If a US public company, look at its 10-K (annual report). Firms generally discuss their competitors. You can locate the 10-K on a company’s investor site, through sales intelligence vendors, or free Edgar sites.
If a private company, look at Owler, a free site (See below). This is crowdsourced so may include firms that aren’t true competitors.
Look at sales intelligence services such as D&B Hoovers or InsideView. Hoover’s competitors are editorially generated and include top three flags (see below)
Within IT, look at Forrester Wave reports. Another option is technology category searches in PE/VC databases such as DataFox, Crunchbase, Pitchbook, or CB Insights. Keep in mind that companies within the same segment may not be competitors, but partners, customers, etc.
Many industries have industry specific market research that includes competitors. A few general market research firms also provide competitors (e.g. MarketLine, Euromonitor, Global Data, and Freedonia). Top Competitors are also available in IBISWorld, Vertical IQ, and First Research.
Zoominfo and a few other vendors identify similar companies based upon proximity in articles. This finds competitors, but also customers and partners so should be carefully reviewed.
For new technologies or industries, D&B Hoovers offers Conceptual Search which identify companies associated with key phrases (e.g. Marcellus Shale, Obamacare). This is more of an associated companies list and will identify firms in a topical ecosystem. For example, “Harry Potter” identifies studios, publishers, toy makers, theme parks, and thematic tours. (See example below of conceptual search on Marcellus Shale). Conceptual Search lists may be refined by standard prospecting filters such as industry, geography, and size.
If none of these work, use peer list searches (industry code lists) or keyword searches in sales intelligence vendors. If cost is a concern, go to your public library and see if they have ReferenceUSA, AtoZDatabases, or Mergent Online. Each of these allows you to build peer lists based on industry codes, company size, and geography. If you need help, ask for the business or reference librarian to assist.
I wanted to call attention to an excellent article written by Dave Kahle in Industrial Supply which aligns fully with my philosophy on B2B competitive strategy and sales training. For nearly two decades I have emphasized the value of staying above the fray with a focus on a company’s unique value proposition and strengths. While the easiest route is to disparage a competitor, it generally conveys fear and a lack of confidence in your own offering. This tends to undermine trust in your company and its people.
“Disparaging the competition – speaking badly about the company or the individual salespeople, using little innuendos and side comments – all of this says more about us to our customers than it does about the competitors to whom we are referring. It reveals us as small-minded, petty, smug and far more interested in ourselves than we are in our customers.”
Dave Kahle, Author and Sales Trainer
Instead I have advocated only discussing competitors when directly questioned about them. In that case, I have recommended a fast pivot where the rep recognizes a strength and then quickly segues back to their offering. The strength should be real and non-trivial, but not applicable to your customer. For example, if selling to an SMB, saying that the competitor offers highly customizable solutions for enterprises, but your offering is designed for small businesses with a straightforward user experience. Such an approach is honest, differentiates yourself from the competitor, and avoids mudslinging.
Kahle offers several alternative, but equally valuable strategies for staying above the fray. Instead of speaking directly about a specific company, generalize the competition. Generalization “provides you a means of pointing out your distinctiveness without being negative about your specific competitors.”
Kahle also suggests posing statements in question form to help frame the prospect’s thinking;
Don’t say, “Y Company is a small local company that doesn’t have the systems or technology to support you in the long run.” Instead, say, “One of the questions you should ask of every vendor is this, ‘What technology and systems do you have in place to assure that you will be able to support us for the long run?’”
Another strategy is a feature list between companies, but I am not particularly fond of this approach for tech firms as the table needs to be assiduously maintained and it shifts the focus from value to features. Furthermore, such lists aren’t tailored to the needs of individual prospects and prospects are likely to view such collateral as biased. When I used to put together such tools, I avoided simple checklists and instead focused on workflow stages and framed the discussion as features and benefits in the context of each stage. Each comparison was dated and I told sales reps that I would perform a just-in-time review of the tool if it was more than several months old.
“While we can’t change the competition, we certainly are responsible for our attitudes and behaviors toward the competition,” wrote Kahle. “What we say and how we act about the competition can have a daily bearing on our bottom lines. An appropriate attitude and set of practices for dealing with the competition should be an essential part of every salesperson’s repertoire.”
