18 excel modeling tips

This week I coached a new consultant in creating an excel model.  Here are some of the words of advice I gave him.  I wish I knew these pointers 20 years ago.

Excel model structure = easy to understand

  • Put all the assumptions, drivers at the top of the page.  This allows the owner of the excel model to tweak the numbers in one place
  • Highlight inputs in black,and calculations in blue color.  This tells the owner to only alter the black cells.  Don’t lock the blue cells; while that prevents the model from breaking, it is hard to work with, and potentially annoying.
  • Add in notes to explain the source of the data, or assumption.  Don’t make the client guess where the data came from,.  Make it audit-friendly
  • Add in an extra column explaining the calculation (e.g., row A + row C / Row D). Like instructions on the IRS 1040 form
  • When you are near completion, add in an extra tab with instructions on the model.  Alternatively, add in “comment boxes” which explain the top 4-5 model parts
  • The user of the model should be able to alter the inputs, and see the results on the same page . . as figures or in graphs.  Don’t make them scroll down.

Triangulate towards an answer

  • Write down the 3 things you are trying to do with the model.  What are the hypotheses you are testing for?  If you don’t know what answers you are seeking, you will waste your time just geeking out. . .for no reason
  • Add in dummy data, until you get more reliable information.  This will help you to get the model “up and running”, make sure the mechanics work
  • Quickly determine what they key data points you need.  Reach out to the client, subject matter experts, or google to get the data points.  You don’t need all the data points, but you need something to put into the model
  • Use your common sense.  Can you walk someone who knows nothing about the situation, through the model, so they understand?
  • Don’t keep the model a secret.  Iterate with your manager and get feedback.  The worst thing you can do is privately mess it up, without enough time to correct

Stay flexible, and continually refine

  • The model will start out very basic, and rough.  That is okay.  Put in the basic information and
  • Continually readjust for the appropriate level of model granularity (e.g., 1=basic, 10=refined), so that you are prioritizing on the right things
  • When you think of “nice-to-have” or more nuanced factors, don’t add them until later.  Just write them in, and add them in later when yo u are 80% complete
  • If you are comparing 2 scenarios (e.g., refurbish vs. buy), work on 1 of the scenarios first, get it stable, then copy/paste those rows . . .so the structure is parallel.  Make it easy to do an apples-to-apples comparison

Stress test the model

  • Change a variable and see if the changes make sense.  For example, if you raise the costs from 15% to 150%. . . you better show a loss, and not a profit, right?
  • When comparing A and B scenarios, add in the variables that actually change the outcomes.  If something applies to both A and B, don’t put it in the model
  • Can you tell your partner which variables most significantly affect the outcome of the model?  What variables have the greatest sensitivities?

What other excel model tips do you have?   I will add them in.

Excel model quality

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Consulting is about people

Professional services is about people.  That should come as no surprise, of course. Clients pay our salary.  There is no real “equipment” that we are operating.  It’s just a lot of smart people, trusting each other, and working together.  Simple.

Yes, we do quick, smart research.  Yes, we can whip bad data into meaningful analyses.  Yes, we can logically structure problems, and tell a story in PowerPoint. Yes, we can explain what a regression analysis is.  Yes, we know the difference between a median, mode, and a mean. . . . that is not what makes us consultants.  Our ability to make the complex simple, and drive decision making and action.  That is why we are paid better than average.  We help leaders make change.  We move them forward.

People = miscommunication.  Not to get too metaphysical, spiritual or religious, but people are fallible.  Seriously, fallible.  Distrust, cynicism, prejudice, arrogance, and timidity are just some of the poor behaviors consultants see in the corporate world.  All these negatives lead to miscommunication, confusion, and wasted effort.

I have written about the importance of clear communication, meeting minutes, and managing project scope.  Consultants tend to excel at this, while clients do not.  If clients would set a direction, trust each other, and communication, the size of the management consulting industry would shrink by 50%.  Not scientific, but true.

