Chief Executive Officer
Over the past 10 years, I’ve seen a lot of client side competitive intelligence teams come and go. I’ve come to realize that there are five key reasons that these client side competitive intelligence teams die:
- The lack of a professional services mentality.
- Absent or outdated buyer personas.
- The prioritization of kingdom building over engagement.
- Unclear team roles.
- Leaders that smother innovation.
The Wrong Mentality
If you’re an internal competitive intelligence team, you don’t own the product, the marketing, the sales, or the big decisions.
What you do own is a professional services firm embedded within a larger firm that sells products or services.
To survive and to thrive, you have to own the success or failure of that service. In other words, you need a professional services mentality.
Successful competitive intelligence teams should evaluate their processes and costs. Consider the following questions:
Do you use the same project life cycle on all or most of your projects?
In my experience, I’ve noticed that project life cycles tend to be unique to the individual. Each person has their own project style. Therefore, the project life cycle varies greatly with the individual who kicks off the project.
This sort of variety can make costs and timelines difficult to correctly anticipate.
Are you able to cost how long it takes your team to do different types of output?
An external vendor would probably do this as a matter of course.
However, if you’re an internal team, you might not have put much effort into figuring out how much it costs for your team to do certain things.
You should though, because it’s important to know.
You’ll learn not only where your team spends the bulk of their time, but where your team is getting overloaded.
For example, figure out how long it takes to create a board-level briefing, a conference deck for an internal event, a report on a tracking study, a briefing on the focus groups you just attended, etc.
Do you have a process for structuring and assigning new research projects?
Having an established process for structuring and assigning projects is key to getting the effort off on the right foot.
This process will also keep project costs down, since time won’t be needlessly wasted getting the team reorganized after inevitable miscommunications down the road.
From what I’ve seen, most internal teams don’t have a process for assigning new projects. Their process is often a conference room, a whiteboard, and an hour long conversation each week.
That’s just not enough to get everyone on the same page and team roles established.
Do you decline projects when you’re overloaded? Any good research firm or team should do this.
Overloading your team is going to bring the quality of the output down. A lot. Worse, your stakeholders will notice. I guarantee it.
So, the next time you bring your team together, have a group discussion about the process you use to run your projects and how to generalize that process to get everyone on the same page.
In keeping with a professional services mentality, there are some metrics that you should definitely be tracking.
- Repeat business. How often do your analysts generate a recurring stream of work from a stakeholder team? How often is it that your analysts aren’t offered follow-up work after a project that involves a given set of stakeholders? Are some analysts consistently getting follow-up work while others are consistently not?
- Schedule variance. If an individual analyst is always running over schedule regardless of the project, and regardless of which vendor they are working with – you want to know about it. Obviously, there are a lot of variables that go into whether a project is delayed or put on hold, but you do want to have a sense of your team’s ability to meet deadlines.
- Project backlog. This is a way of looking at whether your entire team is in demand. You shouldn’t have a backlog that extends into infinity. If that’s the case, you should hire more people. If you have no backlog and you’re always scratching for the next project, you either have too many people or you don’t have the right relationships with stakeholder teams to keep projects coming in.
Missing Buyer Personas
A lack of focus on buyer personas is another common reason why competitive intelligence teams fizzle out.
Just like sales and product management should have buyer personas for their customers, you should have buyer personas for the stakeholders of your research.
To understand your research stakeholders, you should answer these questions.
How often has a given type of buyer engaged with your team? Do you typically work with product management, executive leadership, marketing, or sales?
Does your service offering meet the needs of those buyers?
Do you have the right kind of research assets and products to meet the needs of those buyers?
The next time you get your team together, discuss your research stakeholders.
How many different types of personas does your team think you provide services for over the span of a quarter, a month, or a year?
When you look at the team’s typical deliverables, are they more aligned with a certain type of buyer persona?
Kingdom Building, Crumbling Engagement
Unfortunately, kingdom building has been the downfall of more than one internal competitive intelligence team.
In one instance, I saw a team that was ensuring that all of the research projects throughout the entire Fortune 500 company went through them. They spent years working with procurement to ensure that this would happen.
That’s kingdom building. That’s not engagement.
Another team spent months making sure individuals doing competitive intelligence throughout the entire company reported back to them.
