This is our fifth blog post in JPK Group’s CI Experts series. The following is an interview with Ben Scheerer, a member of the VMware Integrated Systems product group. Ben executes competitive and product marketing for leading VMware cloud computing solutions and will be speaking at the upcoming JPK Group Competitive Intelligence Intensive 2018 in March.
Conducting the interview is Alok Vasudeva of The Marketer’s Continuum.
AV: How did you start your career and, specifically, the CI function?
BS: I started my career in sales at a local B2B technology systems integrator in Denver during a time when IT was explosive. My desire to work for a large software company led me to product and solutions marketing for enterprise management software solutions – CA Technologies, and then Quest Software.
My path to CI came from product marketing functions over the past 15 years, and most recently when I established a competitive marketing function for the Cloud Management Business Unit at VMware.
AV: Was your route to competitive intelligence a typical one?
BS: While my route might not have been typical, it was a logical progression. As a product marketer for a leading virtualization management vendor Quest Software, I established their competitive function (amongst my many other product marketing-related duties), and it won praise by the field sales and product teams alike.
My knack for CI led me to be recruited by VMware to focus on the competitive function for their up-and-coming Cloud Management Business Unit. I began with only one product and had CI as a part-time focus. Later, my charter expanded to support in excess of a dozen products, and with a dedicated team of five members covering outbound marketing, technical, and engineering functions.
AV: Is technology expertise important in a CI function?
BS: My role requires both a deep practical and technical understanding of both our products and those of our competitors but, more importantly, we need to parlay those into a digestible format that is tailored to the specific audience: technical teams, R&D, field sales, or line of business (LOB) leaders. If I were to summarize the technical skills required to do my job (or anyone on my team), I would include:
- Having deep technical experience and comprehension
- Taking the technical aspects and communicating across a broad array of audiences (e.g., R&D, management, field sales, & non-technical strategic value)
AV: What are some examples of competitive intelligence that you deliver?
BS: Initially, our team began as a source to provide product intelligence primarily for field and partner sales consumption. We specialized in “quick-hit” battle cards for our transactional products and extensive, detailed product tear downs and analysis for the more technically involved, longer sales cycle products where the internal constituents were technical sales, product management, and R&D. In addition, we provided a quarterly cadence of competitive readouts and demos to our R&D staff.
AV: To do your job properly, what departments do you interface with?
BS: VMware is organized into business units (BUs). However, most BUs at VMware (particularly the one I belong, “Integrated Systems”) require constant collaboration and cross-pollination with other business units and their respective products. This necessitates a large and concerted effort in coordinating CI across all product lines in order to both provide a clear understanding of our all-encompassing competitive threats and opportunities, as well as enabling field sales to properly position and sell against our most tenacious competitors.
My team’s charter also requires a high degree of interaction with R&D and product management, as it’s critical in driving product strategy. Our role is to provide detailed analysis of key and emerging vendors and their products, with feature gaps and enhancements requests.
AV: Does your company make a distinction between market intelligence and competitive intelligence?
BS: Yes, we have evolved to provide a focus on each. Most competitive intelligence activities fall under the business unit structure, where our market intelligence is a component of corporate marketing structure.
AV: What department do you fall under, and where should CI reside?
BS: My team resides under the BU structure, and most BUs have assigned and dedicated CI resources. It a nutshell, CI in each BU focuses on their particular set of competitors, product strategy, and the respective field enablement.
While we do have a strategic intelligence team at the corporate level, they focus more on a comprehensive, cohesive company strategy. M&A activity can be found as a result of the work that’s done by them.
AV: Do you do your own work or is any of the work outsourced?
BS: We rely heavily on external vendors. Given the extreme velocity of our business, we often require external vendors to conduct competitive research in their specialized area that we otherwise could not undertake in a timely manner given our bandwidth. A recent example is a pricing exercise, where we needed to delve into average deals sizes and discounting structures of our competitors.
Our team also leverages third-party labs to evaluate and benchmark our products against the competition. This can sometimes be a tricky process given the EULA (end-user license agreement) restrictions and ethical boundaries. However, the output often provides us with valuable insight that we may not have been able to gain if this was only an in-house project.
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?