Crashing wave

Build trust.  Today, I was putting out client fires.  Some of it was self-inflicted, some of it was the client.  All of it has to do with miscommunication and a lack of trust.  Thinking back on what I might have done differently:

  • Get the right people on board early
  • Don’t accept the easy answer of “we don’t have the data”
  • Circulate more, see who else is out there. . who might have the answer
  • Don’t play the politics game, at all

Glad to meet good people.  Lots of good people on the client side.  More than once over the last week, I have said things like:

  • Thanks for being open-minded
  • Appreciate your support and advocacy
  • Yes, I want to make you successful
  • Let’s not let small differences prevent decision-making

Invest in your team and the client.  This project I gave presents of 2 books to clients. Oddly, I actually received one back.  I am convinced, consulting is just smart people, trusting each other, and working together.  Have a great Friday.

Success = direction + smart people + trust

I have been consulting executives for the last 15 years – as an external management consultant, as a strategic planner, or as a organization design project lead.  Spent a fair amount of time with CEO, COO, CFO, VP of this, and Executive Director of that.  The majority of our clients have organizations with $500M – $5B in revenues, not small.

From this diverse experience, and the fact that I am just getting older, I think that it helps to make things simple.  Organizational success comes from getting smart people, developing a strong sense of trust, and setting a clear (and flexible) direction.

I find myself explaining this simple formula to clients, and also potential recruits.

Smart People Direction Trust

Direction.  Executives . . .please listen to this.  You have to tell your people where you are going, and what you expect of them.  It should not be a 36 page powerpoint or a 80 page strategic plan.  Make it simple.  Make it clear (and flexible).  You cannot prescribe every single action you expect of people.  Assume the message will get diluted and poorly communicated.  Make the goal and strategy easy to understand and implement.

  • What are we (the organization) trying to do?
  • How are we different from others?  How to use those strengths?
  • What are our values and what type of people do we want to recruit and retain?
  • What are we NOT going to do?
  • Who are we serving?

Smart people.  I mean this broadly to mean people who are not only intelligent, but have common sense, can think outside of their designated silos (be it finance, supply chain, HR or otherwise), have an attitude of learning, and get things done.  Clearly my definition of smart people is broad:

  • Lazy people are not smart
  • Selfish people are not smart
  • Fearful people are not smart
  • Jaded people with no hope are not smart
  • People who think they are smart, are not smart

As Jim Collins famously said, “you have to get the right people on the bus, in the right roles”  Wrong people = fail.  The wrong people create more confusion, rework, and overhead than if you had not hired anyone at all.  Recruiting people who are a good fit is difficult and incredibly important.  As a HR friend once told me, “hire slow, fire fast”.

Trust.   Effective consulting teams are all about people, and trust. If you cannot trust your manager, peer, or analyst, there is no leverage model.  Everyone has to double check everything, and the levels of overhead and bureaucracy multiple. Organizationally, when there is no trust – you have to develop deep personal relationships individually with people to get things done.  Trust becomes something unique that some people have and others don’t.  In other words, it becomes Game of Thrones.   Alliances, favoritism, reciprocity, long-standing memories, and pettiness.

This is probably the most important of the 3.  A culture of trust will help you to collectively set the right direction, recruit and retain smart people.  A lack of trust obfuscates direction and turns smart people away.

When I think back on all the clients I have served and those my friends have worked with. . .most business problems fall into a combination of these problems:

No Direction

  • Unclear direction confuses mid-level managers
  • Mixed messages from different groups – finance, HR, operations, marketing – which create a knee-jerk reaction to solve the problem of the day
  • New management sets a new direction, with only limited acknowledgement of what successful things came before.  New executives come in an “clean house”
  • Outsourcing of strategy to consultants – executives get so “busy” with their lives, that they ask management consultants to help decide for them, what to do

Lack of Smart People

  • Leaders who insulate themselves, not getting real-time feedback from below
  • Rewarding the wrong behaviors and non-performance
  • Allowing bad behavior (rivalry, gossip) to persist
  • Placing people into roles they are not qualified for
  • Acting too quickly to recruit from outside, rather than nurturing leaders internally

Lack of Trust

  • Inactivity and slowness because people have to “check with their boss”
  • An over-emphasis on “consensus building” because people don’t want to be perceived as being selfish or going rogue
  • Intolerance of innovation-driven failures
  • Over-reliance on benchmarks and canned, industry best practice answers

I respect CxOs and the burden they carry.  Effective leadership and management are difficult.  I am not a CxO.  I have not had the burden of $MM of budget and thousands of employees.  I have not had the burden of Wall Street analysts picking apart my comments.  I have not had lawsuits against me for my actions as a Chairman of the Board.  I have not managed a global organization 30 VPs wanting my attention 24/7.