A different team forced all types of research to go through them to make sure that it was reviewed by one centralized team.
Again, that’s kingdom building.
Now in each of these cases, the team may have had an initially good motive.
However, in all three cases, the research power structure was the priority while the quality of the research itself deteriorated.
Getting engagement should be the priority, not playing king of the hill.
Engagement means tracking whether people actually like what you’re building.
This runs the gamut.
Take newsletters, for example. Many insights teams send out newsletters to keep stakeholders updated on their research.
However, many of these teams don’t track anything more than the occasional (and highly qualitative) high five they get when someone says, “Thanks for sending this.”
A much better way to evaluate newsletter engagement is to track opens and clicks.
Same thing for email briefings. There are a number of different tools that show whether an email was opened, whether links were clicked, etc.
For every output, there is a way to evaluate engagement.
Consider the number of participants you get in virtual or in-person read-outs. Who is in your audience? Is there a stakeholder group that is just not showing up? Why?
You also want to track how many times you’ve engaged with a given buyer persona. How many times have you talked with marketers in the last month, quarter or year? What about sales execs? Product management?
Another key thing to measure is the number of decisions that you’ve impacted.
This is probably the most important engagement metric that you can work toward.
You demonstrate the value of your work when you show that, over the last year, your research has prompted a change in product features, a new go-to-market plan, an altered sales strategy, etc.
A good way to start the process of moving from kingdom building to engagement is to ask your team about examples of kingdom building that they have experienced either with their current team or one they’ve worked on in the past. Then have a discussion about how well that worked out.
Also ask the team for examples of engagement that your team has seen in the past. What was the outcome of a focus on engagement?
Playing Out of Position
Having your team members playing out of position is another route to the demise of a competitive intelligence team.
Ask yourself, “Have I hired staff that fits with the business model for my group? Is this staff aligned with the vision of the stakeholders that we need to serve?”
A common mistake with competitive intelligence teams is to hire a group that’s disproportionately represented by one archetype. A team of starting pitchers, overrun by quarterbacks, one too many point guards, etc.
This happens a lot.
If I look at competitive intelligence and even competitive intelligence teams, I typically see a lot of smart people on those teams. Unfortunately, I don’t always see a balanced team.
I don’t see folks who are really good at secondary research paired up with people who are great at primary research. I don’t see data scientists sitting right next to industry analysts.
I also don’t see people who have been designated the engagement manager or project manager to keep the analysts on track. As the team grows, that’s a defined role that you need to create.
In sum, consider how many different types of players you have on your team.
Do you have an overabundance of data scientists or a lack thereof? Do you have one too many quant researchers and not enough people focused on qual?
What type of players would you need to impact the greatest number of decisions across the company?
All too often, teams are impeded by leaders who won’t get out of the way.
What I mean by that is probably best expressed by this quote from Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale:
“Leadership must be based on goodwill. Goodwill does not mean posturing and, least of all, pandering to the mob. It means obvious and wholehearted commitment to helping followers. We are tired of leaders we fear, tired of leaders we love, and most tired of leaders who let us take liberties with them. What we need for leaders are men of the heart who are so helpful that they, in effect, do away with the need of their jobs. But leaders like that are never out of a job, never out of followers.”
For many leaders of competitive intelligence and competitive intelligence teams out there, it isn’t that they aren’t tracking things, monitoring, or aren’t involved. It’s that they’re too involved.
If you think you might be one of those leaders, consider these questions:
- How often does your team interact directly with stakeholders?
- How often does your team find their own work with those stakeholders?
- How often does your team deal directly with the stakeholders’ criticisms?
If your answer was “never” to any of these questions, you’re probably too involved.
Avoid these pitfalls, and your competitive intelligence team has a good chance at not only surviving, but thriving.
Sean Williams is the CEO and Founder of Cascade Insights, a B2B Market Research firm focused on the technology industry. Sean drives the company's marketing and thought leadership efforts and enjoys sharing best practices and tips on topics such as professional services firm leadership, marketing and competitive intelligence as a discipline.
Sean began his career in the technology industry where he founded 3 Leaf Solutions, a Technology Evangelism firm focused on the B2B technology industry. He is the author of an e-book, Going Beyond Google: Gathering Competitive Intelligence. Sean may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org