Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Tap Your Connections for Bigger and Better Intelligence

By Pranita Sharma
Director, Market Research Operations

Many years ago, I was invited to participate in a market research study in India. It was part of global Voice of the Customer research to identify top trends in medical procedures, in particular, radiology and interventional radiology. As any market research study entails, we lined up a group of radiologists (both users and non-users of our product) for some in-depth interviews. This market research study was one of the most engaging and informative experience of my life. What was truly amazing was the level of details coming from the non-customers. At some point, while giving a speech thanking them for taking part in the study, I asked them what made them decide to participate.

It turned out that each of these customers had a very positive interaction with one of the sales representative of the company in the past. So much so, that the goodwill carried through the years and when they were approached for the study, they said yes without any hesitation. No compensation asked. Over the years, this experience has stayed with me. And it has come very handy as I have pursued a career in competitive intelligence (CI).

The primary role of the CI individual is to gather intelligence and produce insights from the vast amount of data collected. So how can we gather the best possible data and provide relevant information in a timely manner? Let’s dissect this a little.

There are the public sources of data such as company annual reports, company press releases, news, industry journals/magazines, advertisements, webinars, patents, executive profiles, regulatory filings that you could utilize. As CI professionals we have become experts in collecting information using these sources. The downside of this method is the info dwells on the history and does not provide much information about the current and future status of the company.

And then there is a new frontier for data collection – one that is gaining a lot of traction and that is social media intelligence. LinkedIn, Facebook, Pinterest, Google, SlideShare, Twitter have provided new means for CI professionals to collect information. I doubt that the CI professionals can reap the benefits of collecting data via social media for long. I am sure within the next few years, there will be a heavy company scrutiny over what is posted/published by the employees on these public portals as a result much of the readily available information may not be available.

Until that day comes, one can use intelligence tools (such as Squirro or Inside View or SalesForce) to gather intelligence in awesomely efficient ways. By utilizing a tremendous amount of data, these intelligence tools can give you a broad scope overview of sales figures and drill down to information about individual customers and leads.

In addition to these methods of gathering information, what has really worked for me is to tap into my connections. Build up your network and take advantage of it, using both internal and external sources. This means not only reaching out to customers and non-customers but reaching out to the distributors, suppliers, industry experts and even some of my LinkedIn contacts who may be 2nd or 3rd connections. Internally, the sales team are a great source of information and so are the non-sales staff, including new hires.

This type of intelligence gathering, through interpersonal contact is called HUMINT (Human Intelligence). There are pros and cons to this type of intelligence gathering.   It’s cost effective, flexible in terms of data collection, real-time and quality information.  On the flip side, the CI network takes time to develop and requires maintenance.

As a CI professional, where I am constantly challenged to hunt for new information, I tap into my connections to give me some direction and insight. If they cannot help me, they will suggest someone who can. In the event I need expert information, there are organizations that provide this information for a minimal fee. This arrangement has worked very well for me. Of course, expect to be on the other side if anyone requests your input.

Once the data gathering process is complete, it is important to present this information in a practical and efficient manner. Let’s face it, our executives are busy. They need crisp, high-level insights. They are not interested in pages and pages of information. They do not have time to read them. What has worked for me is to find a format that works for both you and the team. Very early in my career, someone had suggested to me, “Make sure you are able to tell your 30 minute story in 3 minutes.” These words of wisdom have helped me tremendously. In a majority of my reports/presentations, I have a one-page document with bullet points that succinctly provides a high-level overview of the findings. I also try to include “So what?” element to my findings so the executives can understand the implications of the research.

Realize that CI cannot answer each and every question. However, with a disciplined data gathering and dissemination process, CI can continue to act as a value-add to your organization.


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