For all the reasons above, my appeal is simple.  Set the direction, hire and cultivate smart people (broad definition of course), and create a culture of trust.  Amen.

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Consulting: flexibility to take vacations

I have been on vacation for 2 weeks.  Family visiting from overseas.  During that time I wrote a handful of emails, and took a few conference calls, but largely, I was on a break.  See some photos from the cruise.  Ah, a sampling of retired life.

Consultantsmind CruiseConsulting gives you flexibility.  This is not a 9-5 job as I have detailed in many a 2am blog post.  Honestly, there are times where the grind, long-hours, negative stress, and workload make this job seem crappy.  However, the project-based nature of the work has benefits.  You can plan your vacations around your projects.  With enough advance warning, you can take 2-3 week vacations without hurting your utilization or putting your project teams are risk.  Project-based works starts & (thankfully) ends.

Some work you can do anywhere.  Some consultants can do a lot of their work remotely.  This is particularly true of analysts and those earlier in their career.  They may be straddling multiple projects, and busy crunching numbers.  For those grinders, place has no consequence.  Go to the beach with your family, and work in the bedroom. Enjoy the nights and the weekends.

Alternate travel.  This is a perk you learn of very early in your consulting career.  For those singles who are traveling M-TH to client sites, they can opt to travel to a different city (e.g., visiting a friend in San Francisco or Las Vegas) instead of flying home.  As long as the price of the flight is the same or less as the flight would have been. . .no harm done to the client.  Of course, the consultant will be ragged-out tired, but happy.

Life is not linear, neither is our work.  Life has lots of ups / downs.  Life is not linear. Averages have no meaning.  Sometimes things are crazy, sometimes it is boring.  When people talk about work/life balance. . . I don’t think that makes sense.  It’s more about pivoting, grooving, and sleighing in between the different events in your life.

Thanks.  Give thanks for those on your team who “cover” for you when you are out. They attend meetings, take calls, and generally make sure you don’t find yourself in too much of a “hole” when you come back.  Enjoy, and bring back some chocolate.

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Why 14% of Harvard goes into Consulting

I recently read a 4,300 word article in the Harvard Crimson school newspaper that helps to explain why more than 14% of the Harvard graduating class goes into management consulting.  If you are interested in understanding the psyche of young top talent that goes from Harvard into the Big 3 or Big 4 consulting firms read here.

Harvard Crimson

While there are many reasons to go into consulting – exciting work, good pay, and travel to name a few – this article makes the case for flexibility.  Consulting offers Harvard grads great learning experiences without locking them into a career. Honestly, who at the age of 21 really know what they want to do for the next 40+ years?  I didn’t.

For Harvard seniors seeking intellectual stimulation and professional prestige after college, an application to these firms can make good sense. The firms can, and almost always do, serve as stepping stones, training their young hires in technical skills and business know-how that open doors to a variety of jobs in other fields. – Harvard Crimson

Completely agree.  When I look at some of my Big 4 consulting peers, they are in a number of different industries at roles.  I called it a consulting diaspora.

Our students are panicked about choosing something for ten years. …They’re commitment-phobic. . .Consulting jobs present themselves as low in risk and high in reward.

- Harvard Director, Office of Career Services

In the article, they joke that the Office of Career Services (OCS) at Harvard is actually more like the Office of Next Steps because these super precocious and talented millennials want to learn, have fun, but most importantly, keep their options open.

The Big 3 have always had an “up or out” culture which continually cycles young, ambitious talent through their pyramids.  Their marketing material openly tells recruits it is okay to work for a few years, learn, and leave.

