If you want to get better at monitoring your competition, you might want to look to submarine crews for inspiration.
After all, there’s a reason why submarines come loaded with some of the most sophisticated, state-of-the-art surveillance systems known to man. If the crew members can’t track their adversaries—while keeping their own position and strategies secret—they could literally be dead in the water.
The stakes aren’t quite as high when owning a small business, but maintaining a strong, active knowledge of your competitors will
play a vital role in your company’s long-term success. When you understand what others are doing and planning, you’ll be better able
to consider your alternatives and seize new opportunities—to act rather than react.
You are likely already monitoring your direct competitors. Given the pace, size and variety of changes affecting nearly all markets, it’s time to expand your scope.
Not only do you need to actively monitor your competition today, you also need to keep an eye on companies in adjacent markets and businesses who could become significant competitors somewhere down the line. Submarine crews, after all, don’t just track the adversaries they know about—they also must discover the hidden ones, too.
You have two primary objectives:
1. Increase the breadth and depth of your knowledge of your competitors today and tomorrow. You need to be able to recognize small movements that might indicate intensified competition around the corner.
2. Increase your ability to respond to unexpected opportunities or issues. If a competitor’s stumble opens a window of opportunity, your ability to swiftly implement a planned response may enable you to gain new long-term customers. Conversely, if an unforeseen issue arises, you can adapt more quickly, with less cost and disruption.
Your Tools and How to Use Them
Your tool set will vary a bit from a submarine’s, but the processes are very similar.
Sonar // You and your employees function as human sonar, listening for any bits of information about the competition that might pop up during daily conversation. With a bit of training and coaching, people in every part of your organization can contribute.
The trick is to observe and listen to what is visible and said—and also to what isn’t. Consider these actions:
» “Be their customer,” or as closely as you can approximate it. If you own a coffee shop, that means you or an employee should take periodic field
trips to Starbucks and other coffee shops to see what they’re doing.
» Check out their websites, social media and any other “public” information. If your business is targeted to consumers, check out Yelp and other ratings websites for your company and competitors. Get on their mailing lists. Subscribe to their email newsletter.
» Ask suppliers about the competition. They can provide insight from a very different vantage point.
» Attend trade events. Go with a plan; observe and ask questions.
» Set up Google Alerts for timely news about your competitors.
Companies in adjacent industries may want to expand into your market segment. Signs that your industry might be an attractive target:
» Your industry’s fundamental trends are likely to entice new players. The aging of Baby Boomers, for example, is fueling big growth in home sales, home remodeling (to make a current home more “friendly”), senior housing and assisted living.
» Your industry is either fragmented or entry is easy. Newspapers are a good example; thanks to new technology, everyone can become a publisher.
» Your industry has seen the rise of new customer segments, or it has particularly loyal customers.
» Your industry has seen extraordinary success within a specific niche.
» Your industry is being eyed by business owners with deep pockets. (Hello, Jeff Bezos!)
» An adjacent industry has a product or service that could be easily modified to compete in your field. A moving company, for example, could easily jump into the junk-removal business, or build a specialty in home staging for realtors.
Maintain that attentive mindset, and keep an open mind to ways new competitors can become significant threats in a very short time frame.
Processing power // If you start using your “sonar” on a regular basis, you will gather a wide array of information. Now combine and organize the varied data, removing what is irrelevant. It might be useful to create a file or spreadsheet to track all of the incoming intel.
Isolate potentially triggering events and other “tipoffs” to a potential upcoming event. For example, if you see a competitor listing a series of job openings on its website, that might be a sign that an expansion is in the works. Refine and identify patterns and trends, and investigate further. Use this knowledge to assess your options and develop plans and strategies.
Stealth // Equally important, but frequently overlooked is training employees on what not to share about your company, such as talking about new products or advertising campaigns before they’re ready to launch. Easy rule-of-thumb: If it is something you would want to know about your competitors, protect it!
Market Transformation Examples
There are numerous examples of markets undergoing major transformation.
Change is a constant, but it can take many forms.
» Starbucks first entered and greatly changed the coffee shop market. Then it started selling its coffee in grocery stores. And now it’s transforming the casual dining market.
» Engineering firms were once just that. Now many oversee the entire project—known as “design-build.” Taking on the operations and maintenance of facilities once they have built them is also becoming common, and is referred to as “O&M.”
» At the other end of the spectrum are businesses that successfully specialize in narrow niches, whether that’s a shop that focuses on specialty olive oils or a CPA who works primarily with health-care organizations.
All businesses evolve over time, and yours should, too. Competitive changes can provide the impetus to keep your business fresh, fulfill customer needs and create new opportunities.
By monitoring the competition, you can ensure you are targeted in how you spend time, energy and resources. And that allows you to be the best you can be at what keeps customers returning and referring others.