Big companies (Fortune 500s, etc) have entire departments that do competitive intelligence. I'm amazed by the resources they put into it, although I shouldn't be. Competitive intelligence is that important - if you don't know what your competitors are doing, you can be strategically blown away in a matter of years.
Comp intell is slightly different in small companies though, because small companies don't have the same amount of resources to put on the task. It's also a harder task, because competitors are usually private companies, which makes getting information trickier.
So here are a few pointers for doing comp intel in small companies:
a) the timing for competitive intelligence depends on the industry. For most companies, once a year is sufficient. For some in fast moving industries, comp intell should be done quarterly or bi-annually.
b) identify the direct and indirect competitors that you'll include in your comp intell process. Poll the executive team, the sales team, the technical team and the customer service team to do this. They know who is edging in on your turf or focusing more of their efforts in your direction. Use an easy online survey tool (eg www.zoomerang.com) to do this painlessly.
c) create a competitors chart that includes the following items: footprint (where do they operate), size (employees, revenues, square footage, or other as relevant in your industry), products / services (what are they selling), partners (who are they working with), a[pparent strategy (overall, where do they appear do be focusing), sales and marketing (what tactics are they using, how many people do they have and where, what is their apparent level of investment), customers (who is listed on their website, who are they courting), and innovations (the buzz - anything that people are hearing about their focus, overall business health).
d) appoint one person to do the competitive intelligence process. Get it done in 4 weeks. The scope will depend on your company and industry size. In general, a good comp intell process takes 40 - 100 hours.
e) get your information from these sources:
- competitors' websites
- industry associations, publications, events and contacts
- customers (if they will talk to you about competitors)
- sales reps (your own - they hear lots)
- customer service / technical teams (they also hear lots)
- anything else that is relevant in your industry. Keep a running log.
f) aggregate the information from all your sources
g) review it! The senior team should do this as part of your strategic planning process, or just before it.
h) build a framework for conducting comp intell so that it can be completed on a consistent basis. Identify what sources work very well so you can go back to them in future.
The point of competitive intelligence is to understand what is on the horizon for your company. The best way to do that is to engage many people in the process, and then make sure the information gets to the people who can do something about it. Like any market intelligence process, it's only useful if the information is acted upon!