In CI – better answers start with better questions

Competitive intelligence (CI) is a discipline with the potential to provide organisations with valuable insights in to how to perform better. But like most things, the quality of the output is influenced by the quality of the inputs. In CI, one of the key inputs is the questions that it is expected to answer.

If you’re looking for a phrase to simultaneously sink the spirit of a CI practitioner and cause their blood pressure to rise, try making a request that sounds something like “Can you just tell me about our competitors…

Requests that begin like this risk turning out to be too vague, too broad or too late to be genuinely useful. Whilst it’s part of the CI practitioner’s role to help clients refine their key intelligence question, having put some thought in to what you really want to know beforehand will impress your CI provider and help improve the insights that are delivered.

So how do you get your CI engagement off to a better start? Here’s three simple suggestions to get you started.

1. Be clear on what decision the intelligence will influence.
Producing CI has a cost – either the opportunity cost of the time dedicated by in-house CI or real cash leaving your organisation. If you want the best bang for your CI buck, take the time to think through what decision(s) you are trying to improve by gathering competitive insights.

To get the most value out of CI, the decision you’re engaging CI to help answer should be one that is still to be made, and not something that’s already been decided.

For example, if the CEO has decided to launch a new promotional offer, collecting CI to justify that decision ex-post arguably adds little real value, even if it does allow one to tick the ‘market intelligence’ section of the business case and proceed to the next stage of development. In this situation, there’s potentially more value to be gained from using CI to improves decisions yet to be made, such as:

  • What marketing message should we run? (CI could help determine what messaging competitors are using and hence what will be differentiated.)
  • What media should we use? (CI may be able to advise on competitor advertising behaviour so you know if you are going to be going head-to-head or have clear space.)
  • How should our sales force respond to comparisons with our competitors? (CI can gather information on the strengths and weakness of competitor products to help manage customer comparisons.)
  • When should we launch the offer? (CI might be able to determine if there are particular periods where competitors will be more vulnerable.)

You can also help improve the CI process by providing some context about the decision process itself – such as who the decisions makers are (if not yourself), where the decision will be made (at a meeting? by email?) and when the decision will be made. The latter point is particularly important, and is discussed in more detail later.

2. Explain how different information and insights will help make a better decision
Once you’re clear on the decision CI needs to help make, list the information about the competition that is actually needed to make that decision. Then, next to each item, write down how this information helps to make a better decision. If you can’t be clear on how something improves the decision – strike it off the list!

The items on this list provide guidance on the essential information and topics for the CI practitioner to focus on. At the same time, understanding how different pieces of information contributes to the decision making process can help the more enterprising researcher or analyst to identify other relevant and useful information.

For a small investment of time, a list like this can help improve the likelihood the insights produced are well targeted and relevant to the decision that needs to be made. Your CI analyst or consultant will also appreciate not spending time collecting superfluous information that never gets used.

3. Get CI involved early
If you’re engaging someone to produce CI, get them involved sooner rather than later. Sometimes you’ll get lucky and things will work out. Maybe the information you’re requesting will be on hand or will be simple to produce. Maybe you can find a consultant with enough hours and resources to hit that looming deadline.

But you might not be lucky and instead find yourself having to make do with whatever superficial information can be hurriedly scraped together – or maybe nothing at all. The best way to reduce the risk of this happening is to get CI involved early on the decision making process.

CI has the potential to improve your organisations performance. Following these three simple suggestions can help improve the return from CI by ensuring that relevant information is collected in time to help solve real business problems.

3 thoughts on “In CI – better answers start with better questions

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