A McKinsey recruiting pamphlet, for example, assures potential applicants, “As profoundly stimulating as it is here, people do leave. We’re okay with that.” The recruitment literature of the other two major firms is similar—and comes across as similarly welcoming to those who may fear commitment. BCG’s website touts the opportunity to “[develop] new skills and experience to help you at every stage of your career—at BCG and beyond,” while Bain’s website explains that the firm’s entry level position is “a great way to set yourself up for future success—at Bain and beyond.”  – Harvard Crimson

These Harvard grads are ahead of the game in many ways – including getting great consulting training while keeping their options open.  One of the partners I learned from early in my career used to quip, “I became a partner because I never decided what I wanted to do with my life.”  Little did I realize, that he was actually telling me the truth.

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Feedback is a gift, get the most out of it

Feedback keeps you sharp.  All professionals should be thankful for authentic and well-meaning feedback. It’s a way to gauge our performance, impact, and influence. Good or bad feedback is useful, when it comes from someone we respect. Companies pay $millions to research what their customers are thinking, and yet, as consultants we often get feedback for free.  We ask our clients and our partners:

  • How do you think that went?  Any feedback?
  • I was thinking about ABC approach, what are your thoughts?
  • Do you think we should run it by XYZ, or is it okay to send out by ourselves?
  • How do you think Jackie is doing?  Any feedback for her?

Consultantsmind - Consulting Blog Feedback

Feedback can hurt.  Consultants are used to being top-performers.  A whole generation of millennials grew up getting huge trophies for small feats (yes, I said it) and love to be at the top of the list.   Hearing that you were average is tough to hear.  Too often, feedback is given at the wrong time, or in the wrong way.  It’s not communicated in a spirit of improvement, but more in frustration or chastisement.  Not good

Great firms expect a lot from their people. Working nights and weekends are common because we do not want to disappoint our clients or our peers. As managers, we need to let our people know what we expect. They might be thinking consultant-level work, when we are thinking of them as a manager-candidate.

Give yourself feedback.   There are probably 3 things you do everyday that are great (should keep doing), and 3 things you need to improve (stop doing).  In many ways, you don’t even need anyone to tell you.  Tell yourself.  For me, my 3 points of self-feedback:

  • Pick up the phone when making logistics / meeting plans; email is bad
  • When on a conference call, waiting for other people to join, don’t chit-chat at all
  • Acknowledge people (good job) with their bosses; I sent 3 “good job” emails today

Feedback requires trust.  I give feedback to my teams daily.  Some is minor – “good job” on the powerpoint. Some is major – “this is only 30% complete”.  For me (only 1 consultant talking), you have to create a climate of trust where people feel safe speaking honestly about good and bad things.

“People don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care”  – Theodore Roosevelt

Not all feedback is equal.  If a jerk gives your “feedback”, store it in a mental filing cabinet, and lock it away.  Does not apply to you.  You place value (high or low) on the feedback depending on your respect for the person.

Some people are dense.  There are some people who don’t get it.  Yes, when I said that, someone’s face popped into your head.  Yes, that person.  Yes, some people. . no matter how many different ways you tell them they need to improve, they don’t get it.

When you find a consultant who say they are not getting enough feedback on their performance, two things are probably happening.  Their manager is a bit of a coward, too afraid to be authentic and tell them anything AND the person is not listening.

Reality check: if you get multiple data points of feedback on the same topic. . . that is a trend and it’s very possible YOU are the problem.  Don’t be the dense one.

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US elections, a non-event

I voted.  Today is an election day in the United States for Congress and Governors.

I always vote, as it is one of my rights as an citizen.  That said, very little gets done with state and national elections – it is largely marketing, divvying up of concessions, and (re)allocating of government debt to different special interests.  Sad, but true.

This is not a political blog (thank goodness), but thought that I share a few graphs from the Economist this week.  Here you can see that it is a close race between Republicans and Democrats in only 8 states (out of 50).   Ironically, most people hate Congress (approval ratings in 20-30%), but consistently vote their representative back into office. The likelihood of an incumbent politician in the US getting re-elected is 90%+.  This Washington Post article digs into why this could be the case here.

