Don't ignore corporate intelligence
Good research can help you find a job, make a sale, and beat the competition

The ability to gather good information about a company is one of the most under-rated business skills. Yet few universities teach the subject, and firms specializing in corporate intelligence are almost non-existent in Canada.

Most business research is done for investment purposes. But we don't just invest in businesses; we also apply to them for jobs, solicit charitable donations, and sell them products. Good corporate intelligence can help us do all of these things more effectively.

For most purposes, such as scouting out potential sales leads or job prospects, standard research techniques such as visiting a company's Web-site, or checking out its regulatory filings at, or are more than adequate.

These will generally give you a good idea of what a company does, who its top managers are, and -- in the case of public companies - their financial position and the salaries of its top officers. Your stockbroker or online trading provider can also be a good source.

The big problem with much of this information is that it's filtered through corporate public relations departments. Their job it is to give you information they want you to have, and not much else.

By far the most important role of corporate research for top executives is to get information on direct competitors; their products, pricing strategy, capabilities, strengths, weaknesses, key employees, the list is endless. You can't know too much about your competition.

Talk to the top executives in any industry long enough and although they won't admit it at first, you'll soon find they know just about all the key details their main competitors.

Those that don't are either losers who are liabilities to the companies they work for, or they work in sectors -such as monopolies or government - where there is no competition.

Giving specific examples about corporate intelligence gathering is tough, because those who are best at it never talk about it. Top executives would sooner discuss their favorite sex practices as talk about their intelligence gathering techniques, many of which appear at first glance as just part of the ordinary course of doing business.

By far the most common method is seemingly idle chatter at industry conventions, business lunches and so on. Many senior business leaders have already accumulated industry knowledge through decades of experience, which often comes from stints at three or four companies many of whom are now competitors. The gossip, chit cat, and networking keeps this information up-to-date. Meetings with suppliers who also sell to top competitors are particularly important, because this can also be a good way of leaking dis-information.

Another excellent technique is to hire an employee away from a competitor. In many cases, even if the new employee is otherwise useless, his insights into his former employer's pricing policies, competitive advantages, big customers and general strategies can be invaluable.

Indeed, just the process of "fishing," -- interviewing prospects that work for the competition, even if the executive has little or no intention of hiring them--is a particularly inexpensive and effective intelligence gathering technique.

Another good opportunity is when a competitor comes up for sale either through a succession or bankruptcy. Shrewd executives will immediately make inquiries, and possibly even offers (though seldom in writing) even if that don't have a serious intention of completing the deal.

That's because potential buyers usually get access to excellent information about the competitor. This includes his books, interviews with top executives (you want to be sure management is going to stick around when you buy a company) and if you are lucky his accounts receivable list, which gives a good idea of his customer base.

As is the case with interviewing a competitor's employees, those using this information gathering technique will never reveal, often even to himself or herself, what they are really doing.

Probably the most crucial information that businessmen need about their competitors comes when they lose a big order or bid, yet this is the time many will lose their cool. Most will lower their heads, thank the prospect, promise to stay in touch, and shuffle out.

The smart ones will take the opportunity to find out from the potential customer which competitor won the contract and why his company did not. Was the price too high? The product no good? The delivery dates too long?

The sharpest businessmen know that this is not the last time they will run into the same competitor. And if they find out why they lost the order, they can correct the mistake in time for the next run-in.


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