Establishing a Competitive Intelligence Program

Establishing a Competitive Intelligence Program
Andrew McCotter-Bicknell is the Head of Competitive Intelligence at ClickUp and was previously the Head of Competitive Intelligence at ZoomInfo. In this guide, he explains how to research your competitive landscape and arm sales and marketing teams with powerful competitive intelligence.

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Questions covered in this guide

What is competitive intelligence, and how has it evolved?

Competitive intelligence is insights on competitors in your industry – the more competitive intelligence you have, the more clearly you’ll be able to differentiate yourself from competitors when speaking to your ideal customers.

Historically competitive intelligence was more conceptual – it was high-level strategic, board-level thinking around things like M&A.

As the B2B tech landscape has exploded, there’s much more tactical work needed – today there’s much more tactical work that needs to be done to arm sales reps with the right information they need to win deals, marketers with differentiating messaging, and product or engineering teams with the data they need to build products that resonate with customers. 

Do you still need competitive intelligence if you’re small, or creating your own category?

For startups and SMBs, you at least need an awareness of your competitors – it’s key to have an awareness of your competitors as well as knowing who you are and who your ideal customers are. Startups and SMBs usually don’t have fully dedicated competitive intelligence analysts, but someone still needs to keep an eye on the movement and the story that’s unfolding within your industry.

Even if you’re trying to create a new category, you’ll still need to understand the previous ways of thinking that you compete against – as you’re approaching your ideal customer, you’ll need to sway them out of thinking that maybe they could use another vendor in an established category for that same thing. 

What are indicators that you need to invest in competitive intelligence?

Low win rates – a “good” win rate varies. If you’re a point solution going up against a big competitor, 5% win rates might be fine. You have to understand what win rate you need to succeed at the end of the year, and if you’re below that, competitive intelligence can help.

Keyword traffic – notice the keywords that folks use when they’re trying to search for a solution to the pain point that you solve. If you don’t stack up favorably with competitors who come up on those searches, you might need to invest in competitive intelligence. 

Data from sales conversations – listen to the recordings of conversations that your sales team is having. Once somebody brings up another competitor in a conversation, get a feel for how your team is responding to that situation. Either they sound like, “Oh, yeah, like I can handle this. Bring it on.” or you can hear the tone change as they think, “Oh crap, I have no idea what to say against this. I was trying to keep the competitor from the conversation, but now I’m screwed.”

Who “owns” competitive intelligence, and who’s involved? How does this change as a company scale?

Often product marketing or sales enablement – sometimes a product marketer or sales enablement generalist will manage competitive intel as a part of their job, but increasingly we’re more seeing entry-level specialist competitive intelligence employees assuming a research and enablement role.

What are the key pieces of information to gather about each competitor?

Pricing – pricing is important, but it’s not the only competitive intel that you should be collecting. Focus on whether competitive products are at a meaningfully different price point ($5K vs. $10K is meaningful), not on exactly how much they cost ($12K vs. $13K isn’t all that helpful). Look for public pricing information, and when that’s not available, check your sales call recordings. Oftentimes prospects will tell your reps “well, vendor XYZ is priced at $5,000 and you’re at $7,000”. 

Sales shouldn’t start with a feature comparison chart – when a prospect brings up a competitor on first mention, the main goal for a seller should be to understand the prospect’s perspective, and work to bring attention back to the value of the solution they’re selling. To help sales do that:
  • Step 1: Figure out the top 2-3 features the competitor is known for
  • Step 2: Lay out how you stack up against those features, referring back to your products’ strengths
  • Step 3: Establish how you’re better, ultimately using this as a way to dismiss the other vendor. 

Where feature comparison charts DO fit in – Product teams need to dig in to figure out how your product stacks up in terms of UI/UX, features offered, depth of functionality, future roadmap, etc. An in-depth feature comparison chart that’s too heavy for the average seller is typically very useful for product and engineering teams.

Make sure you know what’s important to your stakeholders (or there’s an infinite amount you could do) – you need to communicate with each stakeholder to make sure you understand what it is they’re specifically looking at. You can go crazy with assets; there’s no end to the intel you can gather on another company, but anything you create, you’ll have to keep updated. Be comfortable with cutting things off at a certain point. 

What research activities should you conduct to understand the competitive landscape of your market?

Conversation intelligence – review sales customer and prospect call recordings on a regular basis. It’s not just to understand things like pricing or the confidence in your sellers; it’s just to understand in what conversations they’re being brought up. 

Competitive news tracking – set up some sort of automation to track any public news about competitors. Google Alerts would be the entry-level version, and if you want to invest a bit more, there are competitive intelligence tools like Crayon and Klue that gather all that information and index it for you.

Competitive growth rate research – use LinkedIn to see how often your competitors are getting mentioned and how well known they are among your ideal customer profile. You can use LinkedIn Premium and go to their company profile to see headcount, headcount growth, and exactly how they’ve structured their organization. 

Win-loss research – product marketing should own win-loss interview calls. My preference is to do this internally vs. using an outsourced firm because people within the company who are building the products and trying to understand their ideal customer profile will be able to ask the most relevant questions (and follow-up questions). 

Feature comparison research (but be careful how you use them) – feature comparison research can be useful internally, but think twice before sharing it with customers. Historically, sellers send prospects long feature comparison charts, but more often than not, they have a lot of inaccuracies because it’s hard to keep granular intel up-to-date. That can backfire because when there are inaccuracies, it can look like you’re trying to lie to get a deal. 

