they know how, and they know to reciprocate to maintain quality relationships.
Thus salespeople earn and own trusting customer relationships. This simple fact of possession gives them the necessary credentials to collect various types of information that no one else can attain. Knowledge is in the market, and the market is outside, but salespeople can bring it inside. As we described in Chapter 1 (Figure 1.3), when the accessibility of infor- mation is low and its importance is high, firm-level intelligence may come close to espionage. But because salespeople can obtain this information easily and with the consent of the information holder, it does not fall out- side the law. This is what we mean by market infiltration: not more but also not less than trusting, unique salesperson–buyer relationship.
To strategize market infiltration, salespeople should attend to two main elements. First, they need to build a pool of reliable informants. Second, they need to know how to prompt their informants to reveal information.
Building a Pool of Reliable Informants
Building a pool of reliable informants is the first step in high quality field intelligence gathering. This pool might comprise customers, as well as competitors and other stakeholders.
To build pools of trustworthy customers, salespeople should address four important source considerations: level of expertise, quality consis- tency, level of connectedness, and relationship closeness:
· . Level of expertise of the source. The more a source of information is knowledgeable about an industry, the business, or competitors, the more likely his or her judgments of the overall quality of the information being shared with the salesperson are accurate.
· . Quality consistency of the source. If the source is accustomed to having and sharing high quality information, he or she likely has access to additional such information and offers good value through the information he or she shares.
· . Level of connectedness of the source with other important sources of information. A good source of information has a personal network of good informants who are also aware of what is going on in the industry or field. The extent to which the source is connected to other good sources of information increases his or her ability to receive high quality information.
· . The level of relationship closeness between the source and the information recipient (i.e., the salesperson). Information is more likely to be shared by people who care about the recipients and know what is important to him or her. The stronger the relationship between these two sides, the greater the likelihood that the information source will provide high quality information quickly.
· Pools of informants also might include competitors. The focal organization’s salespeople and competitors’ salespeople usually know one another; over time, they also might build trustworthy relationships. They perform the same job, call on the same customers, meet each other after sales calls, share the same pressures, and exchange information about cus- tomers. When they talk to each other about their respective companies’ projects, interesting competitive information might get shared.
· “We also get competitive information from the competition itself for example when having lunch with other salespeople. You just need to have general conversations and then you get more into details and some people might reveal interesting things, tell you about their great new product which is coming out…. This hap- pens, but there is a way to do it. The salesperson job is a very lonely one, and when you meet a colleague from another company who faces the same problems, stress as you do, we feel close to each other. Much information can be shared this way too!”