Beat your competition

Nearly everyone will have some form of competitive intelligence inside their company, but how do we prioritize our competitors and ultimately define them?

In this article, I’ll discuss the process of prioritizing, defining, and researching competitors through the lens of Formstack and how we’ve had to rethink how we compete and who we compete against after multiple acquisitions, and specifically how we prepare our sales teams to beat the competition.

My name is Clint Buechler, I'm Product Marketing Manager at Formstack and in this article, I'm going to be talking about competitive intelligence. I've titled this 101 because in some ways it’s back to basics.

Everyone probably has some sort of competitive intelligence inside their company, I'm going to talk a little bit about how Formstack does it. We've been through a string of acquisitions recently, and I've had to really think differently about how we compete and who we compete against.

I'm going to talk about that process of how we define our competitors, and how we prepare our sales teams specifically.

Why do we care about competitors?

A lot of times, there are other companies who just focus strictly on themselves and say, 'we're gonna do what we're gonna do, we're not gonna let anyone influence us'.

But competition isn't necessarily about trying to be someone, we don't want to be keeping up with the Joneses. We don't track competitors to try to do the same thing as them.

A lot of times with competitors, it's all about learning about what customers expect and what they want from us. Because if they're going to competitors, they're not coming to you, and that means you're not fulfilling a need.

That need might be something that you want to do, it might be something you don't ever have, or are never going to put on your roadmap. But understanding what competitors are helping other customers do can help you figure out whether or not you're going to play against them in the market.

Formstack’s platform evolution

Formstack is a form building product that was founded back in 2006; a basic drag and drop form builder that allows you to collect any type of data from anyone and spit out quick things really easily.

We've been going through a platform evolution, we got acquired back in 2018, and have gone through a string of acquisitions that have really shaped us into a new market.

  • Back in March 2018, we acquired a company called QuickTapSurvey, which is a mobile one to one survey tool that you might find in an airport where you press a button on it, and things like that.
  • Bedrock Data was acquired in December 2018, a data synchronization tool that allows you to sync data between databases like HubSpot, NetSuite, and Salesforce, so all your data is always the same wherever you write it, it always changes.
  • April of 2020 we acquired Webmerge, which is a document automation software that lets you create customized PDFs, Excel sheets from all kinds of data sources.
  • Our final acquisition was InsureSign back in July, a typical e-signature provider that focused a lot on the insurance industry when it first got its start.

All of these new products have allowed us to become, rather than just a forms product, more of a platform for workflow productivity, which is a lot different than what we had been talking about as a company before March 2018.

Our competitors

From a competitive landscape, we used to traditionally focus on other types of form builders, Jotform, Typeform, Form Assembly, all those regular different competitors you probably know about.

When we acquired QuickTapSurvey, we got into the survey market, as we brought in Bedrock, we brought in other databases as competitors. Then we brought in document automation; Conga, PandaDoc, then we brought in signatures; DocuSign, etc.

All of these now have some sort of stake in our product. As we have built our platform, all of our products are individual products. They're standalone, you can buy them by themselves so we have been able to compete individually in all these but then we have a platform play that we also have to compete against different people as well.

How do you prioritize competitors?

It gets really confusing on how we do it and how do we focus and who do we focus on?

We've really defined a new structure for us. There are a lot of different ways you can do this, but one is starting to look at the different types of competitors.

Types of competitors

This is very much your business course in marketing, but it's always good to have a refresher.

Direct competitors

Your direct competitors are people who do the exact same thing, basically the exact same way. For most of this article, I'm going to be focusing on direct competitors, because those are your biggest threats at the moment.

For example, Netflix and Hulu. These are the people who can steal customers away because they're doing the exact same thing.

Indirect competitors

Indirect competitors sometimes aren't even other products, they're sometimes different processes. If you think about jobs to be done, for example, one of our indirect competitors is paper forms. Just a simple piece of paper, people can not spend their money on us and they can just go print something out on their computer and put it on their desk and that's how they're doing forum.

Indirect competitors do have the same end goal, but do it in different ways. McDonald's and Pizza Hut - both are trying to do fast food, one does it with pizza one does it with burgers.

