Should you know your company better than you know your competitors?

When we think of competitive intelligence, we may tend to assume that it’s all about knowing your competitors. While it’s obvious why you need to know as much as you can about the competition, we may assume that we already know everything we need to know about our company.

That may not always be the case though. Here are a few examples why knowing your company better may be more important than knowing your competitors:

-          If one of your competitors is very expensive and you think that you can offer a better price, you need to make sure that this strategy is sustainable in the future. Is your company capable to support this strategy on the long term?

-          If you learn that a competitor has a weak sales team and you have some “rock stars” who can sell anything, you need to make sure than you can deliver what you sell otherwise the initial success may turn against you

-          When your strengths are mainly based on technology that is very likely to become obsolete on the long term, you need to know how your company can adapt to change

In order to know your company better, you need to focus on the human factor more than on the technical or economical ones. Your different types of capital are an important competitive advantage but it’s the human capital that’s the most unpredictable and has the most impact on the future of the company.

Probably the most important challenge when analysing a the employees of a company is that fact that we tend to separate them into categories or see them as a collection of individual employees. The holistic approach is preferable since it’s based on the idea that natural systems (including social and economic) should be seen as wholes, not collections of parts. Companies are legal or economic entities but are rarely seen as an entity characterised by interdependence (relationships between people who depend on each other)

This is why the skills and experience of a decision maker, leader or superstar employee needs to be analysed in the context of the interdependence with the others employees of the company. Similarly, the untapped potential of the employees can be assessed by taking into account the importance it may have in the interconnected company.

These exercises are not usually seen as an important part of a competitive intelligence initiative and we tend to take employees for granted or evaluate them individually. While this approach may reveal conflicting interests in the company as well as a different (even opposite) understanding of its direction and values, these challenges need to be acknowledged in order to be addressed.

The employees or a company can be found in all four quadrants of a SWOT analysis: strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, and threats. Do you know how many of them are in the weaknesses and threats quadrants? Do you have a plan to move them to the other quadrants?

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By Xhienne (SWOT pt.svg) [CC-BY-SA-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

How can business and technical people work with sales and marketing on customer experience initiatives?

A misconception about customer experience makes many people think that it’s exclusively the responsibility of the sales and marketing departments. But people who actually deliver products and services and customer care teams are the ones that can have the most important impact on the experience of the customer.

Both categories of employees are usually either very specialized (which makes them very useful in some areas of the business but not others) or not specialized enough to perform anything but basic tasks (e.g.: customer care performing basis tasks in IT)

Among the specialized people, those with expertise in business will rarely know tech very well and vice versa. Since customer facing people (e.g.: sales, marketing, customer care) usually aren’t experts in either, they usually need to rely on experts for questions they cannot answer or problems they cannot solve. This can bring the challenge of resource allocation and collaboration and one solution would be to have a “connector” between the two categories of employees which will help them work better together.

Such a person would be responsible for the following:

-          Translate customer needs into business and tech needs and make sure that everyone is on the same page. In software, a project manager may be assigned to this during the implementation, but this usually stops after the go live when customer care is the main responsible for the interaction with the customer

-          Determine which issues are important and work with both business and technical people to solve the problems by escalating to the appropriate person and following up on the actions required

-          With sales and marketing, gather feedback from customers and communicate with them to explain company strategy, future development plans, etc.

-          With product development to increase transparency, thus trust (see this post)

-          Get involved in user communities (formal or not), participate in analyzing social media interactions which can be used for product development, to proactively solve problems, and contribute building a brand that people have reasons to trust

Such a person is hard to find because (s)he will have to be good at business, technology, and communicating with people, even though not an expert in either field. Most professionals will specialize in only one, maximum two of these fields, but never all three. The good news is that extended expertise in all three fields isn’t actually required because this person needs to work closely related to marketing and communications, business operations, and IT.

What do you think? How important is such a person in a company? Are the various departments of a company too specialized and disconnected from each other and from the outside world?

Disconnected - geograph.org.uk - 1516053

Should software vendors use social media for product development?

Social media is a great environment for marketing, communication, customer service, and pretty much anything related to customers. Some companies even use it for product development by gathering their customers’ needs and wishes using social media channels and analysing the information to improve their offering. They also engage with their customers or anyone who’s interested in their products and encourage them to contribute with idea, feedback, etc. Some examples of companies dong this are: GE, LEGO, Procter & Gamble or Fiat

The advantages of this approach are obvious: companies get feedback that is hard to obtain through traditional surveys, consumer groups, etc. people can vote and choose the best ideas, and they can even collaborate to improve an idea, thus giving it even more value. Despite its benefits, social product development isn’t used much in services industries and very little in business software.

Some of the disadvantages of crowdsourcing are not so obvious. We found a very good presentation on crowdsourcing for product development, which includes a brief comparison of the pros and cons of this approach (on slide 32).

As mentioned in the presentation, crowdsourcing is hard to manage, but that’s usually the case for social media. The main challenge seems to be that you need to understand the crowd in order to really benefit from its feedback and ideas. This is also important in order to decide which are the best ways to engage with the crowd in order to find a balance between the effort required (on your side and theirs) and the expected results.

As opposed to manufacturers or services companies, software vendors may have a few benefits that they could use for social product development. Here are some of them:
- they already have user communities, either formal or not, usually made of people who got together to help each other either with advice or workarounds
- they use help desk and issue tracking software which allows them to gather a lot of information, not to mention that they already have historical data
- they have qualified technical personnel to manipulate and store the data, as well as programmers and DBAs to perform some analysis
- their customers usually have employees with some technical knowledge and probably already implemented all kinds of add-ons and even tools they developed themselves

All these benefits can have little value if the vendor never really encouraged its customers to build communities, if they don’t track issues properly, don’t encourage their employees to engage in activities that are not profit-driven, and don’t learn from their customers. Also, these benefits will not be enough to successfully implement a social product development strategy. Vendors will still need to have a social media presence, engage customers and end users, invest in social monitoring and analytics, etc.

We will try to find a few interesting examples of vendors which actually succeeded in using social media for product development – one would assume that social business vendors like IBM, Jive or Salesforce would all be doing it but software vendors don’t always practice what they preach.