Using Competitive Intelligence for Business Development Success

The use of competitive intelligence has flourished in the past decade, and has often yielded a treasure trove of data, analysis and opportunities. However, the development of a competitive intelligence capability is often limited to larger firms with greater resources, but this does not mean that small and mid-size firms cannot implement the principles of competitive intelligence. Smaller firms just need to think creatively and strategically when deploying resources for competitive intelligence and business development.

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For many attorneys, traditional business development activities involve a high volume of networking, public speaking, writing, and community activities. However, as the legal marketplace has become more crowded and work that used to be handled by outside firms moves in-house, some attorneys have found that these activities yield fewer results and a narrower range of available work. It is a frustrating situation that can demotivate even the most enthusiastic rainmaker, but part of the solution may lie within the world of competitive intelligence.

The discipline of competitive intelligence can encompass research and analysis in areas such as recruiting, mergers and acquisitions, and firm growth. This article focuses on the tactical area of business development, since this is the area that often generates tangible results for even the newest programs.

The first foray into competitive intelligence for most marketing professionals involves a request from an attorney that is usually phrased as “find me information on Company X.” The request is often made an hour or less before the client meeting, and usually results in a quick Westlaw or Lexis search where the staff person grabs whatever generic report they can find, prints it out, and runs it down the hall with the hope that the attorney will scan it quickly and retain some pertinent information. This fire drill experience is as useless as it is frustrating, and it doesn’t have to occur. With a little planning and foresight, competitive intelligence is easily incorporated into business development with much better results. So what does a successful program look like? Think foundation, framework, and additions.

A solid foundation includes a conflict check, an initial conversation that provides the scope of the research to be done and the setting of expectations. The research framework involves external and internal resources as well as the data analysis. Finally, additional research is usually done in response to client input as well as targeted follow-up activities.

In creating the foundation, an early conflict check can provide a simple means of making sure that the potential client target is viable with respect to not only actual conflicts, but perceived conflicts as well, especially where there may be issues in representing competitors within a given industry. The conflict check is also your first opportunity to learn who in your firm may have contact with a potential client or their subsidiaries.

When the research request is initially submitted to the marketing team, a few simple follow-up questions can help the researcher understand the scope and focus on the research. Some of the questions may include:

  1. Can you describe the potential opportunity we have with this company?
  2. How did you learn about this company?
  3. Can you give me the names of the people you have already met at this company and anyone new that you will be meeting?
  4. Have you checked within the firm to see if any of your colleagues have contacts there or have pitched them for work?
  5. What legal services are you considering offering them?

Although each opportunity will have a unique set of follow up questions, this list gives you a starting point. However, you should note that at this stage, all of these questions are based on the attorney’s point of view, interests, and needs, and not necessarily the potential client’s actual needs and interests. It is very important to recognize the difference, because if the research and analysis indicate that the attorney is somehow misguided in her assumptions, you will need to adjust your approach strategy because you can’t sell something that the potential client doesn’t want or know she needs.

External Sources

When it comes to research, law firms have a distinct advantage over many other businesses. Most law firms have access to basic databases in Westlaw or Lexis. However, public company research is easily done for free in Google, Hoover’s free version, and even publicly available stock analysis and investor relations data sections of the company’s website. A basic public company report usually includes the most recent annual report or Form 10-K, where you will find a “management discussion” that explains recent company activities, new products, senior level staff, and board hires, as well as any new acquisitions or dispositions. These reports also may have a section listing legal liabilities if the dollar value of the liability requires investor notification.

In addition to the corporate overview, a media search often reveals information about new facilities, growth plans, executive backgrounds, and even lawsuits and negative publicity. While a Google search is a good starting point, it will not give you information that is available in subscription-based publications and trade media. If you have basic access to Westlaw or Lexis media databases, a media search that covers three to five years will often yield greater detail and even an opportunity to find management patterns or recurring legal issues. By setting the date range over a longer period of time, you may be able to find more useful information. A similar effect can be achieved in Google by making sure that you review information beyond page one results. Looking further in the search engine results (pages 2, 3, 4, etc.), can reveal information that a company may prefer to bury.

If your budget allows for a dedicated market research tool, you may want to explore tools that are not solely designed for law firms. One is Avention’s One Source Reports. These reports combine financial, corporate, media and executive data in a customizable format that is easy to use and share with attorneys.

Beyond the corporate and media research, a litigation report can provide additional insight into the potential client’s litigation history, as well as its preferred law firms and individual attorney hiring. MonitorSuite provides detailed information on cases, representative law firms and outcomes in easy to read charts and graphs. CourtLink, PACER and Courthouse News also provide this information in varying formats and at different price points.

Beyond the company research, pulling background and biographies on the individuals with whom the attorneys will meet can provide additional insight on skill sets and commonalities. While LinkedIn has become a primary source for individual biographies, additional information can be gleaned from this source by making sure that the researcher is thoroughly connected to members of the firm as well as throughout the legal community. Second tier connections can be a source of background corporate and individual information that is not available elsewhere. Additionally, trade publications and conferences often have different biographies that are not publically posted, so if your contact has participated in a conference as a speaker, it is often worth looking at past conference materials on line to see if an industry-specific bio is available.

Internal Sources

As noted previously, your first look at an internal source may come through a conflict check. However, additional database sources may include your firm contact resource management system (CRM), and the backgrounds of your own attorneys. Within your CRM system, you may be able to access individuals and subsidiaries that are connected both with the potential client and your firm. If your firm tracks proposal submissions, a quick review will help the attorney avoid the embarrassment of not knowing that his firm has previously pitched this client. Additionally, an informal email to colleagues asking if anyone has contacts at a particular company can sometimes yield interesting results, such as a spouse or family member working at the company, or finding out that members of your firm serve on the same board or are in the same sports league as your contact.

As noted at the beginning of this article, the initial discussion between the attorney and the researcher helps set the scope of the research and the focus of the team’s efforts. This focus is what helps shape the final report to the attorney and allows the researcher to direct the attorney’s attention to the information that either supports the attorney’s initial supposition or redirects them into a more productive meeting.

After the initial meeting, it is very important for the attorney and researcher to have a follow up conversation that covers new information learned from the client, any direction that was received regarding potential opportunities and any information gathered regarding professional likes and dislikes. Updating the research report provides a repository for this information. Specific action items regarding follow up and future contact should be calendared and where possible, a link to the research report should be included in the calendar listing.

Over time, these individual company reports and activities can result in the attorney and the researcher developing an in-depth industry knowledge, particularly where the attorney works for several companies within a given industry. The addition of meeting-specific information, industry background and follow-up activities all come together to create a solid business development plan that is client-specific and highly focused.

About the Author

Clare Block is a business development manager at Fisher Phillips LLP and regularly works with attorneys on targeted client development. She can be reached by email at cblock@fisherphillips.com.

(Feature Image Credit: ShutterStock)

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