Replacement competitors

Replacement competitors are more industry disruptors and people coming in and doing something completely different. You probably don't focus a lot on them, because you normally don't see them coming but it's something just to keep an eye on.

For example, think about Kodak and the iPhone, the digital camera industry was completely disrupted when the iPhone came in and basically did the exact same thing, and more.

I'm going to be focusing a lot on direct competitors, at Formstack we do a lot of direct competitor focus as well.

Defining your competitors

We run our competitors through these three types of checks here on how we define them.

  1. Who does the market say you compete against?
  2. Who do your competitors say you compete against? And,
  3. Who does your customer say you compete against?

What does the market say?

The first one, who does the market say you compete against? This is mostly third-party companies who don't have anything necessarily to do with you, who are they saying you are naturally competing against?

A lot of times these can be review sites like G2, Trustpilot, and Capterra. For example, if you go to Formstack's G2 site, this is who they say we compete against, they give us comparisons for all these other people.

Obviously, they're sourcing this competitor list for us, because this is what people are coming to them for. If you have a relationship with a Forrester or a Gartner and see their magic quadrants, who else is on there?

Go to the App Store, see who you're naturally coming up against. Those are the people who the market is saying that other people are looking for it. That's a good indicator of when people are going to check on your competitors, they're going to go and find these other people.

What do your competitors say?

If your competitors are trying to compete against you, they obviously think they have something over you, they are filling a need that you aren't, and they can pull share away from you. How dare they?

An easy way to do this is just to type in your name and alternatives and find out who's running paid ads against you. If they're running paid against you, they’re obviously putting dollars behind it so they're making a big bet that they are going to pull a share away from you.

What do your customers say?

Talk to your sales team they are the ones who are on the phones with people, they hear who's naturally coming up in conversation over and over again.

Look into your website's SEO, figure out what your top-performing pages are. If you have alternative pages on your site, see which ones are the best performing.

If you're running competitive paid ads yourself look into the efficiencies of those. If you type in competitor name alternative and your ad's popping up and people are clicking on it, you see some synergy there where you might be filling a need that someone else isn't looking at.

We're looking at the intersection of all of those and that's where you should start. Those are where you should make your initial list of competitors that you want to focus on. Where the market says, your competitors say, and who your customers say.

Cognito forms and Fast field forms, as you can see, weren't on my list of competitors above, we don't usually find them as we run up against them, our sales team doesn't say we hit them, and the market doesn't say we hit them, so we don't focus on them.

They can run paid ads against us all day long, but we're not going to take our time to go out to them because we feel we have bigger fish to fry.

Start small

The first step is just trying to define three to five competitors who you're going to focus on first. If you don't have a list, if you're trying to start something brand new, start small, start really focused and specific to who you're going to go against.

Where do I start to research competitors?

Where do you start to actually do the research? Now you have these three to five lists, how do we know what we compete on? Usually, competitor research will turn into something like this.

Here are my settings, here are my features, here's who I integrate with, what fields I have available, here's what competitor one does, here's what competitor two does, these little X's, yadda, yadda, yadda, and that's usually where it stops.

This is great for something to do later but from a beginning perspective, don't start with this because you will just go down a rabbit hole with all these different features and then you can never keep it updated. You will never be able to keep it updated for eternity. Don't do it because then you don't have to worry about keeping it updated.

Messaging teardown

At Formstack how we think about competing is through messaging. We do what we call messaging tear downs of our competitors. We will look at:

  • what they say they do well,
  • who they're trying to tell that to, and then
  • have either of those changed over time?

What they say they do well, is what key value are they trying to drive on their website, through their customer stories, things like that.

Who are they trying to get to and who are they trying to tell? Is this a specific industry, in general, everything like that?

Has either of those changed? That really tells you where they're going as a company. You can do this by going to a website time machine and you can look back at multiple iterations of their home pages and different messaging, go back a couple of years, and just see what their tagline is on their homepage. They will tell you a lot about where things are going.

