Competitive Intelligence (on a small budget): Part 1

December 19, 2014

For over 20 years, I have designed, deployed, and analyzed survey research for huge enterprises you’ve heard of (like AT&T, SunTrust, Accenture, and Comcast), as well as for smaller companies you may have never heard of (like Synergistics Research, Essex Industries, and the Indoor Tanning Association, for example). Regardless of company size, one thing has been consistent with every one of my clients – whatever amount of research they are currently doing, their business could probably benefit from more of it. So, what holds back businesses from conducting additional research?

Resources, of course – money, time, and staff to conduct market research are always limited.

Thoughtful, high-quality research typically costs money, and business decision makers are sometimes hesitant to spend hard-earned capital on something that may have an undetermined return on investment (ROI). I’m here to help small businesses think about ways to conduct useful market research on a dime. Good, insightful market research can be executed at very low cost, at least through the preliminary stages. This article is my first installment in a continuing series on “Basic Market Research for Small Business,” and every installment will pay special attention to helping businesses that have little to no research budget. This article is the first in a three-part series that focuses on competitive intelligence.

One of the first things your business needs to know is:

How do my competitors conduct business in my market?

Finding the answer to that seemingly simple question is called competitive intelligence. There are numerous excellent research consultancies that specialize in competitive intelligence. But a small business owner may not have the available budget to pay for such advanced information gathering services. So, let’s explore some basic market research practices that a small business can employ on its own to gather inexpensive competitive intelligence.

Prospective customer role-play

What is it like for a typical prospective customer in your market to go shopping for the types of products or services that your business offers? It costs you nothing but some time to sit down for an afternoon and place yourself in the role of one of your prospects. Pretend you have just moved into your local area and you need a new furnace (if you’re in the HVAC business), or a new dog groomer (if you’re in pet care), or a tax preparation specialist (if you’re in accounting). What’s the first thing you would do as a prospective customer? You’d probably rely on a Google search like “HVAC services in Elmwood” or “local pet services,” and begin evaluating the different companies that come up.

Web evaluation

Pull up the websites of three of your competitors and view them through the eyes of a prospective customer.

  • Is it easy to identify the contact information for the company?
  • How many ways can you contact the company – phone, e-mail, location address, web-form, fax? What about Facebook and Twitter?
  • Is their product selection clearly understandable?
  • Are prices shown, and if so, how reasonable are their prices?
  • Are there customer testimonials?
  • Is their service geography identified (if limited to a local area)?
  • Is the design or style of the site current and appropriate for the market?

Issue a numeric score (1 through 10) for each of these questions. Then, pull up your own website and grade it just as rigorously as you graded the competition. Are your competitors doing a better job than you are in any categories? These are your opportunities for improvement.

While it’s clear that the techniques we’ll explore won’t work for every kind of small business, I hope that some ideas will inspire your creativity regarding market research on a small business budget. Please feel welcome to discuss your own ideas and experiences in the comments here.

Next: Mystery shopping

Regardless of company size, one thing has been consistent with every one of my clients – whatever amount of research they are currently doing, their business could probably benefit from more of it.

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