It is easy to disdain the competition and crow about your product or service, but competitors should be respected. They also have well qualified sales reps and some feature advantages. “From the 10,000-foot-high perspective, if your competitors were as flawed as you think they are, they wouldn’t be in business, and your customers wouldn’t be buying from them,” said Kahle. “So, bury those attitudes of superiority, and cast off that disdain for the competition. If your customers didn’t think they presented a viable option, they wouldn’t be buying from them.”
Kahle suggests that if a company is truly focused on its customers’ needs, then competitive offers are irrelevant. “Your mindset, from the beginning, is not a bit focused on the competition, but rather is 100 percent targeted to completely understanding the customer’s requirements. The conversation is not about how you compare to the competition, but rather how you meet the customer’s needs.”
DoD photo by Master Sgt. Lono Kollars, U.S. Air Force. Public Domain.
Q1 2019 Update: This product never launched. A different product called Owler Pro is currently in beta test.
Owler is now promoting its first paid service, Owler Pro, which will be launching in a few months. Owler Pro is priced at $9.99 / month but will be discounted to $4.99 / month for the first 1,000 users (lifetime guaranteed pricing). The service is offering the following additional features:
Go straight to article, bypassing the Event Page.
Skip Owler recommended content such as competitors of your followed companies
Follow groups of companies
Customize the displayed instant insights (event triggers)
As I haven’t seen advertising on Owler, I’m assuming that the free version will become a sponsored platform. Most of these features are fairly insignificant, but at $4.99 per month the pricing is reasonable to prevent advertising and avoid the Event Page click-through.
Subscriptions are available from the following landing page.
If you haven’t checked out Owler, the free service provides company profiles, M&A and Funding histories, competitor lists, event alerts, and user-based surveys.
When training sales reps, I emphasize staying “above the fray.” Besmirching a competitor’s product also sullies your reputation. It shows a lack of class and a sense of desperation. Oftentimes it can backfire.
“It is a mistake to believe that you can win hearts and minds by attacking your competitor. When you have no idea how strong the relationship is, you can make a complete fool of yourself, doing more harm than good, and doing nothing to create a real opportunity.
Speaking ill of your competitor is an indication of who you are, not who they are. There are better strategies available to you.”
It is much better to position the value of your offering and focus on areas of differentiation than it is to throw mud. You should lay landmines for competitors, not besmirch their reputation.
A landmine is simply an emphasis upon those features and benefits where your product or service offering excels. The goal is to frame the discussion around the dimensions in which your product provides superior value to the end user. Keep in mind that value is dependent upon the customer in question, so you need to factor in job function, industry, company size, etc. Also, be careful to select areas in which your firm excels overall, not dimensions in which you are superior to competitor X that is vying for the deal but inferior to competitor Y. Otherwise, you may later find out you lost the deal to Y.
Likewise, you should expect your competitors to be laying landmines for your sales reps. They need to understand where these mines are laid and how to diffuse them.
One tool I recommend is the quick parry. This is a quick response to the question, “how are you better / different than company X?” A quick parry is only three or four sentences and usually begins by saying something positive about the competitor before transitioning with a BUT or HOWEVER. The positive item can be a recognition of some dimension in which they are the acknowledged leader or a dimension which is of limited importance to the customer in question. Thus, if you are selling to an SMB, you might emphasize the breadth of their solution for enterprise customers vs. the ease of use, quick implementation, and pricing models you offer for smaller firms. Such a tool differentiates your service from the competitor without throwing mud.
Of course, sales reps will only be able to deploy landmines and respond with quick parries if they understand both the value proposition of their offerings, the needs of their clients, and the strengths and weaknesses of their offerings vis-à-vis competitors. This is where tools and training come into play.
I answered the above question on Quora, but I thought it was worth posting the answer on my blog as well.
B2B is a broad category, so I will be providing a high-level process:
Start with the open web — the company website, corporate blog, Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, YouTube, Vimeo, and SlideShare.
Jump to the LinkedIn and Twitter pages of key executives.
Continue with third-party review sites such as TrustRadius, G2 Crowd, Glass Door, and Quora. Also compare web (Alexa, SimilarWeb) and social media activity (Owler) of the company vs. its top competitors.
If a US public company, obtain their 10-K, 10-Q, Annual Report, Proxy, and 8-Ks. Also, review all material on their investor page and look for Fair Disclosure Earnings Transcripts (Seeking Alpha, NASDAQ), investor presentations, financial models, etc.
