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Attacking a castle – or a competitor!

February 19, 2010 Leave a comment

The leading management guru, Rosabeth Moss Kanter’s, latest blog post discusses ways to attack a castle: Four Ways to Attack the Castle — And Get a Job, Get Ahead, Make Change.

Although the article is talking about job-seekers and change agents, the same applies to competitive intelligence and strategy, and I’ve sometimes used the same analogy in my training courses.

So how does attacking a strong fortress compare to competitive intelligence collection. Well – the approach that some still seem to think the best approach – is the full frontal attack. Go for the key contact and hope that they will speak to you. The problem is that these people tend to be surrounded by gatekeepers, guards and you may not even get their name, never mind getting to speak to them. This is the corporate equivalent of having hot oil poured down upon you.

Moss Kanter describes four other approaches that can also be used for CI collection.

1) Find other doors.
Rather than target the main entrance with your battering ram, look for a door that’s not guarded. If you want to interview somebody, don’t call switchboard and ask for the purchasing manager – as switchboard will ask what it’s about and you will find yourself in an interminable voice-mail loop ending with a “send an email to suppliers@companyname.com”. Instead, use networking tools – such as LinkedIn – to find the name of anybody involved in purchasing within the target company and ask to speak to them directly. Knowing the name means you get put through and bypass the switchboard gatekeeper.

2) Befriend the fringes.
Be polite. Switchboards get fed up with rude callers – so be friendly. Chat – and treat the operator with respect. They may know more than you think and you may get a name that way.

You won’t get put through to the CEO or CFO or any C-level executive directly. Instead, you’ll end up speaking to their personal assistant – the guard and gatekeeper for your source. Like the guards and gatekeepers of old, these people know who passes by, and what goes on. So rather than insist on the C-contact, be nice to the PA and chat to them instead. You may well find that all you need to know comes from them instead.

3) Go underneath
Often, going to the top won’t help. If the information you require is sensitive, the people at the top know the sensitivity – including their PAs. They won’t talk and you will get nothing. Rather, consider the people who report to them, or who have managers who report to them. Such people may not know the whole picture – but speak to several and you soon will. Each interviewee will feel flattered that you view their knowledge as important – and won’t realise that the small bits of information they know, when combined with other small bits, can reveal the secrets the higher-ups would like to keep hidden.

4) Go around the castle
Rather than trying to contact the organisation directly, look for people who are now outside but know what goes on inside. These include ex-employees, obviously. However others may also know information – and be willing to share if asked in the right way. These can include your customers, your competitor’s customers, their suppliers, as well as industry consultants, trade association staff and many more similar sources.

Collecting competitive intelligence doesn’t always depend on looking for the obvious source. Like attacking castles, often the secret is to find the weaknesses that allow you to gain entrance, gather what you need to know and leave without anybody even noticing your visit.

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Looking Forward – but don’t ignore what is behind you!

March 9, 2007 2 comments
I left school many years ago, but I still remember some of the lessons taught by Jeremy Rosen, who was, at that time, my headmaster. I’m still in contact with him – and both of us now have gray hair! In a recent newsletter he writes:

There’s a Russian proverb that goes, ‘He who looks to the past is in danger of losing an eye. But he who ignores the past is in danger of losing two eyes.’

Jeremy Rosen states that he doesn’t know if this is really a Russian proverb – he heard it from Lord Bullock, the historian, biographer of Hitler and Stalin, who was speaking at the Van Leer Institute in Jerusalem many years ago. However the origin is less important in this case than what is being said.

Too often, people make decisions based on insufficient information – they ignore the past, creating excuses saying that the past is a closed book – and base their decisions on the perceived problems of the present, tearing up all that has gone before in an effort to create a desirable future. Others take the opposite view – and dwell in the past, refusing to realize that it is the future that shapes our fortunes, not what has gone before.

In marketing and business the same rules apply. Some are “Risk seekers” – always anticipating a bright future, irrespective of warnings, and ignoring the past. Others are “Risk adverse” scared about what the future may bring – and essentially living in the past. In reality, businesses need to balance both approaches. They need to build for the future, and should grasp emerging opportunities with both hands. However this should be based on knowledge of the risks involved, and this can only come from prior experience and knowledge. Even brand new innovations are built on past knowledge.

There are organizations that seem to focus on past (or should that be passed) glories. They stress how they did this or that – and how they became the market leader through their past actions. However if they fail to see how the present has changed then they will inevitably lose this leadership position. There are numerous companies that have fallen because of this. One of the best examples is J Sainsbury – the UK supermarket giant, currently in the midst of a bidding battle. Sainsburys used to be the largest UK supermarket, but it lost direction, and with it share – it is now no longer the market leader. Sainsbury saw itself as the market leader, but failed to recognize the innovations and different approach of competitors such as Tesco and Asda (owned by Walmart). Essentially, Sainsbury was looking at the past and reveling in it, but in reality was ignoring the past and the lessons it held on success. Sainsbury had grown by being innovative – it was the first UK supermarket, building a major presence by giving customers what they wanted. However by not keeping both eyes open on what was happening in its market, it lost its market position.

A key business skill is being able to anticipate the future (using techniques such as scenario planning). This depends on using drivers and trends from the past to anticipate what could happen in the future. We need to look to the past and learn from it. However our aim should be to build a better future. This cannot come by ignoring what has gone before. Instead we should aim to understand why something happened, so that we can learn from it and not repeat the same mistakes. As George Santayana said in 1905: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

There is a widely known Zen story that shows this in another way:

“When the spiritual teacher and his disciples began their evening meditation, the cat who lived in the monastery made such noise that it distracted them. So the teacher ordered that the cat be tied up during the evening practice. Years later, when the teacher died, the cat continued to be tied up during the meditation session. And when the cat eventually died, another cat was brought to the monastery and tied up. Centuries later, learned descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.”

