Fine-Tune Marketing Efforts by Eyeballing the Competition

Chances are, you know who your business rivals are. But do you know what they're up to?

Most companies don't take enough time to analyze the competition and use the information to find better ways to market and sell. Here are 10 illuminating ideas:

1. Call or visit competitors' stores or showrooms. Experience your rivals' products or services from a customer's standpoint. Evaluate their sales process and "upsell" attempts. Make a note of their claims and the features of your own products or services. By comparing the two, you can find ways to improve marketing techniques. Read between the lines. What other companies don't say may give you an opening.

2. Get on their mailing lists and receive information about future promotions. Or personally subscribe to their service.

3. Gauge customer support. Buy a competition's product, test it, and call the customer support telephone number. How fast, accurate and friendly are the personnel?

4. Go to trade shows and conventions. Chat with employees working in the booths and collect literature.

5. Use the Internet. Go to competitors' websites often to see what they're doing. You may even decide to use a computerized information service (or similar service) or simply do some searching online yourself.

6. Consider software that monitors and notifies you of any changes made to their sites. There's also a variety of competitive intelligence-gathering software on the market to do the detective work for you. For example, where and how often do your competitors advertise? What's being said about them in chat rooms and news groups by employees?

7. Run a credit check and find out how creditworthy they are.

8. Examine public documents. If a competitor's firm is publicly held, buy a few shares of stock so you can receive investor reports. Scrutinize SEC filings.

9. Subscribe to industry journals, newsletters and other publications concerning your business. Consider hiring a "clipping" service to collect newspaper, magazine and online articles about your industry.

10. Penetrate the inner circle. Ask their suppliers and former customers. Hire their employees (but make sure not to ask them to violate any legal agreements they signed).

Rest assured, your competitors are also doing their homework, so guard your most valuable trade secrets zealously. Have employees who work with sensitive data sign nondisclosure agreements.

By keeping an eye on the competition, you can learn about new products, pricing and trends in the marketplace. Analyze their mistakes and victories and use the information to improve your success rate.

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