Anthony Verna, Senior Vice President of Strategy and Business Development at Cubic Mission Solutions, recently spoke with ArchIntel to discuss how competitive intelligence can be integrated into a company, the challenges involved and the priorities emerging within the field.
“We don’t beat competitors to beat them. We beat them to win customers. The better we know the customer, the more effective anything we do in the competitive intelligence space will be.”
ArchIntel: How do you establish an advantage, integrate competitive intelligence and discover new insights about the market, competitors and customers?
“Well competitive intelligence (CI) isn’t just about competitors. It’s about the overall market, knowing how solutions are being provided and finding where the gaps are and what the trends will be. Those answers need to be based on customer input, as well as what you’ve learned from research and intelligence sources.
It’s really timing your investments to generate competitive advantage. Gaps in what customers need are documented in a lot of ways. Primarily it is through customer interaction. It’s also from documents published. Whether it’s customer strategy, budgets, Government Accountability Office (GAO) reports. There are many open-source and customer-related interactions when discovering where the gaps lie.
Companies have to be aware of where your competitors are relative to those gaps because if you choose a gap that somebody is about to fill, and you’ve got three years of work, that’s a bad approach. What you really need to be able to do is gain intelligence and form strategies that are tested over time and establish ongoing advantage.”
To have the overarching strategy is very important, and how you do that is by putting your customer first and developing teams that understand the customer’s missions and their customers or end users.
You have to anticipate upcoming needs by doing early homework, then broaden it to include competitors and market dynamics such as budgets and acquisition plans, which adds more information to the mix. But establishing a way forward, really starts with your customers.
ArchIntel: What are the best ways to find customers?
Customers come to us a lot of ways, but in many cases we go to them. So, it starts with our customer-facing activity and strategies that create early advantage. Many of our customers don’t know they even have a gap until they realize there’s a better way to do things, or that other solutions are possible.
There are customers who buy things. There are contractual customers. There are customers that need solutions to perform their mission. There are customers who simply use things. Sometimes, they all don’t talk together perfectly. Therefore, an awareness of the whole customer space in the market is very important.
You identify gaps and many times, it’s the users. They may want something that has a much smaller footprint because they need to move quicker and it’s expensive to move things around. They need new features for reasons that aren’t quite known yet by those who buy things.
So, the earlier you can identify that and work with the customers, typically, the bigger your advantage is. After that, it becomes a function of who is further along at solving the problem and that is where your investments over time come into play. Companies that solve customer problems better than competitors are typically the ones that win the customer.”
ArchIntel: What are the most common challenges that come from your clients and how do you maintain your advantage over your competitors?
“If you look at our portfolio, there are different solutions involved. Traditionally, for our customers it’s countering threats and maintaining tactical advantage. Sometimes things need to change because their original use case changes. Their impact in a mission changes, or there could be evolution in the mission.
To be able to anticipate those changes and have solutions that are easy to implement and are ready before it becomes a real problem. That’s absolutely key. Delivering solutions inspired by the customer’s mission matters greatly.
If you’re there with solutions to real problems, you’re more likely to retain your clients and solve their problems efficiently. The highest art we have in our strategy is that we are connected with our customers and we fine-tune our solutions in a way that advantages ourselves against our competitors.
That’s really good if you can build upon those two things. Fulfilling needs where you have the advantage or can plan to have an advantage. That’s essentially wake up in the morning to do.
ArchIntel: How “competitive” is the competitive intelligence sector?
In terms of competition, I think you have to view that in the context of the whole market. When you’re involved in a competition versus another firm, it’s CI more in a tactical sense, at least to me. You’re either going after a common target or you have products competing to fill a market space.
Anticipating future releases and knowing features and where competing products were priced previously, factor into figuring out how to beat a competitor when it’s a known outcome. You’re going to sell a product or fulfill a program and that’s a very tactical application of CI.”
ArchIntel: What are the components of a CI-like report, why is it important and how do you use it?
“If you were to take it from top-down, from the strategic layer, there’s an overall market assessment and a competitive landscape within a market. There are also specific reports on key competitors that include their leadership, past trends, contract portfolio, their current focus, their current product set and available market pricing.
