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Sales Leadership
Aug 1, 2009 | Canadian Professional Sales Association lock

The impact of global trade means that today’s business environment is changing more rapidly than at any time in history.  Companies can ill-afford to make critical business decisions in a vacuum.  Regardless of the size, complexity or the makeup of your sales force of your company, all are collecting competitive intelligence. Any sales employee who reads a trade journal, attends a trade show or talks to a colleague in the industry can be engaged in competitive intelligence.

According to the Society for Competitive Information Professionals (CIPS) competitive intelligence is a systematic and ethical program for gathering, analyzing and managing external information that can affect your company’s plans, decisions and operations.  Competitive intelligence can benefit your business in a number of different ways:

* Improving your company’s knowledge of its respective markets;
* Improving the quality of your products relative to the competition;
* Improving communications across your organization; and,
* Enhancing confidence in strategic planning.

From the sales perspective, the two major uses for competitive intelligence are:

* To determine how your product features compare to the market; and,
* To identify products and companies to purchase or be purchased by.

Competitive intelligence as a regular business activity has become more important in recent years and the number of information sources has increased exponentially.  The challenge comes in sifting through that data to determine what is valuable, important, and useable. Most people will go first to the Internet in search of competitive intelligence and many companies have public websites.

However a company that relies exclusively on the Internet for its information is sure to be at a disadvantage.  Although basic information can be found at public websites, most companies are careful not to include information that would be valuable to competitors. Third-party sources that contain information that is specific to an industry or company rarely offer information for free.

Sales agents are a great source of competitive information.  They often have previous experience with rival businesses, have worked for different principals in the same industry, have colleagues representing other principals. The following are some tips and ideas to share with your sales agents on how they can gather and share competitive intelligence that will give your company a strategic advantage:

* Categorize competitors. Ask your agents to differentiate the competition. There are different types of competitors and/or products that compete with yours in different ways:

* Key competitors may have half-dozen or fewer products that your sales agents run across again and again in competitive sales.

* Minor competitors are those whose products are sometimes perceived as overlapping or competing with your product, but which are positioned to address a different target customer from yours. It's worth gathering very basic information on these and describing how to clearly differentiate your product from theirs.

* Potential competitors are companies that have been mentioned by prospects every now and then, or that you discover by reading press releases. These are usually products that sell in a target market next to, but not including, your own. It's important to keep tabs on companies that may possibly choose to extend their product to sell against you. Often sales agents are the first to learn about a potential competitor moving into a designated territory.

* Partners. Consider providing a simple analysis of the competitors and positioning of those products that you partner with. Sales agents may be thrown for a loop by challenging questions relating not to your direct competitor, but to a competitor of your partner's product.

* Focus on your strengths vs.  weaknesses.  Ask your sales agents to focus on each competitor's strengths and weaknesses. While it's tempting to discount competitors' strengths and your weaknesses, the first step is to objectively recognize the good and the bad of each player. Strengths and weaknesses can relate to product features, scalability and performance, financial stability of the company, the management team, the customer base, and ability to deliver services.

* List the competitive advantage.  The next time you visit your agents in the field, have them sit down with you to list each strength or weakness along with a message that the sales agent can provide either to undermine a strength or take advantage of a weakness.

Additional tips include:

* Ask for the information regularly.
* Provide competitive information promptly when a sales agent asks for it. That way he or she sees that the information he provides will be put to good use.
* Promptly take any information provided by a sales agent and broadcast it to all your sales distributor network, with thanks to the contributor.
* Update your consolidated competitive information on the Intranet often, so that agents see that their contributions are included.

About the Author:

The Canadian Professional Sales Association (CPSA) is a national organization of 30000 sales and marketing professionals. Members receive significant savings on travel, business costs and more. The CPSA also offers exclusive sales training and certification programs.

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