How can you leverage public data or 3rd party market research? 

Read Gartner and Forrester reports if you have access – the Gartners and Forresters of the world provide a lot of in-depth studies and research that you can leverage in your go-to-market, but they’re expensive. 

Read your competitors’ reviews in software review marketplaces – Some of the most valuable and relevant information out there comes from user review marketplaces like G2 and TrustRadius–they’re essentially Yelp for B2B software. Your competitors’ one to two-star user reviews are absolute gold mines to identify their weaknesses. Even in five-star reviews, you might find reviewers leaving comments about what the competitor could be doing better.

What are the key artifacts that teams should create and update to communicate competitive intel to sales and the executive team?

Battle cards – no one reads battle cards for fun. Reps pull them up when there’s a need for something, so make sure you provide that thing right up top. Typically, those are the “Quick Dismiss” scripts that we talked about earlier—2-3 sentences that speak to your strengths relative to your competitors’ weaknesses.

Internal newsletter – My executive team is a big fan of our monthly competitive newsletters. These newsletters outline relevant competitor updates within our landscape—new product launches, pricing changes, employee growth, executive moves, etc. You’ll find that writing summaries in your own words will help you better understand your landscape and form opinions, as well. I started out writing a newsletter that only went to my CEO three years ago, adding more context each month as I got more comfortable with the landscape. Over time, other people in the company started asking, “Oh, hey, could you add me to the distro list for that?” 

Proof points from customer reviews – these really resonate with customers and prospects. If you can show prospects a review left by a customer that switched from the competitor they used to use, explaining how they had an over-the-moon experience with you, that’s exactly the reference the prospect is looking for.

What does the ideal battle card look like? What types of intel are most valuable for sales reps in competitive deals? 

First section: Quick dismiss quotes – these are meant to be used verbally. It’s one sentence that leans on your strengths and how they outweigh the competitor’s weaknesses. Another way of thinking about this is a one-liner that gets the conversation back on your solution.

Second section: Email templates – a longer dismiss blurb that can be pasted into a follow-up email. 

Third section: Everything else that might be valuable – this is for that 5% of the time that reps need more. Try to figure out what it is that your sellers need in those situations and then go and fulfill that with things like: 
  • Product comparisons
  • Pricing information
  • Customer reviews (testimonials you have, or pulled from a review marketplace)

How should you train sales teams on competitive intel?

Be repetitive – having consistent conversation points is key. People don’t internalize things the first time. When I’m training, I mention differentiating talk tracks multiple times to make sure sellers are aware of what’s available to them. 

Check to confirm what you’re creating is valuable – you need to make sure that you’re having stakeholder conversations as frequently as possible to understand if you are creating something valuable. 

What tools are in the competitive intelligence tech stack?

Competitive intelligence tools – e.g. Klue, Crayon, these are competitive intelligence tools that are specific to aggregating all the insights of your competitors, web presence, and public presence to pull website copy, pricing info, etc.

Conversation intelligence tools – e.g., Gong, use these to set trackers for competitive keywords and then listen to those sales calls. You can hear how the prospect talks about them and how the seller reacts and responds. 

Web traffic analysis tools – e.g. SEMrush, to understand how much web traffic your competitors are getting, and the keywords that they are bidding on.

Review marketplaces – e.g. G2, TrustRadtus, they’re a great resource for understanding the customer’s perspective and how they used a competitive tool. You can pursue a relationship with marketplaces to get more data on how you stack up to your competitors.

How do you measure the success of a competitive intelligence program?

Competitive win rate improvement – make sure your CRM is properly set up to track the competitors that you’re winning or losing against. 

Competitive collateral usage – track how often your collateral is being used internally (e.g. battlecard views) and externally (e.g. datasheet shares).

Sales confidence – survey your sales team to get a sense for how confident they feel when specific competitors are mentioned. Ask what they need to be successful. After delivering those things, survey them again to see how effective your actions were.

How can you enable an entire organization to think competitively?

Rally against a competitor, a group of competitors, or a concept – you need to rally everyone up against a specific vendor or a concept you’re trying to win against. Whoever owns competitive intelligence needs to make it clear why this is important.

Be present in functional meetings – make sure that you’re speaking with teams in their weekly stand-ups. It doesn’t have to be every single week, but try to have a regular presence. Come with information about the competitor that you can have a rallying cry against. 

Have a competitive intel channel or tags within Slack – make sure there’s a place for sellers to find intel and ask questions. Make sure that you provide value and get your organization thinking about these kinds of competitive motions throughout their day. 

What are the most important pieces to get right? 

Competitive intelligence needs to be cross-functional – whoever is assuming that competitive intelligence role must be cross-functionally communicating with different stakeholders in the organization. This is important because as your organization continues to grow, expand, scale into larger sales, and take on more robust product projects, it’s increasingly important to have a pulse on what your competitors are doing and how you can differentiate.

Be consistent, or your work will become outdated – because competitive intelligence is a fluid thing (there are so many vendors within the B2B tech landscape), things change all the time. If you aren’t consistent, then the work that you did is going to be out of date in a month.

What are the common pitfalls? 

Don’t be a lone wolf putting together a strategy paper – it’s what we did ten years ago. Now, for competitive intel to enable an entire organization, you need to talk to everyone in the company.

Avoid overkill information that you’ll have to update – try not to put too much work in when you are just guessing. Anytime anything changes, which is around every month, you’ll have to spend hours updating it. You’d be surprised at how much trouble you get in if you don’t provide up-to-date assets. 

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