Firstly, you need to decide exactly what information would be useful and how you will use it. It can be tempting to gather a mass of information but this will just waste time and money unless you can be specific about how it will help you. The type of information you might want to gather could range hugely and might, for example, include your competitor’s:
- product/service range
- future plans
- sales tactics
- competitive advantage
- marketing activities
- customer portfolio
- customer service
- website links.
Whatever you want to find out, ensure that it is information that will have a use and will help you improve your own business. You are then much more likely to maintain your efforts. The real value is in research that is sustainable, you can then monitor changes over time and see how the competition reacts to changes in the industry/sector.
You can gain a great deal of useful information from competitor websites. Bear in mind that these are marketing tools but they can be useful to explore:
- customer experience
- how they want to be perceived
- how they differentiate themselves from the competition
- service level promises
It’s a good idea to sign up to competitor newsletters so you can see what they are issuing and the timing of announcements. It’s also useful to see what sites have linked to your competitors. To do this simply type in ‘link:’ directly before the website address of your competitor, into your browser.
Many businesses rely on industry news and websites to try and assess the competition. Experiencing their service and what they have to offer is hugely valuable. This can be quick and easy:
- telephone them to enquire about their products/service – to assess knowledge
- order/book a service/product and follow the customer service experience through – to assess contact, delivery, after sales care etc
- contact them to see how they deal with a complaint or your desire to return the product
- if your competitors have shops/stores then visit them and make a purchase etc – if, for example, you run a restaurant then eat out at the competition at least once a month. You will then very quickly see any subtle differences.
Free online search
You can gather a great deal of information online – many publications now have their own websites and there are archive services available via some of the national newspapers too. There is a great deal of information you can gather about your competition once you start to delve in. To make the most of it you need to undertake this activity regularly – but think carefully about:
- price – the amount of budget you can set aside for this activity
- quality – the quality of information that you want and need
- time – the amount of time you will need to put aside to keep track of the competition.
Assessing each aspect will help you decide whether to carry out the research yourself or use a third party.
Eyes and ears – customers
Your customers are your eyes and ears. Get talking to them – do they use your products/services exclusively, have they used your competitor’s. If they have given anyone else their trade then they have valuable insight that they can share with you. It can sometimes feel awkward asking customers but using a third party can overcome this. You can then also use the opportunity to assess how the customer views your services/products compared to your competitor’s.
Keeping in touch
Using your networking groups is another way to gain valuable information – poll the people you network with about the sector and their experiences. Extending your network so that you are in regular touch with industry experts is also a useful tool. You will know who these people are in your particular industry. Keeping in touch with contacts at professional, trade or governing bodies as well as with journalists, is a useful way to keep up-to-date with what is going on in the industry. If you work in an area that generates discussion and debate then it may be helpful to track bulletin boards and discussion groups – to keep up-to-date with what is going on as well as keeping out an eye for comments about competitors. For a listing of discussion groups go to: http://groups.google.com/ You may need to sign up for a google group account to view some discussion groups.
Whatever research you do – and whether you do it yourself, or use help, there are two key things to bear in mind. To get most value out of the activity you should view it as a long-term investment in your business – and something which can be maintained over time. Second, your research shouldn’t focus on what your competitors are doing poorly but what they are doing well – it’s what you can learn from that, and how you can apply it to your own business, that is the real key to staying one-step ahead.
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