Bombarded by Market Change?
Use Fresh Information to Compete and Win
by Mary Adams and Michael Oleksak

In many industries, executives are beginning to see a light at the end of the tunnel. The economy is warming up and many customers are once again talking about buying. But it has been a long, cold trip down the tunnel. When you emerge, you will find that your market has changed from what it was four or five years ago. To be successful in the coming years, you must reacquaint yourself with your marketplace and recast your business to fit the new reality. The key starting point for future success is fresh information. Here's how to gather and use valuable information about your industry and company.

Check your assumptions at the door

Before you start, a warning. You know your business well and probably interact with customers every day. So your gut reaction may be that you don't need to take the time to bone up on the "obvious" information about your industry. In fact, much of the market information accepted as "gospel" within companies is actually a distorted or outdated version of the truth. Another good reason to start with new information is the significant risk that what you don't know will hurt you. For these and many other reasons, it is worth taking the time to gather the best possible new information to chart your future course.

Designate a point person

As with any other task, intelligence gathering won't get done unless it is someone's responsibility. Pick a point person and make sure that he or she has enough time to complete this job. This person may be in the marketing department or, at larger companies, in the strategic planning or business development department. He or she should have two main responsibilities. The first is to make sure good, fresh information is gathered and disseminated to the management team that contributes to strategic decisions. The tasks of gathering information can be delegated to others, but the point person must consolidate the information and control for quality. The second task is to be an advocate for a follow-up process to ensure that your company actually applies this new information to your future plans.

Surf and read

The quantity of information available today is both a blessing and a curse. Sometimes the biggest challenge is figuring out what to read. Here are a few ideas to guide you.

In terms of sources, start with industry Internet portals and magazines (most magazines also have an on-line, searchable version). Look for overview articles. Good terms to plug into a search engine include "outlook," "trends," and "industry" (plus the name of your specific industry). As you read, you will see themes repeated. Select a few of the best articles to include in your information package.

In terms of content, look for information you would need to describe your industry and competition if you were writing a term paper. This may sound simplistic, but think of it as zero-based information gathering. It is the only way to make sure you are sufficiently thorough. Start with a basic description of the industry (size, growth, etc.). Detail the segments, describe the competition, and outline the trends. You will probably see the lines between your business and related industries or segments becoming fuzzy; make sure you describe these related industries too.

Talk to your customers

Presumably, you talk to your customers all the time. However, your ongoing conversations with them are likely about your current offering(s) and their current challenges. For this project, however, you need a broader perspective. Some of the questions you will want to ask include:

  • "What has been your experience with the company to date?"

  • "How do we compare with the competition?"

  • "What are your biggest challenges going forward?"

  • "Do you see our products/services as potentially helping with those challenges?"

  • "What is the one area where we could improve our offering?"

In order to get fresh information, you should use someone who is not part of the everyday relationship to speak with your customers. It can be an outsider hired for this purpose or, at a minimum, someone from outside your company's customer service or account management departments.

Use internal information, carefully

Your company possesses internal information about market trends. Use both management reports and selected interviews. An example of helpful information would be the reasons given for lost sales. Customer service and sales people can also be good sources of anecdotal information. Some of the questions you might ask them include:

  • "What are the clients saying about the competition?"

  • "Are the clients using us in the same way all the time or has it changed?"

  • "What are the biggest complaints today?"

You can get great information from your front-line people. Just remember that they probably share your organizational biases, so balance this data with information from the external sources discussed above.

Distill the information

To get value from the information you gather, you must share it with others in your organization. The point person can play an important role here, by preparing a written summary of the highlights with a set of the most critical current articles attached. If you are distributing this summary electronically, you can also highlight key passages in the articles to make them easy to scan.

Use the information

The discussions of your findings should include three steps.

First, have your group review the information and analysis in your briefing package. Try to develop a consensus about future opportunities and risks before moving on.

Second, have a discussion of the big picture, where you do some "dreaming." This is a look forward without limitations where you ask yourselves, "If anything were possible, where would we like to be as a company in three to five years?"

Third, move the discussion to a practical level and come up with reasonable goals and concrete steps to achieve them. Steps should include setting target dates and identifying a party responsible for making things happen.

Keep the information flowing

Once you have developed a process for generating, analyzing, and using market information, keep doing it! This work is a simple strategic planning process that you should incorporate into your current process or use to build a strategic planning capability within your company.

Mary Adams and Michael Oleksak, Principals of Trek Consulting LLC, help entrepreneurs develop innovative strategies for facing challenges of growth, change and succession. You can reach them at .

Many more articles in Strategic Planning, Competitive Strategy and Competitive Intelligence
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