Here at JPK Group, we’re launching a new Q&A-format series, featuring the two types of competitive intelligence (CI) experts: CI practitioner and CI consultant. Many of these interviews will feature people that have spoken at previous JPK events.
Our first blog post in this CI Experts series will be an interview with CI consultant Eric Kuhnen, known in CI circles as “The Battle Card Guy.” Eric first spoke at the March 2017 JPK Summit on the topic of battle cards, and was our top-rated CI speaker. He will be returning to speak at two of our September conferences: Competitive Intelligence Intensive 2017 and Product Intelligence and Experience Summit 2017.
Conducting the interview is Alok Vasudeva of The Marketer’s Continuum.
AV: How did you start your career and, specifically, how about the CI function?
EK: My degree is in Computer Science; so, my career started as a programmer for a large software company. Within my first five years, I took on a product management role and launched my first product, LoralLink. I liked product management, so I remained in that role as I moved to different companies. As a product manager, I was always tasked with doing competitive intelligence; however, it was never a dedicated function or responsibility.
In 2003, I joined Focal Partners as a consulting analyst, and began writing battle cards for various B2B technology clients. In 2008, I left a career in product management to become a partner with the firm, and in 2011, I became Focal Partners’ managing partner. In the 14 years since I became affiliated with Focal Partners, I have personally written or reviewed hundreds of battle cards for clients spanning 30+ technology markets. Our firm has produced over 1,100 battle cards since its founding in 2000.
AV: What’s the difference between a CI practitioner and a CI consultant?
EK: The CI practitioner functions like a company’s in-house legal counsel. There’s just one client, and the CI practitioner, as an internal company employee, is the expert. The practitioner has access to the client’s proprietary, confidential, and even strategic products, plans, weaknesses, and other intellectual property.
The CI consultant is a third-party expert hired by companies to provide an independent, unbiased perspective on the competitive assessment process. The CI consultant has limited access to the client’s intellectual property and strategic plans, but also possesses the ethical freedom to obtain competitive information without exposing the client. Using a CI consultant means fresh eyes for the client and removal of any internal corporate speak that could convolute information promoted to the outside.
AV: Was your route to competitive intelligence a normal one? What does the typical route look like?
EK: There are very few universities studying competitive intelligence, so I think the path toward CI is non-standard. I arrived in CI by way of the technical and product management ranks; CI became a part of my product management responsibilities. I’m certain there are several other routes to becoming a CI professional, including through the product marketing ranks.
AV: Is technology expertise important in a CI function?
EK: Let me answer the question in terms of what goes into a battle card. When a battle card includes a section on technical weaknesses, technology expertise helps to calibrate the impact of the weakness. “Technical knowledge” does not imply deep technology expertise in one specific type of product. For example, a technical analyst who wrote business process management software is just as valuable as a technical analyst with experience in database software when the task requires evaluating the impact of technical weaknesses. It’s the software engineering experience that is valuable, in terms of context, not the specific kind of software that is created.
AV: Give me examples of competitive intelligence that you deliver, what departments do you interface with, and what CI metrics do you look at?
EK: I specialize in battle cards and competitor snap shots. I’m often asked to write white papers that are derived somewhat from those two types of reports. An effective battle card requires input from sales teams who have competed against a specific vendor, product marketing teams in charge of determining messaging, and aggregating win-loss data for determining and prioritizing the buying criteria.
The primary metric I use is how often a CI report is referenced or accessed. The presumption is that the better the report, the more often sales teams are referencing it in some way.
AV: Does your company make a distinction between market intelligence and competitive intelligence?
EK: Yes. We see Market intelligence applying all vendors and customers that comprise a market. We build a “market brief” report that fits within that perspective on Market Intelligence. In our view, Competitive intelligence looks at specific competitors within a market. The battle cards we build always look at our client and a single competitor.
AV: What kinds of questions are you asking?
EK: That depends entirely on the problem to be researched, but asking the right questions is the foundation of good competitive intelligence. With every client engagement, I’m careful to identify the research questions so that we can show how our findings and deliverables align with those questions.
AV: What form of primary research do you specialize in? Telephone, trade shows, focus groups, etc.?
AV: Do you find a difference between CI generated by a dedicated professional versus CI generated by a someone whose primary function is something else?
EK: Here’s what I see. When CI is performed by a product manager, the information skews to the technical differentiators. When CI is performed by a product marketer, the information skews to the use-case differentiators. When CI is performed by a sales professional, the information skews to the silver-bullet proof-points and reference customers. When CI is performed by a dedicated professional, there is no skewing of the information. The report feels balanced in all of its sections.
