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Competitive Intelligence (on a small budget): Part 2

December 24, 2014

Last time, we talked about how inexpensive competitive intelligence might start with a do-it-yourself web evaluation. Now, I’d like to present another aspect of competitive intelligence that you may be able to accomplish for just a small amount of money.

Here’s the second installment in a continuing series on “Basic Market Research for Small Business” where we pay special attention to helping businesses that have little to no research budget. Last time, we talked about how inexpensive competitive intelligence might start with a do-it-yourself web evaluation. Now, I’d like to present another aspect of competitive intelligence that you may be able to accomplish for just a small amount of money.

Mystery shopping

After conducting a web search for various suppliers of a product or service, the next thing a typical prospective customer will do is call the business to find out more about what they offer, schedule an appointment, or place an order. Every once in a while (perhaps every 12 or 24 months), you should “mystery shop” your competition, as well as your own company. Obviously, if you’re the owner of a local business, you don’t want to go waltzing into your competitor’s shop and pretend to be browsing for products to buy, and I definitely don’t recommend going incognito with a fake mustache or wig!

But what if you find some appropriate people who aren’t affiliated with your business to act as prospective customers for a day, then report back to you? You could try recruiting from people like parents at your kid’s softball games, or friends from church, or (ideally) reach out to a community college or local university to find out if they have any temporary co-op work programs for Marketing or Communications students to participate in. Get five or six $50 restaurant gift cards, and just ask, “Would you know someone who would like $50 in exchange for shopping at store X for product Y and letting me know about their experience?” You’ll be surprised by how many underemployed but competent people your network of acquaintances will know, who will be eager to assist with your mystery shopping project. People like to shop! And they really like getting paid to do something they enjoy. Once you have your team of mystery shoppers in place, have them shop through the sales process at each of your competitors without disrupting the normal flow of business. Ask the shoppers to carefully track the following questions:

  • How friendly is the sales person or team?
  • How knowledgeable are they about their products?
  • What are the benefits of buying from store X? (Free gift wrap? Frequent buyer discount? Money-back guarantee? Clean store?)
  • What are the drawbacks of buying from company X? (Inconvenient location? High prices? No tech support? Dirty store?)

Your shoppers need not actually close the deal and buy a product or service (unless you can afford to also reimburse them for this). They can be honest in saying that they are not looking to buy today, but just shopping to get familiarity with what options they have.

Once the shopping is complete – including an impartial shopping experience of your own store or business – get your debriefing from each shopper and make note of where you could do a better job than your competition is doing. If you are really leaps and bounds better than the competition in a particular category, this could become one of your marketing points.

Again, not all of the techniques we’ll explore will work for every kind of small business, but I hope that some ideas will inspire your creativity regarding market research on a small business budget. Please feel welcome to discuss your own ideas and experiences in the comments here.

Next: Customer reviews

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Phil Hall

December 29, 2014

What excellent advice! I enjoyed this article and the one that came earlier. Keep up the great work!



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