The importance of lateral thinking!

February 9, 2007 Leave a comment
A story is told about a supermarket that was having problems with gangs meeting in its car park after the supermarket had shut for the night – trading drugs, fighting and generally making a mess and nuisance.

The supermarket tried various conventional solutions to solve the problem: fences, increased security, and the like. Nothing worked long-term and, moreover, they were all expensive. Then somebody thought that perhaps a different approach might work.

The gangs were all trying to look cool, and the supermarket car-park had gained a reputation as a cool place to hang out at night. So what did the supermarket do? They thought about what could make the car park an uncool place to be, and started up a loud-speaker system piping the music of Mantovani over the parking spaces. Quickly the problem disappeared – as what kind of “cool” 16-18 year old wants to be associated with visiting a location that plays the kind of “easy listening” music beloved by their grandparents!

I teach a weekly diploma course at Thames Valley University, as part of the UK’s Chartered Institute of Marketing‘s Marketing Research & Information module. One of the joys of teaching is that you often learn a lot from your students. Last week was no exception, and provides another great example of lateral thinking – combined with a crucial awareness of the importance of ensuring customer satisfaction while still making money!

One of my students had spent some time working as a hospitality manager in a Greek hotel. He was working the night shift, when a package group of 15 tourists arrived at the hotel. They’d just landed, and the time was 3.00am. All were tired, having had a delayed flight, and all were looking forward to the rooms that they’d paid for. Except because they hadn’t turned up, they had been treated as no-shows, and their rooms had been sold on.

Overbooking is a not-infrequent problem faced by hotels. Normally the way round is to find another equivalent hotel, and transfer the overbooked guests there. Nobody is particularly happy about the arrangement.

  • The guests are unhappy as they had been expecting hotel A and got hotel B – and have to move on, when they were looking forward to resting from their journey.
  • The hotel is unhappy as the replacement hotel needs to be as good, if not better than the original. This means that the hotel has to pay for its mistake – financially, and if the replacement hotel is not better, in good will and reputation as well, which can be even more important.
At 3.00am, with tired and irritable visitors desperate to sleep, the problem is even worse. You have to phone around your competitor hotels in the area – speaking to the night staff – to find a replacement. Often the other neighborhood hotels will also be full, meaning that the group will have to be split up – guaranteed to cause problems. Furthermore, you are likely to have to book people in lower quality hotels. You will also need to arrange several taxis to transfer people to the replacements. All told, you have a PROBLEM!

Christos found another way.

The locality ran regular cruises to the Greek island of Santorini – which necessitated an early morning start, and a couple of nights on the island.

Santorini is one of those magical islands that, once visited, you never forget. It offers all that is best of the Greek islands – white washed villages, great beaches and views, fun restaurants, archaeological sites, monasteries and churches. However this is not all – it also has a volcano in the middle of the archipelago, with regular trips to see its caldera. This volcano has been attributed to the destruction of the Minoan civilization on the nearby island of Crete, and even the cause of the plagues that the Biblical book of Exodus mentions as having led to the release of the Israelite slaves from their Egyptian servitude (so, for example, the plague of darkness resulted from a cloud of ash that fell from the volcano). This eruption, 3500 years ago, was undoubtedly one of the largest ever volcanic eruptions during human history – much bigger than the infamous 1883 eruption of Krakatoa. The island has even been linked to the legend of Atlantis.

Christos knew that there were always places on this trip. He also knew that the costs of the trip, including the island hotel costs, would be considerably less than what would need to be paid to competitors to find beds for the group so early in the morning, as well as the less tangible costs in lost goodwill and so on. Accommodation on Santorini was much more basic and low cost – but the surroundings compensated for this.

Rather than apologizing to the group, and then getting on the phone to search for replacement hotels at 3.00am – a depressing and tedious task – he welcomed the group and said that they were really lucky. They were the hotel’s 1000th tour group and as such had qualified for a superb prize – a free trip to Santorini to start their holiday with a bang. The tour bus that would be taking them to the boat would be arriving shortly so there was no point in checking them in. They’d check back into the hotel in 2 days time, after their mini-cruise.

The tourist group may have been tired. But tiredness evaporates in such circumstances, and instead of an unhappy and probably angry crowd, you now had customer satisfaction par excellence. Instead of a short-night’s sleep and then a day recuperating by the pool, this group had been chosen to visit one of the highlights of any trip to Greece – for free. The tour group were overjoyed at their lucky break.

Next morning, the day-shift manager queried why the hotel was paying for 15 tourists to go on the Santorini trip. This was normally seen as a profit center by the hotel – as the margins were considerable. Christos explained the situation: how, instead of paying out to competitor hotels to accommodate the overbooked tourists, the hotel had covered its costs by just diverting the payments already made to the tour. Quickly the wisdom of the decision was realized, and it is now part of the hotel operating manual.

More importantly – this second story shows some of the skills all great marketers need:

  1. Ability to be able to think quickly, laterally and if needed, sidestep conventions and rules;
  2. Awareness of the importance of customer satisfaction: a happy customer leads to a strong reputation, and repeat purchase;
  3. Awareness of the importance of profit and that customer satisfaction needs to be balanced by an ability to make money.
Successful marketing is not all about reading the text books. Generally it is about solving everyday problems using innovative approaches. Many of these require skills in lateral thinking. Such solutions often are low-cost or save money, and build reputation at the same time. There are many examples of how lateral thought has been used to create opportunities or limit threats to the business. These two stories illustrate two different ways problems were solved through lateral thinking.
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