If you want a 4 minute British take on US elections, listen here.   The Economist (as usual) do a great job of reducing complex topics to their very witty Essence.

Consultantsmind - Consulting blog - Economist graph

Gerrymandering.  This is a SAT-type word, but one of the most important root causes for the completely bi-polar nature of US state and national politics.  The two parties have essentially parsed up the country into unintelligible voting districts which are either full of democrats or full of republicans.  Look at some of the Congressional voting districts below, and how ridiculous they are shaped.  The Post argues here that this is not an oligopoly by incumbents in office, to  stay in office, but I have my doubts.

Examples of odd-shaped districts, largely created for the benefit of 1 of the parties.

Consultantsmind Consulting Blog - Gerrymandering

Polarizing politics.  No surprise, most of my thinking friends don’t pay much attention to the political discourse in the papers, tv, and radios.  Most of it is only 1 inch deep in analysis, and over-simplified.  Most of our complex problems require a look at the root causes, agreeing on the end-goal, listening, and demanding more sacrifice of everyone. As Seth Godin says (paraphrase), if it were an imperfect problem (and easy to solve), it would have been solved already.  We only have perfect problems left.

Information diet.  I am a big fan of the concept of information diet.  Clay Johnson wrote a book by the same name here with the simple concept:  Food (and calories) are over abundant and cheap, which often leads to mindless eating and obesity.  Information is also abundant and cheap and we mindlessly eat too much of that too:

  • We are responsible for the information we consume.  It is our (bad) habits.  We need to be conscious of what we are feeding our brains
  • All information is not valuable.  Think – empty calories, empty information.  Too often “news” is about sensational crap that has no bear on our lives.  It is only meant to capture our attention through fear, anger, hate, disgust etc.
  • Too often, we only take information which appeals to our world view. Through our Google News readers, FlipBoard and email, we tend to read and watch things that validate how we see things.  We need to be more diverse in our news sources.
  • Too much processed (foods) information.  We should be critical thinkers, and be willing to challenge assumptions of the experts, and understand root causes.

A 6 min video of Clay on PBS arguing his points here:

Politics = polarizing negativity. Big surprise, most political advertisements are negative.  In essence, bad-mouthing people works.  Sad.

The Economist breaks it down here.  Requires log-in.

Consultantsmind - Consulting Blog - Lots of negative campaigning

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.  
- F Scott Fitzgerald

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Discussion: Gender equality in consulting

Gender blind consulting? For any of us in management consulting, we are fairly blind to gender in the work place. You see men and women partners, principals, senior managers, managers, senior consultants, consultants, analysts, and interns.  Yes, I do believe there are more women in administrative office-based roles, but for client delivery, it’s men and women everywhere.   My current project is 4 women, 2 men.

Thankfully, consulting is about your ability to think through problems, be resourceful, do the work, and persuade others to take action.  Not a lot of man or woman in that.

Industries have gender bias.  Some industries spike higher / lower in terms of women participation, pay equality, and seniority.  For example, a few that you tend to see more men historically might be: low-skill manufacturing, trucking, mining, software coding. Some of that is historically based (when more of the work was physical), or related to the number and percentage of graduates coming from the related college majors.

Geography matters. The Economist put this chart together which shows the relative economic opportunity for women in different counties here.  They used 29 different indicators, but unsurprisingly, the Scandinavian countries ranked as spots #1, #2, and #3.  Boom.  The US was #14, and China was #68.

Women Economic Index

Bill Gates explains why limiting women’s rights limits growth.  At a talk in Saudia Arabia, someone from the audience asked if their country could become one of the most competitive countries.  Looking across the segregated audience partitioned for men and women in their full-length abayas, he replied, “Well, if you’re not fully utilizing half the talent in the country, you’re not going to get too close to the top.” Boom.

