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A couple uses an umbrella to shield themselves from the rain while walking past a mural of a photographer painted on a wall in Vancouver on March 13, 2011.
A couple uses an umbrella to shield themselves from the rain while walking past a mural of a photographer painted on a wall in Vancouver on March 13, 2011.

Grow: Mark Healy

If you're going to spy, do it right Add to ...

In business, there are some dirty jobs. Carrying out competitive intelligence is one of them.

An earlier column outlined some straightforward guidelines.

Now let’s focus on the four approaches and techniques that are widely accepted as above board:

1. Just ask

As a colleague of mine famously expounds, it’s amazing what people will tell you if you just ask. There is nothing illegal or immoral about picking up the phone and asking people questions.

If the folks on the other end of the line don’t want to give you answers, they won’t.

2. Mystery shopping

This is the most common and most accepted means of garnering competitive information. All of us are consumers, and this approach works best in business-to-consumer environments.

Going through a legitimate retail experience, purchase process and after-sales support can tell you an immense amount on how competitors operate, price and treat customers. What you will typically want to observe and analyze in a mystery shop, especially a retail mystery shop, is this: the arena, the products and the people.

3. The white paper approach

For business-to-business environments, mystery shopping can be difficult, if not impossible. Outside of “just asking,” which will normally be met with skepticism, a white paper approach is probably the only one that will be successful.

It works like this: You have to tell every interview target or person you want to talk to or ask questions of that:

A) You will gather the same information from all competitors.

B) Their confidentiality will be protected (and then you have to follow through).

C) The results will be written up in aggregate and distributed to all parties involved. For example, if you run a business-to-business firm and you want to know what your competitors are planning for after-sales service bundles, you can have a third party interview each competitor, and then publish a three-page white paper on the results. Each competitor could be represented by a letter (company A plans a six-month maintenance program, company B plans two months of free service, and so on).

To close the loop, the white paper needs to be distributed back to everyone interviewed. Industry benchmarks can be an incentive to uncover information.

4. Job postings and recruiting events

If it’s culture or HR-related information you’re interested in gathering, scanning a competitor’s job postings or attending one of their recruiting events can be very instructive. During this process, the competitor is in selling mode, and it is in its best interest to speak clearly about the firm’s work environment, compensation plans and role responsibilities.

Just reading job descriptions or showing up at a job fair can tell you what you want to know.

What is common to the four accepted approaches is that the information sought and found is not secretive or protected. It is publicly available, just not necessarily easy to access.

If what you’re looking for is not in this category, or cannot be uncovered by one of the four approaches above, you are playing a very dangerous game.

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Follow on Twitter: @healymark

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