The nature of my work requires that I spend a great deal of time away from home. Time alone in hotel rooms provides fertile ground for unusual questions to surface. One evening I got to wondering how a hotel concierge learns about the places they recommend. So I asked. I was amazed to discover that, for the most part, they are expected to learn about shops, restaurants, and local attractions on their own time with their own dollars. That got me thinking about how organizations learn about their competition.
(If this apparent leap in subject is uncomfortable for you, get used to it. Not because it is a fault of mine, but because it is a common occurrence when you get serious about asking questions all the time. One interesting question seems to fire brain activity that may appear to be random but with close scrutiny is connected. My experience has been that the effort to find the connection brings little insight, so I’ve learned to ignore the leap and focus on the seemingly new topic. I suggest you do the same.)
I can remember only one time in my corporate career when my employer asked what I knew about our competition. As it happened, I knew quite a lot about a new product that was being introduced by one of our hottest competitors because one of my customers had just gotten a bid from them and had given me a copy. I had read and filed the information. I’m ashamed to admit that it had never occurred to me that this might be important information for the whole organization, and if I hadn’t been asked, it would have remained buried in my file.
Employees are consumers before they are employees, and many of them choose to do business with the organizations that vie for the attention and the dollars of your customers. Or they know people who regularly interact with your competition. How are you mining the information they have?
Even more interesting, there is the possibility that your employees may have some insight that you don’t into who the competition really is. I remember attending an American Booksellers Association BookExpo in 1995 without hearing one bookstore owner mention Amazon.com. I have to believe that many of them had heard about the new company, but most seemed to dismiss it as a fad for the few. They were focusing on the growth of the large bookstore chains, a serious threat to be sure, but nothing compared to the impact of Internet book buying.
I’m pretty confident that out there somewhere is an Amazon.comlike competitor for at least part of your business. Asking this question might just give you the heads-up you need.