Women in the workforce.  Booz & Co notes that there will be 1 billion more women joining the potential global workforce over the next 10 years.  Sadly, their economic potential is often hampered by regulation, culture, sexism, infrastructure, and ignorance. The Economist notes here that is female labor participation matched that of males, US GDP would grow by 5%, Japan’s by 9%, and Egypt’s by 30%+

Economist what if female participation rate

More women graduates.  The Economist notes that the majority of college graduates now are women, as shown by the filled-in blue circle below.  There is a pronounced difference in type of degree (more boys in science, more girls in health and welfare).

Women graduates

Women CEOs.  Consultants know that it is not just the aggregate number which counts.  Yes, women are graduating from college in more numbers.  Yes, there has been a quiet revolution as women are a larger part of the workforce in OECD countries.  Yes, things are more equitable than in the past – but women still make up only 24 of the CEO spots at the Fortune 500.  This is the highest it has ever been, which is both encouraging and discouraging at the same time.

Most of the people I know believe in meritocracy, how can you not?  Harvard Business Review makes a strong case that there are many un-seen barriers to women’s advancement in the corporate world – many of them subtle, yet, troublesome here.

Consultants.  This is an apprenticeship business.  Keep doing great work.  Learn from others.  Help others to succeed.  Develop authentic relationships with your clients. Recruit and retain the right people – Smart, Aware, Fun, and Eager. Men and Women.

Discussion.  I am open to anything readers want to say about gender equality as it relates to management consulting.  Feel free to post in the comments.  Thanks,

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Real estate gives you bigger pockets

Real estate.  I am an real estate investor.  I have rental properties.  Something on the side, something my wife and I do on the weekends.  I am a firm believe in real estate as an asset class for many reasons:

  • Everyone needs housing
  • Real estate gives you leverage because banks will loan you money
  • Real estate values tend to increase with inflation
  • Interest rates are at a multi-decade low
  • If done correctly it is passive income
  • It is tax advantages because of depreciation
  • It is an imperfect market (unlike stocks), so  you can find good deals
  • It is a people business; real estate people are willing to share
  • From our experience, it is a solid way to get 8% annually

Real estate can teach you.  From real estate you can learn so many things – negotiations, sales, marketing, accounting, and finance.  Many of the wealthiest people invested in real estate.  No surprise.  It works.  Time helps your money grow.

Bigger Pockets.com.  This is a website, forum where thousands of investors share their experiences and wisdom.  There are also 80+ podcasts where successful investors share their stories – good, bad, and ugly.  You can learn an enormous amount on these podcasts.  This is the type of learning that will help you retire 10 years earlier.

There are numerous real estate books, but don’t overlook this website, forum, and podcasts.  It is a free resource and excellent.  Some good podcasts to get you started.

Podcast #2: Karen Rittenhouse.  Great blog: http://www.karensperspective.com/

  • Real estate investing can start out small.  You have to try it.
  • Always be “above board” and honest with people
  • Continually learn.  Karen went from 5 houses to 100+
  • Use outsourcing; her favorite direct mail – postcardmania

Podcast #10: Jay Scott.  Great blog: http://www.123flip.com/

  • You don’t have to be an extrovert to succeed at real estate
  • To create passive income, you have to set up systems; cannot do it all yourself
  • If you create a good business model, investors will find you and give you money
  • The best way to find a contractor is to go to Home Depot at 730 in the morning – those guys are dedicated, planning the day’s work ahead of time, are busy
  • “Always have 2, 3, or 4 exit strategies as a backup on your house flips”
  • “Those who do best in this industry are those who work ON their business, not IN their business”

Podcast #13: Leon Yang

  • Leon decided not to get an MBA because he saw so many good real estate deal.  He move to Las Vegas because it had the best investment profile
  • Believes now is the best time to leverage up on real estate: interest rates low, lots of potential inflation (“Bernanke is just throwing money out of helicopters”), banks are lending again, many houses are below replacement costs
  • “Inflation is a borrower’s friend.”
  • Do what you enjoy . . .even if you don’t succeed, at least you had a good time

For all the consultants out there.  Remember, always look for ways to scale your work, your business, your income.  Most of us are time = money.  Time is precious, and we all need way to diversify our income.  Ways to have your money work for you.   Even if it is not real estate, find ways to create more passive income.  Best of luck.

