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My May column on the gathering of competitive business information raised the ire of at least one reader. I really stepped over Anthony Slabaugh’s boundaries when I suggested asking your “mystery shopper” to invite a competitor to his or her home for an estimate and proposal.

I had a hunch that going that far might not feel ethical to every company owner. Boy, was I right.

Slabaugh, who owns Anthony M. Slabaugh Construction, in Stow, Ohio, took the time to write a well-considered letter. He said, in part:

“If someone called me (and maybe they have) with the intent to get information to help another remodeling contractor, and I found out, I would be furious! It’s hard enough as an owner of a remodeling business to manage time appropriately because of the many hats that are worn, so the idea of someone calling to purposely deceive me and waste my time is appalling. Not to mention that every phone call in this economy is treated as gold. So to build someone’s hope up and lead them on like this is just plain cruel.”

You’ve Been Shopped

All medium and big companies do this type of research. Most small companies, like Slabaugh’s and mine, do not. There are entire companies that provide mystery shoppers who experience what the competitors have to offer and then write extensive reports.

Similarly, many companies purposely have their own operations “shopped” to learn how employees handle leads and inquiries. It would not surprise or anger me if our company has been shopped.

That said, I know that Slabaugh is not the only remodeler who disapproves of doing this research. Yet I remain adamant that we must research our competitors. It is the only way to analyze the difference our company brings to the marketplace, and to develop strategies for selling against those competitors.

However, there are many ways of conducting research. I hope that the following mix includes some tactics that will work for all remodelers, including Slabaugh.

  • Use Google to search “remodeling” and your town, and see where your website and the competition appear in the search results. Experiment to get to first place via tools such as blogs, links, hidden words, and purchasing ad words.
  • Thoroughly review your competitors’ websites. How do they stack up against yours? Try to discern their major messages. How user-friendly and easy to navigate are the sites? What do they claim as their main attributes, skills, and core competencies? Experience your own site as a prospect would. Put it through the same paces. You may be in for some surprises.
  • When interviewing potential employees who have worked for competitors, be curious (not prying). Learn a bit about the organizations and their systems. If you hire them, learn over time about the quality of your competitors’ systems, training, culture, etc.
  • If your clients spoke with your competition before they hired you, ask them (after the job is finished) if they would mind discussing the process with you. Why did they buy from you and not from any of the others they spoke with?
  • If you do competitive bidding, establish an “up-front agreement” with the homeowner or the architect that they will tell you how the bids stack up, price-wise, after they have selected their remodeler. Take architects to lunch. Ask how they would characterize the various remodelers they work with.
  • Finally, to repeat a tactic from my May column, have someone call your competitor to ask a few simple questions about the services they offer and what they charge for. Have someone gather similar intelligence at home shows.

Whichever strategies you use, keep and file written notes. Sometimes you’ll hit a dead end, but each nugget of new information is valuable. I would be the last person to ask you to step over your values line, but I ask you to remember that everyone has slightly differing values that support our integrity. Stay with what makes you comfortable.
—Linda Case is founder of Remodelers Advantage, in Laurel, Md., a company providing business solutions through a network of experts and peers. 301.490.5260;; www.remodelersadvantage.comClick here to read more of Linda’s REMODELING columns.