Major shows like HIMSS are frequently used by vendors to introduce new products, features, and product positioning. This competitive information is valuable and can improve the effectiveness of marketing communications, sales training and sales for the next 12 months. If competitive information is gathered early enough (usually the first day) you can adjust your own product positioning and key points in response, and prepare your booth staff to handle the inevitable competitive “bombs” that the competition will try to get prospects to carry in to your booth.

HIMSS provides a unique opportunity were all your major competitors are brought together under the same roof, with product demonstrations, senior management, and product managers in attendance. Typical intel gathering scenarios include sending out favored customers to probe competitors or dividing competitors among your booth staff and having them scope out the competition. Neither of these approaches works all that well – customers lack the necessary sales and marketing background to be able to do little more than ask one or two specific questions of a competitor. While customer perspective is important, it is only part of a comprehensive competitive assessment. Sales reps end up pacing the aisle outside competitors’ booths like hungry sharks circling a potential meal (or more frequently, talking with their friends). Sometimes mean spirited reps under observation will even try to block the view of anything of interest. As a result, your booth staff will pick up the more obvious competitive info, especially highly visible booth graphics. The messages delivered by competitor's reps or the products they have hidden from view will remain a mystery.

A good trade show competitive assessment starts with a list of your key competitors and specific information to be gathered.

  • Key brand and value proposition messages – the overall messaging for the show, and key points for products of interest
  • New products and features introduced at the show (including an understanding of underlying technology)
  • Descriptions of product and feature demonstrations
  • Answers to specific questions probing product strengths and weaknesses
  • How competitors are positioning their products – what they believe are their strongest value propositions and how they position themselves against the competition
  • Responses to certain sales objections
  • New alliances or bus dev relationships

“This is all great,” you may be saying, “but how can I pull this off?” We’ve already ruled out customers and sales reps. You could go yourself – over the years I’ve swapped demos with numerous competitors’ (frequently while getting the stink-eye from sales management for talking to the enemy). The best way to get this information is to use a consultant.

The good consultants are very sensitive to dealing with proprietary and confidential information. They will also have non-disclosure agreements (NDAs) with at least some of your competitors. Any resulting report will only include public information, nothing proprietary or confidential. Now there's public - what companies tell the press or curious third parties - and there's public - the information companies regularly disclose to sales prospects, such as those found in trade show booths. The value here is the comprehensive and rapid assembly of time sensitive information, and not the uncovering of competitors' detailed product roadmaps or other confidential plans.

Since the objective here is timely and actionable information and not a pretty report, a PowerPoint presentation or bullet oriented report should document the findings from each vendor on the list. A follow up conference call or face-to-face meeting frequently helps fill in any gaps, answer lingering questions and give a more complete assessment.

If you use a consultant, there are two things to keep in mind. First, the quality of your preparation will have the biggest impact on the value of the resulting assessment. The consultant has the relationships, will know how to ask the questions and what the answers mean, but they don’t know your product and competitive situation like you do. So, thoughtful and insightful questions will start with you. Second, ask if your consultant is surveying your market segment for your company alone. If both you and another of your competitors are paying for competitive assessments of the same vertical market, everyone should get group pricing – in these cases, the names of the participating vendors are confidential. And be sure to get this understanding in writing.

So there you have it. What’s your competitive intelligence plan for HIMSS?

You can find the rest of the blog posts on getting the most out of HIMSS here.