Be proactive. 'If you only start doing competitor research when you are being hurt, it may be too late,' says Arthur Weiss, founder of consultancy Aware. 'You want to know what your competitors' plans are for two years' time and how they will affect you.'
What's it for? CI has traditionally been driven by marketing needs. 'It's very difficult to come up with a marketing strategy if you don't know what your competitors are doing,' says Mark Blayney Stuart, head of research at the Chartered Institute of Marketing. However, CI is now being used in other business areas, for example, benchmarking executive pay, says Chris West, co-founder of Competitive Intelligence Services.
Make it action-based. Competitive intelligence gathering should always be linked to an action the company plans to take, says Tony Nagle, managing director of consultancy Fuld Europe. 'We always try to establish what decisions the intelligence will support,' he says. West adds: 'Once you've defined the problem, the information needed to solve it should be obvious.'
Start with what's published. Secondary research is what's in the public domain. 'All companies should do this, but most don't do more than informal monitoring,' says West.
Find primary sources. Talk to anybody who knows the company: customers, suppliers, journalists, analysts, ex-employees and current employees. 'There are three secrets to doing primary research successfully,' says West. 'Skill, stamina and a degree of serendipity.' Nagle adds: 'People will often be flattered if you approach them as an expert in the subject and will be willing to talk.'
Listen and observe. Trade shows and conferences are good places to find out what competitors are up to. 'You can visit their stand and listen to what they say to customers,' says Weiss. 'The beauty of trade shows is people assume everyone is a customer.'
Build a picture. Small nuggets of information are like pieces of a jigsaw puzzle that can be pieced together to let you guess the big picture, adds Weiss.
Be timely. 'Intelligence is like fresh fish,' says Nagle. 'It quickly deteriorates and becomes useless, so you have to use it fast.'
Keep your nose clean. Don't do anything unethical or illegal. Rooting through dustbins, phone tapping and obtaining stolen documents are all strictly off-limits.
Think counter-intelligence. If you're trying to find out what your competitors are up to, they're undoubtedly doing the same to you. So make sure you have training and processes to keep your information secure.
Do say: 'I'm doing some market research - can you help?'
Don't say: 'There's a fat envelope for the person who can get me those documents.'