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What They Know That You Don't

10 technologies companies don't want to talk about.

Smart Business Magazine

A patented invention, a great idea, a breakthrough innovation, a secret ingredient—every successful company has something that gives it an edge over its competitors.

But more often than not, that edge comes from a technology or service that any business could use—if they knew it existed. From business intelligence apps that let you spot trends before they happen to free software that will save you a bundle on your back end, getting ahead doesn't have to be rocket science.

We've uncovered 10 technologies that lots of companies use to get a jump on the competition, though few like to discuss them. Some companies fear customer or employee backlash. Others don't want to tip their hand to competitors. Whatever the reason, no one's been talking. Until now.

Competitive Intelligence

Checking up on the other guys has never been easier.

For as long as business has been around, companies have been finding new and better ways to peek into one another's keyholes—whether it's by scouring SEC filings and news reports, database research, or good old-fashioned schmoozing.

But now more than ever companies are keeping their surveillance tactics under wraps, partly because of the privacy and legal issues that plague the competitive intelligence industry, and partly because companies don't want their own tools used against them. Fast, effective, modern spyware can make or break your bottom line. Electronics manufacturing giant Siemens, for example, invested $7.8 million in competitive intelligence management software that gave the company a corporate edge worth $122 million in increased sales. NMHG, maker of industrial trucks and machinery, uses competitive intelligence software from Strategy Software to pull up information on Caterpillar within minutes instead of hours or even days.

Who cares? You should—because your competitors do. In a recent study from Fuld and Company, a competitive intelligence consulting firm, 48 percent of 1,500 executives surveyed admitted to having an organized intelligence-gathering effort, and 48 percent said they plan to invest in related software tools. Not only are the tools readily available, but they're increasingly sophisticated. Fuld's study counts 150 kinds of software and services that can help track down everything from chat room gossip to your rival CEO's divorce records.

"It's not just about getting information anymore, it's about getting information quicker. Most of our clients prefer that we not give out their names because the timely information we collect gives them an advantage," says Stephen DiMarco, marketing VP at Compete, which uses clickstream data to follow online shoppers around the Web.

A well-known book and music e-tailer was caught by surprise when its largest competitor started selling products like sporting goods and used merchandise on its Web site. In a countermove, the e-tailer hired Compete to track its competitor's 2 million Web shoppers and find out which of these products shoppers were buying, how much they were spending, and how many of the e-tailer's own customers were defecting to the competitor. Snooping revealed that the only product category posing a threat was used merchandise. Within 90 days, the e-tailer started selling used goods with no fear of failure, bypassing development costs. Success followed in the form of an estimated $5 million to $10 million in time and development cost savings and tens of millions of dollars in new sales.

Secret Weapons: Competitive Intelligence Tools

The right competitive intelligence tools can keep everyone from sales reps to analysts in the know.

Strategy Software
Pulls competitive information from systems you already have—like databases and CRM software—and organizes it into reports on your competitors' products, people, and strategies. Licenses range from $11,000 for small shops to $250,000 for larger companies