AV: What forms of analysis do you have experience with?
EK: At one time or another we’ve used SWOT, radar, scatter, Harvey balls, and heat maps. For battle cards, however, I rarely use SWOT, Harvey Balls, or heat maps. Here’s why:
- SWOT analysis is too abstract; requiring the sales team to figure out how to apply the information to the specific sales engagement.
- Harvey Balls assume that all customers have the same buying criteria; those conditions exist only when selling commodity products (think consumer packaged goods) to a mass audience.
- Heat maps are better for presenting to executives who need to see the effects of a broad swath of data; heat maps don’t work well in describing the capabilities of a single competitor in head-to-head engagements.
AV: What tools do you use for CI?
EK: We use tools that fit within three competitive intelligence phases: research, analysis, or presentation.
Research has two sub-categories: primary research and secondary research. For primary research, I focus less on tooling than I do on survey design. Designing the primary research interview and employing a good answer-coding methodology are the keys to effective research. Without them, the conclusions drawn in during analysis are not defensible. So, in my primary research, the tools have been something of an afterthought. Having said that, I like the app TapeACall; it’s great for recording interviews and I can feed the audio file to my transcriptionist. I’m also investigating a new tool for automating the coding process once I have the interview transcription.
For secondary research, Google is the best tool around. I’ve tried Bing, and I’ve looked at various services that provide an overlay to Google search results. I’m a fan of the Internet Archive (nicknamed the Wayback Machine); it’s a great source for historical information about a competitor.
For analysis, I think Microsoft Excel is the best for a high-level view of data. I suspect that modern data-visualization tools (like Tableau or Domo) go way beyond what Excel’s charting features can provide, and they are designed for handling big data sets. Most of our competitive research generates small data sets, so Excel is sufficient.
For presentation, I use a word-processing program (either Microsoft Word or LibreOffice Writer) and presentation-creation tool (PowerPoint); PowerPoint is the de facto standard for executive-level briefings. I convert these presentation to Acrobat Pro to create tablet-friendly reports, and I’ve partnered with Compelligence for browser-based delivery.
AV: Give me examples of hard and soft skills required for your job?
EK: The primary hard skill would be previous product management experience. Product managers wear many hats: design engineer, sales coach, product evangelist, and tech support. A balanced competitive assessment incorporates all of these perspectives and skills. Another hard skill is data and information analysis; it’s hard work to get an analyst to think critically about the root-cause of things and to draw accurate, defensible conclusions.
For soft skills, an analyst should be good at listening, at asking good questions and the “right” questions, and at writing clearly.
AV: What type of CI ethics do you adhere to?
EK: First and foremost, I adhere to SCIP’s Code of Ethics. Also, I will not engage with any of my clients’ direct competitors within three years of my last engagement with that particular client.
AV: How does the CI department go from a nice-to-have to critical?
EK: By recognizing that every company requires the functionality of CI, even if it’s not institutionalized by a department. Without CI, there is no analysis and description of differentiating factors.
Eric Kuhnen is a featured speaker at our upcoming summits in Chicago. To register or to learn more click here.
Eric Kuhnen – Principal and Managing Partner at Focal Partners
Eric Kuhnen is “The Battle Card Guy”; he and his partners have built more than 1,100 battle cards since 2000. Eric is also the Principal and a Managing Partner of Focal Partners Consulting. Eric is an expert in competitive analysis and response, and brings more than 20 years of experience in product research, development and management to every project. Before joining Focal Partners, Eric was responsible for competitive positioning, product marketing, and product management at Astoria Software (acquired by TransPerfect), GoRemote (acquired by iPass), and Oracle Corporation. Since 1990, Eric has managed the launch of nine different software products across four different disciplines: SaaS, enterprise, equipment control, and government. Products that Eric has launched have set sales records in the first years of their operation, and one was awarded 2002 Software Product of the Year by Semiconductor International magazine. Eric also speaks and writes on a variety of topics including competitive intelligence and competitive selling.
Alok Vasudeva – Principal and Founder at The Marketer’s Continuum
As principal and founder of marketing consultancy, The Marketer’s Continuum, Alok blends big company processes with the agility and frugality of a startup.
A Silicon Valley native with an extensive history as a B2B marketing professional, Alok has held roles and responsibilities focused on product, content, and corporate marketing. His titles include director of marketing, product marketing manager, product manager, marketing programs manager, marketing manager, and industry analyst.
Alok currently chairs the Silicon Valley chapter of the Strategic and Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP), the largest competitive intelligence organization in the world.