Where to research

Website & blog

When you're trying to do this messaging research a couple of places to go would be their website and their blog, reading through what's on there, their taglines, if they have specific solution pages or industry pages or role pages, what are they focusing on?

Read their blog, scroll through their blog all the way down to the bottom, see where they started out, then go to the top one, figure out what their most recent post was.

Product review sites

Product review sites are really good at identifying strengths and weaknesses, so go to G2, Capterra, TrustRadius, and figure out what people like about their product, and what people don't like about their product.

Free trials

Free trials of competitor products, if someone has something you can get into, if they have demo videos, go on YouTube, look them up, see if you can see inside their product and what they're trying to showcase.

Competitive feature sets

Competitive feature sets are necessary in a sense of grouping those feature sets into categories. For example, at Formstack, we don't want to go and say they have a signature field, they have a radio button field.

But we might say they have good integration sets around payments or integration sets around databases. We can group those together and figure out where their synergies are.

Turn into positioning statements

After we've done that messaging, we want to turn those into positioning statements. This is your deliverable at the end of the day for your competitive research.

This is Geoffrey Moore's positioning structure, which we use at Formstack.

I highlighted the different areas that you want to do for your different competitors. This makes it actionable. These are the things you can circulate throughout your entire company so they know.

You can segment till the cows come home by your target customer, your specific competitor, and you can say 'for healthcare customers, we beat them here. For education customers, we beat them here. For SMBs we beat them here'. You can do all these different types of segmentation for just one specific customer.

How this works if you've never seen Geoffrey Moore's framework before is as follows:

  • For - your target customers.
  • Who you're trying to speak to - that shouldn't be just your competitor’s customers, for example, for us it shouldn't be just Typeform customers, you should make it a little more specific than that.
  • Who - the statement of need, what you're trying to bring to them, what does your product bring?
  • The - your product name.
  • Is a - whatever category you will compete in. For us, it's usually form builders but now that we have document generations, we have signatures, those types of things.
  • Your statement of key benefit - unlike your competitor, what is your differentiation point? The differentiation point is what you just got from that messaging teardown, that's where that goes.

For example, at Formstack, we might say:

'For education customers who need to spin up surveys fast Formstack is a form builder that gives you easy to use tools to build forms, unlike Typeform our product allows you to connect systems, databases, and students across your organization'.

I didn't list features there but I listed those messaging things that we have that the competitor Typeform doesn't.

Quick ethics quiz

When you're doing your research, remember these things.

  1. Never lie, that's an easy one. Just because they don't have it on their site doesn't mean they don't have it. If you see something, do a little research to the point where you feel you've exhausted your options a little bit to figure out if they have something or they're saying something.

We've had competitors come up to us around things like HIPAA compliance, whether we have it or we don't have it. We've had people say, "Hey, this competitor just told me you didn't have this". And we're like, "Yeah, we do. They lied to you". And they're like, "Oh, cool, I'm not gonna deal with them anymore".

If you get caught in a lie, it can help out your competitor.

  1. Never imply you're going to make a purchase. If you do a free trial or something don't get a sales rep on the phone and say, "Hey, what's your pricing because I might be interested", that can put things on their forecasts and they can forecast those dollars, and then it messes up their projections for the month and it can hurt them.

Don't imply you're going to make a purchase.

  1. Don't buy competitive lists. I'm sure everyone gets those, we have all these competitors, you don't know where that list is sourced, now with GDPR and with California rolling out all these big security things, you don't want to get trapped and someone asking how you got their email - it becomes a big thing.

Preparing your sales teams

After we've done those positioning statements, we want to prepare our sales teams. We focus a lot on competitive from a sales perspective, because we do a lot of inbound, we have a lot of free trial options, so that's where we focus a lot of our time on competitive research.

You can also share those through marketing but I'm just going to talk about the sales team here.

Creating battlecards

Use the positioning statements you have to create these. We put basically three things on ours:

  1. Go and no-go areas. Basically the strengths and weaknesses of your competitors. Go areas are where they're weak, no go areas might be a place that you have a product gap that they might be filling.
  2. Trap questions. Questions of a feature or a type of feature that you know a competitor doesn't have, that you can ask your customer if they're interested in.