If a US or global public, analyst reports are often available subject to a one week embargo. Vendors with analyst reports include D&B Hoovers, Factiva, Zacks, FactSet, Capital IQ, and Investext. Reports with fewer than five pages tend to only look at the stock, and provide little in the way of detail. Particularly good are the Initiating Coverage reports as they often entail an overview of the business.
If a US or global public, review the synopsis of material events going back over a decade. Significant Developments are available from Reuters, Factiva (Reuters), D&B Hoovers (Reuters), Capital IQ, and FactSet.
If a European private, they are likely to have filed financials, directors, and shareholdings with a local registry. You can obtain these through D&B Hoovers, Bureau van Dijk Orbis, or local registries.
Major companies are profiled by MarketLine and Global Data. Check to see if they or key competitors are profiled. Industry vendors also profile companies and products within their target segments. These profiles include SWOTs, company histories, market shares, and overviews of key products and segments.
Determine the firm’s list of competitors. If it is a public company they will list this in a proxy. If it is a private company, refer to Hoovers, Global Data, or Marketline.
If you are looking for technology employed, refer to Datanyze, HG Data, BuiltWith, DiscoverOrg, or RainKing.
Review all news for the company. The open web thins out quickly, so you are best off using an archival service such as Factiva or LexisNexis
For Intellectual Property and Legal, use LexisNexis or Westlaw. You can also search the USPTO site for trademarks and patents.
Check research from industry vendors. Most focus on only one or a few sectors (e.g. Gartner, Forrester, and IDC for Hardware and Software). A few provide higher level market overviews at the country or global level which include national or regional market shares, forecasts, and mini-profiles of the top 3-4 competitors in the market:
MarketLine (country and global)
Euromonitor (country or global)
BMI (Emerging Markets)
IBISWorld (US, China, Australia, Global)
A few US industries are required to file with state or federal agencies. These include banks (FDIC), insurance (states), and nonprofits (990 forms with the IRS).
Larger companies file ERISA forms (5500s) annually with the Department of Labor. This filing covers benefit plans so is useful for direct research on a company and plan advisors. Judy Diamond offers a freemium service (FreeErisa) for ERISA filings.
If the firm has PE or VC funding, refer to Crunchbase, DataFox, Mattermark, PrivCo, or other vendors that collect this detail. Crunchbase and Owler provide this information for free.
Setup news alerts on the company and competitor you are evaluating. This can be done via Owler, Contify, InsideView, D&B Hoovers, Factiva, and LexisNexis.
Obtain a credit report (D&B, Experian, or local credit company if overseas)
Research the company family tree and review major subsidiaries and recent acquisitions. Global Family Trees are available from D&B Hoovers, Bureau van Dijk, and InsideView (parents and subs only). Public companies also list their subsidiaries in their 10-K (Note 21).
M&A research can be performed with Zephyr (Bureau van Dijk), Mattermark, FactSet, Capital IQ, and other vendors.
This is a quick overview for secondary research. For primary research, reach out to customers, partners, and former employees. They can be identified via Case Studies (generally fans so don’t be overly reliant on them), customer references on site, TrustRadius, G2 Crowd. Former employees can be determined via LinkedIn. Partners are generally listed on the company website.
One area that is particularly difficult to obtain is pricing data. Some B2Bs are transparent while others publish virtually no details, particularly if they have complex product lines and pricing. Don’t be surprised if you find little in this area beyond “Pricing begins in the five digits” for many vendors. Pricing details may require primary research and this will provide data points, but not full price lists.
If you are performing regular competitive analysis work, consider joining SCIP (Strategic & Competitive Intelligence Professionals).
Owler provides a rotating set of competitive intelligence reports. Users simply sign up for the free service and indicate their company and top competitors. The system then sends a weekly alert covering various topics. This week’s “Social Stats” report provided Twitter and Facebook Followers. Next week’s covers corporate blogs.
Owler also provides a daily business news alerting service, company profiles, funding data, and user polls.
Coincidentally, Owler’s founder Jim Fowler also founded crowd sourced vendor Jigsaw, which he sold off to SFDC a few years back. Jigsaw was rebranded Data.com and is now one of the major sales intelligence services.