Suki Fuller is UK Partner and Representative at Institute for Competitive Intelligence and an Analytical Storyteller at Miribure Ltd.
The UK is a hotbed of enterprise, with over 5.4 million SMEs, and every year more and more people are deciding to start up their own company. For an SME owner, this means increased competition which isn’t necessarily a bad thing; that is unless they don’t make intelligence gathering a business priority.
Scanning the competitive landscape and gathering strategic intelligence might sound like something every business does automatically, but even the most established, multinational companies sometimes take their eye off the ball. For a small company, it’s easy to get embroiled in the day to day, and forget how important it is to continuously gather information about your customers, competitors and the wider market.
I mentor a number of small firms, and a big part of my role is to challenge and force them to look outward. I help them break down the intelligence gathering process and make it something that just happens iteratively.
It’s Easy to Have a Blind Spot
To start with, we look at the key intelligence question – what do they want to answer? This could be something like ‘how do I differentiate my product’? or, ‘where are the greatest market opportunities’? Many small firms think they have answered this question, especially if their balance sheet doesn’t look too bad. But it’s easy to have a blind spot, especially if your business is well established.
Once the key intelligence question is established, the information gathering begins, and this is about more than market research. If you owned a supermarket and your key intelligence question was ‘how can I increase sales of milk?’ it would be prudent to visit your competitors and see how much a pint costs at each supermarket. But this information alone isn’t particularly useful unless you analyse it and agree a plan of action. For said supermarket owner, this could involve a detailed examination of their competitors supply chains, customer data, and an evaluation of current sales volumes, among other things. This helps take that insight from quantitative to qualitative, making it altogether more useful.
The data gathering and analysis can often be intertwined, and take longer than anticipated dependent on what information you gather. However being thorough at this stage can give your business a huge competitive advantage if you’re willing to invest the time and energy.
Using Your Information
Once the analysis is complete, the final stage is dissemination. Now you have a wealth of analysed information, what are you going to do? If you’re that supermarket owner, you might consider adjusting point of sale materials, changing your price point, increasing the range of milk products available or even scaling it back to focus on fewer core products.
Whatever action you take, it’s important that you challenge yourself; after all, you might need to do something that feels risky or makes you nervous. Sometimes the least comfortable course of action is the right one. Kodak is a good example – they refused to see digital photography as a viable disruptive technology and retained their focus on film based photography. In other words, they didn’t stray from their comfort zone, and consequently filed for bankruptcy in 2012.
I’m not suggesting that every business that sticks to a traditional model will fail, but I do passionately believe that seeking advice and securing expert consultancy from someone outside of your business enhances the intelligence gathering process. That can only be a good thing for an SME focused on growth in an increasingly competitive world.