For example, "Hey, are you looking for a payment integration?" If you know your competitor doesn't have one that's a great question for your sales team to ask. If they say yes, you can say, "Oh, you can't even deal with them. They don't have that."

  1. Objection handling. Things you're going to hear from those competitors, probably around pricing and feature sets, things like that. How are they going to handle that and spin that to help you win that deal?

This is an example of what our battle cards at Formstack look like:

  • We have those no and no-go areas. Go areas are for non-sales teams, price-sensitive customers. No-go areas are contract management, use cases.
  • We have their strengths and weaknesses listed out.
  • Those opportunities are called opportunities but those are trap questions. Questions that we know if they say yes to those, we're likely to win the deal.

Take these and roll them out to your teams.

Rolling out your battlecards

Go where your sales team is working

The first thing is to go where your sales team is working - that's the biggest takeaway from this. We've tried to roll out different things multiple times and if you try to roll out a new system, or put it somewhere else, put it in for example an internal wiki, they're not going to go there.

Because they are creatures of habit, and they're only going to work where they're going to work on they're not gonna listen to you. If your sales team's in Gmail, Salesforce, wherever they are, try to figure out how you can get your information there so they don't have to go to a separate system.

Create a pilot program

Create a pilot program to get quick feedback, figure out a couple of sales teams or one specific sales team, roll it out to them, iterate with them, figure out what's working, what's not.

Make training small and interactive

If you have a sales team with hundreds of people try to get those down to smaller groups that all have similar needs. For example, it's an outbound group, or an inbound group, or an expansion group, however you want to break those up just so they all see the benefits of it together.

Measure a sales readiness score

This is something we implement at Formstack, where after we do a training or something, we'll send them a quiz afterward. It's just a quick three questions, for example; do you know where to get this? What's a key no go area for this type of competitor?

Then we just do a quick one through 10 - how ready are you for this? That way, we can see how prepared they are for it. If it's a really low score, we'll roll it back, do another training, figure out what's going on. But it just helps us to know that what we're doing is working.

Tracking your success

You've done all this work, you've rolled it out, but you can't just let it sit there, it's got to continue to be iterated on and continue to move.

Develop a win/loss program around compete

If you don't necessarily have a win/loss program, it's not that hard to do. It seems a little difficult but win/loss is all about tracking when you're winning opportunities and when you're losing opportunities.

We do this through Salesforce.

On our opportunity, we have some fields on here that we make our sales team, if they're going up against a competitor put whatever competitor on the opportunity.

Then we'll go back and run reports every month, that shows us what competitors we won against and what competitors we lost against. You can do this in a variety of ways, for example, specific competitors.

Head to head vs. replacement

Another thing that I've seen a lot of other people do is defining if you're going head to head against a competitor, meaning your customer's considering you versus another competitor, or if you're going as a replacement, so they already are on a competitor and they're looking to come to you.

That's another category that's really impactful, that can show you whether or not you're winning when you're going together or if you're just replacing a lot of people. Use that information and drill down into those.

If you're winning a large percent of replacement competitors you can bring that to your marketing team and have them spin up more money towards ads on those. If you're losing a lot, you can do more sales enablement, more training around those types of things.

Closed-lost notes

Also, closed-lost notes help you identify if it's a product gap, pricing, you're just not talking to the right people, did they just go dark? You shouldn't consider those losses necessarily. That's something you can do to make sure that you're actually hitting everything.

Final thoughts

Start small and gain confidence.

Rome wasn't built in a day, but they were laying bricks every hour.

It's better to do something than to do nothing so keep moving, keep working.

Accept that you're not always the best product.

It's really hard to be humble but understand why you're doing this, and keep in a frame of mind that you can't win every opportunity and sometimes there are use cases that you're not necessarily going to work towards.

That's sometimes hard for sales to admit, but getting them the information so they know those no and no go areas is important.

Share your success with others.

Make sure when you're rolling this out that you show people what you're doing because that's how you get buy-in across your organization so people can see how what you're doing is making an impact on everyone.

Download the deck