You take that down a level or two and say you’re going to do product X versus company’s product Y. That becomes more of a trade of features, direction, product penetration, customer-user feedback, market pricing, known pricing, planned upgrades and technology roadmaps.
The most important thing is discovering what the implications are of what you found versus your position and your strategy. And what are you going to do about it? Anything that doesn’t have recommendations or at least cite implications, is only interesting if you don’t carry the analysis through to how it applies to a course of action.
You also have to develop a code of ethics in the CI reports. That starts with really defining lines and not walking near them. You need a real training program. The most effective competitive intelligence programs are not adjunct. A company just starting with formal CI might build CI as kind of a standalone function. That won’t generate the needed effects.
The best CI functions are organic and part of the overall company. It is crucial for policies to be in place and training to be delivered on a regular basis to ensure ethical boundaries are clear. But in the end, it’s really about being aware of what constitutes proprietary information and being very clear with related legal and ethical requirements.
ArchIntel: When it comes to hiring talent for your company and providing further education, what are essential skills to achieve success in the field to build a strong team?
“Technical, finance and math backgrounds are helpful when you’re trying to learn about requirements and do a pricing analysis based on publicly available data. Generally, what makes a good analyst is that ability to want to learn. That inquisitive nature and finding it very hard to be satisfied that you’ve gotten all the information you can legally, ethically and morally get.
And somebody who’s tenacious. Tenacity matters as well because it’s more than a Google search. You’ve got to go through a lot of tasks sometimes, but there’s a lot of information out there, especially if you want to look for it and aren’t satisfied until you have found it.
For developing our workforce, I think it’s more along the lines of creating a culture than a team. Because everybody has roles, and competitive intelligence fits into the overall development of strategy and especially the execution of strategy.
But first and foremost, that starts with having a team that faces the customer. That’s the context for it all. We don’t beat competitors to beat them. We beat them to win customers. The better we know the customer, the more effective anything we do in the competitive intelligence space will be.
That also informs what we want to learn about competitors, too. It starts with a customer-facing team, and then it moves onto a supporting cell that is great at doing open-source research. You need research techniques that involve a technology component to leverage some of the automations possible via technology available today.
Whether it’s web crawlers or RSS feeds, you have to continually pull in new information. Once you set up your information needs, you continually refresh those needs. It’ll always be an analyst who can look at that and make intelligence products from what is available. Of course advances in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning offer exciting possibilities.
Strategy development for business leaders is informed by CI products such as market assessments, competitive assessments and so on. After that, there’s a cadence that needs to go on and you have to draw those same business leaders into that cadence to go over the implications of what competitive intelligence is showing us. The only way to build that team, is really to build a culture. A learning culture and a winning culture.
Getting people to understand that the things we think are good may not be good enough, and that comes down to leadership and expectations. It is about creating an environment where everyone understands their role.
Sometimes, you need technical people to make an assessment of technically related intelligence. You might also need finance people, or you need program people. It’s really showing how all that fits together into executing your overall strategy.”
ArchIntel: What makes CI unique in the Government contracting (GovCon) Sector?
“There is a lot of information available. Beyond the Freedom of Information Act, there are government websites that put out a fair amount of data related to what our government spends money on. What they have spent money on historically as well as the budgeting data of what they’re going to spend money on in the future.
There’s a lot that exists to form a framework for developing competitive intelligence. You have the actuals of what has been spent. You have to continually ask yourself, ‘What are you trying to learn?’ And for example, you may be trying to learn what you expect a competitor to release that is different from the old product.
Where they’ve priced that in the market before is probably not applicable. But it might be! Maybe they continue forth with that, but you just don’t know. You don’t have confirmed past data. Ergo, what you would do is look at something similar. What have they done? What’s similar in their past that they’ve done and then you can add what’s different. You’ll have an easier time trying to generate a value basis around that.
It depends on what you’re trying to learn. You can look at similar things and build the best set of assumptions. And defend it. This is both art and science. You’re never going to know for sure. You could get as much data and make assumptions on everything else that’s available.
But some of it comes down to the art of having that ability to project and lay out those scenarios of what’s possible and then picking one. It’s really where you have to really fuse art and science to generate the output you need to come out ahead.”