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Mapping the competitive landscape for web-based customer service

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Research background
MaxMoney, a financial services company, is planning to roll out an extensive new Web-based service platform to provide customers with information, account access, new account applications, tax preparation, advice, and more.

The financial services industry is a highly competitive, customer-oriented industry, and many companies in the industry are leaping into Web-based customer contact and services.

To stake its competitors are doing – and planning to do – on the Web, as well as initiatives they may have abandoned.

With this information, the company will be best able to position its own offerings and garner market share.

Research budget: Many high-quality market research firms offer expensive reports detailing activity in the financial services sector.

But MaxMoney is not willing to spend the $10,000 or more per report these firms charge.

To minimize the costs of research, MaxMoney plans to identify and purchase discrete pieces of longer reports and to focus its strategy on free sources, including filings to the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), industry news journals, and the competitors’ own Web sites.

The company sets an overall budget of $3,000 for any information purchases it deems necessary and enlists the aid of a researcher in its market research department.

Research strategy employed. Each competitor has a Web site, to information gathering begins “at home,” with these sites.

The researcher conducts supplementary searches on the Wayback Machine (an archive of Web sites going back to 1996) to compare current strategy with past strategy.

She also collects each competitor’s most recent 10-Ks (annual reports) filed with the SEC.

Trade magazines and journals are searched for relevant references to competitors, as well as references to proprietary research that might be available for review or purchase.

Finally, she checks research-oriented portals for industry overviews and company-specific information; some relevant research reports are available on a “by-the-page” basis, and in some cases free summaries (abstracts, executive summaries, or even press releases) provide enough insight to fill in the picture.

With this portfolio of information and the data in hand, MaxMoney will be able to improve its unique selling proposition in the Web-based marketplace.

Research results: Many overlapping research resources are employed for this project, all of which can be grouped into three categories:

Competitor Web Sites. Each competitor’s Web site offers a wealth of information, including the following:

• Tag lines, images, colors, and other marketing/communications cues indicating the marketing approach of the company.

• Customer service interfaces, showing which services and information customers can access via the Web.

• Press releases on initiatives, partnerships, structural changes, and earnings reports.

• A Contac Us page. Viewing this page offers unexpected rewards: new information on the competitor’s marketing efforts.

The form asks visitors, “How did you hear about us?” and provides a series of check boxes showing different places the competitor advertises or is otherwise visible.

• An About Us page. Careful review of the information on this page helps draw a more detailed picture of the way the competitor is positioning itself in the marketplace.

Because part of the research effort is to learn what has changed for competitors, the researcher also searches each competitor’s files on the Wayback Machine (http://www.archive.org).

Entering the competitor’s URL into the Wayback Machine’s search interface pulls up copies of the site as it appeared on any date going back to 1996.

This search allows review and analysis of changes in product offerings, strategy, pricing, and target audience.

SEC Filings. Because all of the competitors under scrutiny are publicly traded companies, they all must file reports with the SEC.

The most detailed and relevant report for MaxMoney’s intelligence purposes is the 10-K, or the annual report.

The 10-K includes sections that describe the business, market, competition, and strategy of the subject company and serves as an excellent source of detailed competitive information.

Some companies make their SEC filings available directly from their Web sites, often in an Investor Relations section.

All SEC filings are easily retrieved directly from the SEC through the EDGAR database (http://www.sec.gov/edgar/searchedgar/webusers.htm), where a simple Web-based search form allows the user to search by a company name, index, state of incorporation, and SIC (Standard Industrial Classification) code.

Because this project involves specific companies, the researcher enters the company names one by one in the search box and pulls up a complete list of filings for each.

From this list she selects and downloads 10-K. To simplify use of the 10-K, which is a lengthy document, she cuts and pastes the relevant sections into a word-processing document.

This minimizes the size of the document and allows simple keyword searching through the word-processing program.

Hence, each company’s statements about Web-based customer service and the competitive marketplace are easily extracted from these filings.

Trade and Industry Publications. Next the researcher searches databases of business publications for articles dealing with Web-based offerings of financial services companies, as well as for overviews of market trends and proprietary research released in the past twelve months.

Gale Group’s Business & Industry Database, accessible through the public library, is a key source, as are ProQuest and InforTrac.

She conducts searches using combinations of terms, including competitor names and terms such as Web services, electronic business, e-business, trends, research, competition, and outlook. These searches yield a wide range articles, including the following:

• Company profiles
• Articles comparing lead players in the industry
• Press releases and feature stories describing recent analysts’ reports on the sector
• Reviews of Web-based service offerings
• Surveys of customer experiences on financial services Web sites
• Estimates of the size of the current and future market for Web-based services

Proprietary Reports. Several articles mention reports published by three different industry analyst groups – a professional association for financial services companies and two market research firms.

A visit to the Web site of the professional association revels that a PDF version of the research report is available simply by registering on the site.

Although this report does not have the most recent or cutting-edge, information, it does provide more depth than the news articles, as well as a helpful overview of factors affecting the market.

The two market research firms each have a large report on financial services trends in general, as well as shorter reports on e-commerce and e-business trends in the sector.

The large reports cost between $8,000 and $10,000, and the shorter reports cost $5,000 each.

The firms both indicate that the only way to get this information is to purchase the full report.

Nevertheless, a visit to a research portal proves otherwise: a search at MarketResearch.com (http://www.marketresearch.com) reveals that one firm’s reports are available on a “by-the-slice” basis.

The researcher identifies five relevant pages from the overall industry report and four chapters from the specific report on Web-based services and purchases them through the portal.

The pages from the industry report cost $175 apiece, and each chapter from the Web-based services report costs $450, resulting a cost of $2,675. The other firm’s reports are not available anywhere on a per-page or per-chapter basis.

Summary of solution: Each competitor has been studies thoroughly for its current and proposed Web-based service offerings, abandoned initiatives, market standing, and outlook.

MaxMoney has learned how its competitors are “slicing and dicing” the marketplace, where the market is stronger or weaker, and what specific factors affect consumer decisions about Web-based service and information offerings.

Using a combination of competitor communications materials, SEC filings, historical Web site information, trade journal coverage, and proprietary research, MaxMoney has created a detailed map of the competitive landscape in Web-based financial service offerings.

Because so much information was gleaned through publicly available sources, and because the researcher was strategic about where and when to purchase information, the budget of $3,000 was maintained.

MaxMoney is now prepared to map out its own strategy for rolling out Web-based services.

Useful tips
• Competitive intelligence can start with the competitor. Visit a competitor’s Web site and read public filings (if available); analyze the language you find there.

How does the competitor present itself? What word and concepts appear frequently? How would you describe the competitor’s market and unique selling proposition, based on the language the competitor uses?

• Obtaining data is rarely an “all or nothing” proposition. If a costly report has information you need, look for a source that might offer pieces of the report. Some research portals offer reports by the page or by the chapter.

Additionally, news coverage announcing the publication of the report or quoting the authors of the report sometimes provides insight into the more detailed data Just because you can’t afford “all” doesn’t mean you have to settle for “nothing.”

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