Spy Away

Seek And You Shall Find

Bloom had his first exposure to the ways of competitive intelligence when he worked in risk management at a large New York City bank. There, he gained practice studying big financial institutions, primarily through monitoring the information in public filings. His motivation for becoming an entrepreneur, however, came from a much more personal encounter with competitive intelligence.

"When I was at the bank, I had a golden retriever named Lucky who, unfortunately, did not live up to his name," says Bloom. "He had a condition called hip dysplasia and needed surgery that cost about $3,000."

Bloom had a health-insurance policy on Lucky, but he discovered it excluded the treatment his pet actually needed, plus many more. When he looked for a better deal, something like the prepaid membership plans humans use for dental care, he found nothing for pets.

Further investigation revealed most pet-insurance policies carried limitations similar to those that had left him so dissatisfied. After confirming the niche was underserved, Bloom left his job at the bank in 1996 and started Pet Assure. One of the most important assets he brought with him was his appreciation of competitive intelligence.

As a result, Pet Assure has unusually comprehensive intelligence. At 15 to 18 trade shows per year, Bloom and his employees drop by rivals' booths to ask questions and gather marketing material. "You find your competitors there, and it's easy to gather information," he explains. In addition to pet-industry conventions, Bloom attends shows concerning employee benefits because selling memberships to companies for use in their benefits packages is an important distribution channel.

Bloom also subscribes to numerous periodicals covering the pet and veterinary industries. Although Pet Assure rarely markets directly to consumers, preferring to sell to intermediaries such as insurance companies, PPO networks and other businesses, Bloom reads the likes of Cat Fancy and Dog Fancy to see articles about, and advertisements for, rivals who do. Veterinary Economics and similar publications illuminate opponents' approaches to the vets who care for Pet Assure's members' animals.

And it doesn't stop there. Bloom employs a clipping service to read a wide variety of general and special-interest publications. When a key word turns up, the service sends him a copy of the article. "Clipping services are great," he says. "We use generic key words as well as our competitors' names.

"Customer feedback is also important. We get a lot of calls complaining about competitors' products." Employees answering the phone at Pet Assure's call center are instructed to take notes when customers complain, compliment or make any comment about the competition. The information is forwarded directly to Bloom, who distributes it to sales, marketing and other departments.

Some customers of competitive plans come from an unlikely source: the ranks of Bloom's employees. "A great way to find out what's going on with competitors is to have staff enroll in their programs," he explains. Competitive shopping, as the practice is known, offers deep insight about rivals' offerings, marketing, pricing and service.

One Pet Assure employee who signed with a competitor found the company was automatically enrolling anyone who called a phone number and tacking the fee onto the customer's monthly phone bill. Learning about the objectionable practice alerted Bloom to an opportunity for stressing his own more ethical billing methods to prospects in the competitor's market.

Pet Assure's financial backers are also naturally interested in competitive trends, and they provide another backstop. Not long ago, an investor noticed a rival's ads suddenly increasing in number and frequency and tipped Bloom off to the potential threat. Bloom found the competitor had formed a strategic partnership to get the cash for its invigorated marketing effort. Bloom used the information to form his own partnership with a rival of his competitor's new ally. "We have over 100 investors," he says, "and they call me every time they see anything on pet insurance."

Perhaps Pet Assure's most valuable CI resource consists of the 2,000 veterinarians enlisted to care for members' pets. When rival firms contact a Pet Assure-affiliated vet, the vet usually calls Bloom to discuss the offer. Sometimes Bloom even gets to peek at rivals' contracts. "We get a ton of information from our provider network," Bloom says. "There's no other way to find out about the small, regional players."

Bloom uses his CI findings in a variety of ways. When a customer call alerted him to the fact that a competitor was the target of a consumer lawsuit in a nearby state, Bloom moved quickly to run down details. "That kind of information about a competitor has a lot of value, especially when you're bidding against them," Bloom says.

A major concern is trying to find out whether a pet insurer is moving into Bloom's favorite markets: employee benefit programs, retail pet stores and banks, which offer memberships as inducements to credit-card customers. "We want to know what our competitors are doing, what their products are like and what their offers are," Bloom says.

Lately, Pet Assure has looked into acquiring some smaller competitors, and CI plays a key role by letting Bloom evaluate acquisition candidates without tipping his hand. "The monitoring lets us form opinions on who's worth pursuing a relationship with and who's not going anywhere," he says.

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This article was originally published in the March 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Spy Away.

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