Voice of the Competitor Research Must Listen to Partners

businesswoman looking through binoculars in building - © Igor Mojzes - Fotalia

Outside of the competitor’s customers, what other voice do we need to hear from when conducting Voice of the Competitor (VOTC) research?

A competitor’s partners.

This may seem an interesting choice given these organizations are not strictly customers per se.

However, the role these organizations play as an information broker is vital.

The ability of a partner network to limit or promote certain messages can make or break the fortunes of a company. In fact, this effect has been widely studied and discussed in a number of popular books such as Co-Opetition and The Wide Lens.

As Ron Adner puts it in The Wide Lens, understanding your partners is important because “when you rely on partners to enable your success, your success becomes vulnerable to your partners progress.”

But if this is so why do companies frequently fail to research their competitor’s partner networks as well?

Why do they not ask questions like the following?

  1. What drives a partner to join the competitor’s partner program?
  2. What benefits (direct and indirect) do they receive from joining the program?
  3. How many of our current partners are also partners of the competitor?
  4. If a partner organization could only join one program (ours or theirs) which one looks better on paper? Which one looks better after 1 year of being in the program?
  5. Is the competitor’s partner program growing or shrinking?
  6. What type of role does the competitor’s partner program play in their business success?

Unfortunately, in many cases, organizations assume that each partner is a captive asset. Thereby treating partners as if they were a “child” business rather than a business in their own right. Expecting them to be more interested in what their “parent” is doing than the world around them.

In fact, the great majority of your partners are very aware of the options they have before them. Which is one of the reasons interacting with your own partners and those of the competitor can generate such solid insights. Each partner is a sensor or sorts, listening and sifting through the stream of offers and counter-offers that other potential partners (your competitors) might be able to provide.

In fact, we like to say that 1 partner interview is worth 5 customer interviews because a partner interacts with more of the market on a daily, weekly, monthly, and yearly basis than any typical customer might.

Unfortunately, many organizations see their partners as only receiving communication from one channel. Themselves.

And in fact, there is not just one reason (that 1:5 ratio) but two reasons you might talk to partners.

Seeing Beyond the Event Horizon

For many obvious and practical reasons there is information about your competitor that you will never have access to on a first hand basis. Beyond any practical ethical and legal considerations that might leap to mind, you simply don’t work in the competitor’s building and therefore your knowledge of operations, investments, future plans, etc. are going to be through second-hand sources.

But if you consider yourself to be first and foremost a reporter of true market conditions as a researcher you are going to want to find the most efficient pathway to the truth.

And partners provide a highway.

For example, your competitors are regularly speaking to their partners (and potentially yours) about why they are a good buy. Common topics of conversation include:

  1. The Competitor’s Product Futures
  2. Current Pricing Models
  3. Future Pricing Models
  4. Expansion Plans
  5. Competitor Counter-Pitches

What’s perhaps most interesting is that as your competitor pitches themselves to new partners many of the same subject areas mentioned above are also covered in these conversations. Hence your own partners may have visibility into the very questions outlined above. Simply because they’ve been pitched by the competition. But you’ll only know that if you take the time to reach out and ask.

Also we provide the same advice here that we did when talking about interacting with the competitor’s customers. Don’t just interact with partners who are currently engaged with you or the competitor. Look for those partners in regions, industries, or segments who have yet to commit to either of you. These more agnostic players can sometimes provide a clear signal as to where the market may be headed next and what your future (and those of your competitors) might be in it.

Identifying Partners

Fortunately, with the right amount of effort, partners can be easily identified and then inserted into VOTC research efforts.

Some examples include:

  • A company’s own partner conference – As many of a company’s own partners are working with organizations that they compete with. Either indirectly or directly. That’s why it’s called co-opetition.
  • Partner portals – These are put up by the competition or third parties. In many cases you’ll be able to quickly to identify partners in your region or focus area.
  • Business social networks and web searches – Since partners have their own business to lead and drive, they will be driving their own evangelism, marketing, and sales efforts. Therefore, even simple Google searches can turn up a wide range of potential partners to talk to.

In sum, finding a competitor’s partners isn’t usually the hard part. Think about it – they want to be found. What is important for Voice of the Competitor research is to have a plan to engage these organizations from the start of the research effort, and to have the right questions in hand when the conversations start.

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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