The Importance of the Voice of the Competitor (VOTC)

businesswoman with binocular in front  office building - © Igor Mojzes - Fotalia

Why do so many organizations fail to listen to the voice of the competitor?

Hubris.

And while hubris is not new, whether we are talking about Roman Emperors or Business Leaders in the 21st century, it is clear that Hubris is still an organization killer.

But what can inoculate us from the disease?

I believe the simplest and most straightforward way to protect against hubris is to bring the outside world in.

Bring the voice of the competitor’s customers, the voice of their partners, and the voice of their products into your own building. Make it clear that the competitor should not be ignored.  Make it clear that the competitor can and should be beaten.  And when they cannot, make it clear under what circumstances they are likely to win, regardless of your best efforts.

What about VOC? – “Voice of the Customer”

Many organizations have buckets of data on their own customers.  They have so much data on their own customers that they send them Christmas cards, birthday cards, mailers of every kind, and in many cases they essentially know what their own customers are going to want before those same customers know it themselves.

But does all this data, on your own customers, lead to insight on where the market is headed?  Does it help you win new customers or enter new markets?

It may.  But likely and sadly it does not in the grand majority of cases.

This is because of having a bucket of (even big…) data on your own customers is only half of the picture you need.  And a focus on only half of the picture is evident everywhere you look in many large companies.

For example if you were to walk into a typical meeting in a large company you might find that much of the discussion centers on who the company’s customers “are” or “are not.”  You’re also likely to find that much of the discussion keeps returning to the same customer archetypes.  In addition, if you were to jump into a time machine, you might find these very same archetypes being discussed 5, 10, or even 15 or 20 years ago, perhaps in the very same conference rooms.

In addition, some companies, particularly those of long standing, turn these customer archetypes into a company creation story, one that typically goes back to the dawn of the organization.  In this story the company “gets” a certain type of customer.  In fact, in this story, they are the only ones who “get” the needs of this particular customer in a particular industry.

In this type of environment the Voice of the Competitor is muted, so much so in fact the competitor appears incapable of meeting the needs of anyone.

But what if someone else has met the customer’s requirements, fully and completely?  So completely in fact that you weren’t even given a seat at the negotiating table?

Here are just a few classic examples of companies that failed to listen to the Voice of the Competitor:

  • Digital Equipment Corp. – PC’s will never beat microcomputers.
  • Compaq – Clone manufacturers become “good enough.”
  • Kodak – Digital isn’t as good as film.
  • Sears – Kmart won’t steal our customers.
  • Kmart – Walmart won’t steal our customers.
  • Walmart – Dollar stores won’t steal our customers.

So what can help move us:

  1. From competitor profiles that are based on myth to those that are based on fact?
  2. Toward an understanding of a customer’s Key Buying Criteria that is objective and not rooted in our own preconceptions?
  3. Toward a complete understanding of the “job” that the market wants done today as opposed to yesterday?

Marrying our knowledge of our current customer with that of the Voice of the Competitor.

So how, does an organization effectively bring the Voice of the Competitor into the building?  How do they make it so that they truly understand how the competitor is being successful and decide where to go head-to-head and where to differentiate?

Finding the Competitor’s Customers

The first step is to find the competitor’s customers. And fortunately that process is much easier than it would have been in years past.

In fact, you can identify a large number of your competitor’s customers, you can identify their partners, and you can identify influencers.  You can even clearly see the messages that they are pushing to customers across various sales and marketing channels.  All of which leads to you bringing the voice of the competitor into your building. A process which will keep your own sales, marketing, strategy, and product development efforts more in line with the world around you.

Reverse Engineering a Customer List

Why “Reverse Engineering” you might ask?  Because misappropriating a list of your competitor’s customers is very likely to be against the law and will typically be considered unethical even if not strictly illegal.

But what is completely above board is looking for and building out a list of your competitor’s customers from open source intelligence assets (OSINT).

What follows are just a few examples:

  1. You can mine LinkedIn profiles to look for instances where the competitor’s products are mentioned.  In some cases, profiles will list a product as skill that was acquired on the job.  This technique also works particularly well in industries that are more technical or are engineering oriented.
  2. Mining job postings can be fruitful. You should begin by looking for job postings that mention the competitor’s products or services.  Seeing a competitor’s products in an organization’s job posting is a clear sign that the products are in use (or soon will be) by that company.
  3. A competitor’s own case studies can contain a treasure trove of data.  You can see the types of companies they have sold to and even get a sense of what industries they have successfully worked with in the past.
  4. Broad based social media mining, across Twitter and other social networks, can also uncover customers who are commenting about the competitor’s products and where they are currently in use.

But these are just a few of the ways in which you might identify a company’s current customers.

The important thing to note is that none of these approaches involve mining your own CRM system for losses.  While we don’t discount CRM based loss data entirely, we feel an overreliance on it can be problematic. Simply because loss based data, by itself, can’t meaningfully answer the following questions:

  1. Why didn’t we even have a seat at the table when the customer was making a decision?
  2. What customer segments are our competitors active in today that we are not?
  3. What verticals are our competitors active in today that we are not?
  4. What type of geographies are our competitors active in today that we are not?

In short, if you filter your analysis down to where you play today you likely won’t see the full playing field that you and your competitors play on.  If you lack that kind of full court visibility you might be enhancing your competitor’s long-term chances at the expense of yours.

Sean Campbell is CEO of Cascade Insights, a competitive intelligence research firm serving technology companies. His most recent book is Going Beyond Google: Gathering Internet Intelligence (now in its fifth edition).

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