BS: Yes. In the tech industry, as well as in my own experience, CI often initially falls on the shoulders of the product manager (more feature/function comparison) and/or the product marketing manager. However, as the product or company scales, there often is a lack of focus or neglect on CI aspects when assigned to a PM/PMM, who is juggling many other duties to get a product to market. A product [marketing] manager can certainly produce very useful CI, which is usually a component of their overall job duties, but oftentimes their focus isn’t on the ball – information often becomes quickly outdated and irrelevant – until they find the time to spend updating it.
AV: What forms of analysis do you have experience with?
BS: We try to employ the right mix of analysis to further our overall go to market goals and strategy. This includes a foundation of market analysis, both macro and micro. More specifically: “macro” from analysis (Gartner, 451 Research, IDC & Forrester) and “micro”, from our own win/loss analysis, product teardown, and market analysis. We use all this data to influence product strategy, enable field sales as well as contribute in product go to market (positioning, pricing, and packaging).
My team gathers both deep technical (product teardowns and benchmarking) and market analysis and publishes our findings into consumable battle cards and competitive snapshots. We also go very granular into our key competitors by providing analysis in the form of a sales playbook – this gives the business a 360-degree view into our competitor’s business model and strategy, as well as into their competitive product offerings to inject our competitive advantages. Our team also handles requests directly from the field as well as monitors competitive pressures from our Salesforce.com deal tracking. This helps us prioritize our competitive efforts as well as direct deal support (this is great for demonstration ROI!)
AV: Give me examples of soft skills required to do your job?
BS: Creativity and communications, communications, and more communications! Constant communication to the field and business leaders is paramount. We provide both field enablement, as well as constant updates to the business through dashboard reports on market conditions and from our own competitive pressures (e.g., win/loss analysis and reporting).
AV: What type of CI ethics do you adhere to?
BS: We follow the guidelines of both SCIP (Code of Ethics), as well as that stipulated by our own legal counsel. As a practical example, we adhere to EULA (end-user license agreements) restrictions if related to competitive activities when analyzing competitive products. We are also very careful when gleaning information from employee’s who may have come from a competitor – we are very careful not to violate any non-compete agreements, even when they become a VMware employee. It’s my responsibility to uphold the highest ethical standards by tightly aligning with our company’s own stated values.
AV: How does the CI department go from a nice-to-have to critical?
BS: We track and report on all activities relevant to our business in the market, as well as from the field (via direct inquiries and from Salesforce). During this analysis, we confer with the business as to our key focused competitors and prioritize appropriately. One of our key assets is a monthly dashboard that shows several dimensions of macro-level and micro-level competitive pressures as well as supported with detailed win/loss analysis. We also have a tight interlock with our product teams, where CI plays a crucial role in overall product strategy.
AV: Are there CI metrics that you are judged by?
BS: With our dedicated CI practice, we’ve set KPIs including field responsiveness, competitive coverage, and collateral creation. This way both the business and field sales are provided with the most up-to-date and accurate competitive information to assist most competitive requirements.
AV: What did you learn about CI in your previous companies? What’s different about this company?
BS: VMware was the first company where I had the opportunity to focus solely on CI and had the opportunity to build a dedicated CI practice from the ground up. I initially approached the challenge by simply accessing the needs of the organization and applying practical experience, but I also relied heavily on borrowing from past CI expertise within the organization. I also had to push the traditional boundaries from my past CI practices (more reactive), as I needed to redefine my CI practice to address the unique needs to where the business was heading (proactive).
I see the CI practice as constantly evolving, and we are constantly assessing new tools, processes, and procedures for continual improvement. We also make it a point to collaborate across the business (to other CI teams) in order to share best practices, successes and failures.
Ben Scheerer – Group Product Marketing Manager at VMware
As a member of the VMware Integrated Systems product group, Ben executes competitive and product marketing for leading VMware cloud computing solutions. Prior to VMware, Ben’s 18 years of industry experience includes product marketing at Quest Software and software sales, consulting, product and solutions marketing at CA Technologies. Ben’s contributions include; numerous speaking engagements, published articles and white papers on IT management related topics. Ben holds a master’s degree in Computer Information Systems from The University of Denver, an undergraduate degree in marketing from Western Michigan University and is ITIL® V3 Foundation certified.
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.