Your business succeeds when people buy your product or service to satisfy a need or solve a problem. You know that they are buying, but do you understand why they are buying?

You probably have a handle on buyers’ needs for current products, but customers likely have related problems that you could solve with an upgrade or a new product. You can anticipate needs only when you deeply understand current situations. How do you find out about the other needs of your customers?

Simple: Ask them.

Do not ask them in a standard customer-satisfaction survey that focuses on existing products, the transaction and customer service, where high marks mean your staff is meeting customer-satisfaction goals. I started my career with Digital Equipment Corp., which surveyed customers on how satisfied they were with the company’s products and service. “Very satisfied,” replied the system managers.

But Digital did not ask about unmet needs and so did not know that these customers were buying competitors’ solutions for new applications. Digital’s share of their spending gradually decreased, and the company no longer exists as an independent organization.

Ask the buyers what is wrong with your product, or what features would they like in a product like yours. Ask them what their job priorities are and what problems are blocking achievement. Remember that smart competitors are doing the same research you are.

By taking this approach, you will learn what additional needs your customers have and how you could upgrade your offerings to solve these problems — and learn about them before your competitors do.

The good news: Most of the information you need about your competitors already exists within your organization. You just need to collect and put the pieces together to form a useful portrait of the competitive landscape.

Who has the information? Your staff:

  • Your sales staff knows which competitors are the most aggressive, what solutions are being offered, what their marketing messages are, and whether they sell direct or through channels.
  • Your purchasing managers know what supplies have been easier or harder recently to obtain because of demand from competition or supply variations.
  • Your human resources people know which rivals are hiring and for which positions. They hear from candidates.

While each individual may not believe that his/her data is significant, the information can be fitted into a competitive landscape.

You’ll need to develop a “competitive information road map,” an outline of the information needed about your rivals and who might have the information. You can then identify who on your staff can help at each point. Once you have interviewed each staff person, you will then know what information is lacking. Ask your customers, your suppliers or other knowledgeable people in your network to help you fill those gaps.

The key is that this is not a one-time action. You or someone in your firm should be collecting, analyzing and disseminating competitive intelligence on a continuing basis. You need a plan on who that person is and how to do this to benefit to the fullest extent. Make your competitive information road map a useful document by keeping it updated.

You’ll make better decisions on the four Ps of marketing (product, pricing, placement and promotion) on existing products with the insight gleamed from your customers and about your competitors. And, your path to attractive future products will be much clearer.

Parmelee Eastman is president of EastSight Consulting, which help clients improve their businesses using high-quality, independent intelligence developed via the analysis of tightly focused, unstructured primary research. Eastman has extensive business experience and an MBA from Harvard Business School. For more on EastSight Consulting, email Eastman or view the Knowledge Is Power blog.

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