1 front small jpg

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Competitive intelligence: 20 tips

When I was working overseas, I was on a competitive intelligence project.  It might sound super-crafty, and Mission-Impossible, but it was not.  It was actually quite boring.  Lots of meetings to share information, and try to piece together the competition’s strategy and tactics.  Very ethical and process-driven initiative.

Some tips on competitive intelligence.

  1. Linkedin resumes. People say all kinds of things on Linkedin.com.  Once I did a market sizing partially based on resume bullets (e.g., “I managed a $25M revenue product line of ABC product”).  It’s amazing how much people will tell you about their projects.  I guess personal pride trumps corporate discretion.
  2. Who are they hiring? What kind of roles?  Where are they hiring them?  What are the key areas of responsibility?  http://www.Indeed.com is the best.
  3. What patents are they filing? See what technology they are looking to fence in.
  4. Search for presentation at http://www.Slideshare.net  People post work stuff all the time
  5. What are the competitor’s suppliers and customers saying?. Suppliers know if the business is up, and what they are ordering.  Customers can tell you a little bit about the sales pitches they have seen etc.
  6. What is the hometown newspaper saying?  Small papers often run local stories (e.g., revenues etc) that get buried on the 10th page of Google results.
  7. Read forums.  Forums are where people really speak their mind.  Dig up industry forums and see what people are saying about a product or competitor.  This also applies to all social media: your competitors facebook, twitter, instagram, etc.
  8. Conduct a survey.  Pay people for interviews or conduct industry surveys to see what customers think about you and your competitors.
  9. Use word clouds.  Take an online brochure from your competition, and copy/paste all the words and drop them into http://www.wordle.net  See what the major words that keep getting repeated.  Chances are those at the key attributes, benefits that the competitor is positioning on.
  10. Interview experts.  There are numerous industry experts who pride themselves on knowing what is going on with ABC company or XYZ organization.  Reach out.  People love to be heard, and often, it is only a phone call away.  On one project, we reach out to Wall Street analysts and even got a copy of their excel models.
  11. Download their 10K and investor relations presentations.  If they are a publicly traded company, they are very transparent with their bosses (investors).  Often time, they will come right out and tell you their strategy.
  12. Talk to your own sales people.  Your sales people bump into their sales people all the time.  They trade stories, bump into each other in lobbies, and often used to work together.  Sales people know SOOO much about the competition, but often don’t realize that it is a gold mine for marketers.
  13. Scour trade shows.  All B2B industries have trade shows where they show their wares to customers, vendors, and create alliances.  Lots of brochures, opportunities to chat up vendors, and find out details.
  14. Refine an excel model.  Your understanding of competitors improves over time.  Put together a simplistic income statement for your competitors (what you know about their revenues (volumes x price), their cost-of-good-sold (materials, labor, production costs), their SGA (total headcount, overhead, sales channel) to estimate their profitability and product strengths.  Test your assumptions.
  15. Analyze your own market share trends. Take the effort for real win-loss analysis by deal, by competitor.  Often times, you know what your problem is, but are not admitting it.  Institute a process and track market share over time.
  16. Look at the disruptors. Are you spending too much time looking at the predictable competitors?  Don’t forget to look for disruptive innovation – the ones who are offering “less for less” like Hyundai in cars, or IKEA in furniture.
  17. Compare prices and features.  Some companies have interactive design and quotation features on their websites.  Essentially, you can price out a product that is equivalently “spec”ed to yours and compare the price and value.   For example, configure your own John Deere tractor here.
  18. Search with key words.  A few good key words to include in your google search:  “site:org” for only websites from non-profits and industry groups, “forum” to find forum threads with the inside scoop, “pdf” for published materials.
  19. Create a safe and structured way to get information.  Once you let your people know that this an important initiative, and it is ethical and useful, they will start to send you tid-bits of information.  Piece all those together, and continually connect people within your company with data that is both helpful and strategic.
  20. Protect yourself.  All these tips to find out more about your competitors are the exactly same tactics they are using on you. Teach your people to value information and explain how it can potentially harm the place they work. 

competitive intelligence

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