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The sluggish economy continues to be an issue for small business owners.  And now it appears competition may be getting tougher too.  According to the Guardian Life Small Business Trends Research Report, larger companies will aggressively market to prospects once considered “too small.”  That means those of us who own small businesses may find ourselves dealing with new and tougher competitors.

So how do you protect yourself.  For starters, you need to keep a close eye on the competition.  You’ve probably heard the old saying, “What you don’t know won’t hurt you.”  Well, guess what!  It can and it will hurt you. It’s important to know as much as you can about your market, your customers, your products and your competition.

With little or no budget for competitive research, you’re probably wondering how to gather that intelligence.   There are myriad low-cost methods you can use get the information you need to stay on top of things in your market and protect your customer base.

Explore the Internet.  This should be pretty obvious, but you can conduct an internet search on your competitor(s).  You may discover a lot of helpful information.  For example, you may learn about personnel changes, a new product offering, even new clients/customers.

Visit Your Competitor’s Web site.  Web sites are a good source of information about a company.  Typically, there are backgrounders on the company’s management team along with a history of the company and its mission statement.  Some web sites also maintain client lists and  if it’s an e-commerce site, you can compare pricing

Contact Your Trade Association.  Many small businesses belong to trade associations which provide current research findings.  These studies focus on consumer’s perceptions of your product or service and growing trends within your industry.  Most of these studies are free to association members.  Additionally, associations typically publish newsletters or trade magazines where you might find competitive information.

Talk to Vendors.  One of the best sources of information is your vendors.  One of your suppliers who also sells to your competitor may be able to share a lot of insight about what your competition is up to.  Be careful, however.  If they disclose information to you, you can safely assume they are doing the same thing with your competitors

Pay Attention to Advertisements.  Watch for your competitor’s advertisements.  How are they positioning themselves?  How often do they advertise?  Where are they advertising?  To whom are their ads directed?  Collecting this information will help you get a better understanding of your competitor’s strategy in the market.

Secret Shoppers.  Secret shoppers can be a good way to learn about your competitor’s sales process.  Ask a friend or family member to pose as a potential customer and either call your competitor or visit their retail location.  Of course, this wouldn’t be appropriate if you are in an industry where every sales presentation is customized.

Network.  Reach out to business associates to learn more about the marketplace.  Chances are there are people within your network who have done business with your competitors.  Find out what they liked and what they didn’t like.

Talk to you Competitors.  Depending on what industry you are in, you may find your competitors are friendly ones and willing to discuss certain issues with you.  The Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (SCIP) is a good resource for guidelines.

Finally, whatever information you obtain, use it constructively to assist your firm’s growth.  Never use it to hurt your competitor.  And if you gain access to information that appears to be proprietary, destroy it immediately.

Competitive research doesn’t have to cost a fortune, and the benefits can be huge.

AvatarSusan Solovic

Susan Wilson Solovic is an award-winning entrepreneur and journalist, author of three best-selling books, multi-media personality and contributor to ABC News and other outlets, public speaker and attorney.