Can you improve your competitive/client research?

chess -- competition

Many times, we spend much too much time thinking about what our competitors are doing. More seriously, we often believe that we either don’t (or do) have a problem, when the story is just the opposite. And sometimes we forget the importance of keeping close to our clients — to be ready for signs of significant problems that may be just around the corner.

I’ve seen this situation most clearly in the case of a specialized construction marketing sector where I was engaged to help with some marketing/business analysis. (I can’t name the specific situation because of confidentiality and competitive issues.) My first task in the situation was to get beyond the public information that the competitor had posted and dive more deeply into the real story. It didn’t take too much time to discover there was a lot of air and noise but little substance in the competitive offer. My client didn’t need to worry about the competitive offer and could continue with his business as before.

In another situation, unrelated to the first, a contractor enjoyed a seemingly solid, long-term relationship with a key client that generated thousands of dollars in annual business. Then suddenly, the client switched alliances, throwing all of that business out the window. Within weeks, a seemingly stable situation had become a crisis.

These two points speak for the need to build robust competitive analysis and client feedback systems into your business/relationships. The latter is especially important if your client is a “regular” and seems to require very little maintenance.

(One of our advertising clients for example, routinely renewed $100,000-range contracts each year. Our salesperson would prepare a proposal based on the previous year’s advertising, and once approved, the client would provide “camera ready” ads on schedule, with no need for interaction, approval, or review. Fair enough. But we couldn’t see that budget policy changes were going to blow this business out of the water. I don’t know if any “client retention” efforts would have saved the business, but we certainly felt the pain.)

The question is whether you should conduct your competitive research and client feedback reviews directly, or work with third-party consultants and services.

I think for competitive research, the third-party option makes compelling sense.

First, you won’t easily be able to do anything more than the most superficial interactions with your competitors; while a third-party will be able to separate you from the story, and do the research without the obvious competitive cloud. As well, the researcher won’t be clouded by your own perceptions. You’ll gain new insights.

With client retention, the story is more complicated. I think you can’t really rely on anyone but people in your own organization to maintain client communications and relationships, and it is best that there is more than one person — so if your contact person leaves, you’ll be able to work with someone else.

However, third-party client feedback and survey approaches can elicit truths that you won’t get when everyone is trying to be “nice”. So a hybrid approach is probably a good idea here.

Don’t underestimate the importance of this research. Insights into your competitors and clients will help you avoid pitfalls and discover new opportunities, and the cost of obtaining the information will be far less than most other major marketing initiatives.

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