Competitive Intelligence Spotlight #18: John Steckel, VP of Business Development with AMERICAN SYSTEMS

John Steckel, VP of BD with AMERICAN SYSTEMS

John Steckel, vice president of Business Development (BD) with AMERICAN SYSTEMS recently spoke with ArchIntel regarding the structure of competitive intelligence within AMERICAN SYSTEMS, a private company, how technology has evolved the standards of analysis, how to measure success within competitive intelligence (CI), as well as the ways to create and manage a CI effective team. 

“We do not have a dedicated competitive intelligence team as we believe that the success of our CI program is deeply ingrained in our culture of accountability.  Philosophically, everyone is a part of the AMERICAN SYSTEMS competitive intelligence team. Being a 100% employee-owned company with an associated culture of accountability around sustained profitable growth puts everyone in the mindset of shared responsibility. 

In this sense, everyone understands the importance of competitive intelligence and sharing it across the company is second nature.  To me, the success of a CI program is at the opportunity level. How often does the CI help us win new business and grow the company?  Our competitive win rate suggests that our culture-based approach is right for us.” 

ArchIntel: What are the benefits and challenges of sharing responsibility for competitive intelligence and company success across the entirety of AMERICAN SYSTEMS?

“An important aspect of our accountability culture is owning your responsibility.  No one is going to figure things out for you…it’s you, you gotta own it.  Since we are all accountable for growth, we all own it and that includes all the aspects of making sustainable growth happen. Figuring out the competitive intelligence is part of that responsibility. Checking in with each other and sharing the CI from recent pursuits against the same competition, filling in the holes, and shaping the landscape for each other comes naturally, again.    

With respect to CI specifically, one of the challenges I’ve seen over the years in other companies is ownership, or rather a lack of ownership, of the responsibility to gather the intel. When organizations, or individuals within an organization, don’t take ownership. They may become victims of a lack of information, or just ignore it. They can also become victims of misinformation, poorly-sourced information, or gaps in information. When you have ownership of the responsibility, you’re more accountable to getting it done right. You have to know it’s the best you can get and then you use it in your decision-making process.  You look for multiple points of view and data points to either support a hypothesis or provide a new analysis.

ArchIntel: What makes AMERICAN SYSTEMS’ CI team different?

“At AMERICAN SYSTEMS, our BD Managers and Capture Managers are accountable for understanding their customers, competitors, and markets. They own it…someone else doesn’t own it for them.  And that’s one of the benefits that I see with AMERICAN SYSTEMS—the culture of accountability. Here we have people more engaged with customers and working to understand what’s happening in their environment. They become more of an expert. 

The program managers and other people in operations understand this accountability and how it can improve competitiveness. They freely share their information, knowledge, and experience. That responsibility and accountability enables a joint and balanced understanding and immersion in the customer and competitive environment.”

ArchIntel: How do you make bids and approach new markets with shared responsibility CI over specific leadership?

“We make bid decisions and approach new markets just like any other company.  We have formal processes to review opportunities in a cross-functional environment.  The big difference we have is rather than have a CI specialist presenting intel and analysis about the opportunity, our BD Managers and Capture Managers do it. They are the ones who collect the CI, analyze it, and make recommendations on bids and new markets.”  

ArchIntel: How does not having a dedicated CI Team affect things like Price-to-Win?

“We do have price to win specialists at AMERICAN SYSTEMS. They are just like other Price-to-Win specialists in our industry and have the responsibility of running the models to develop price to win recommendations. The BD team helps the PTW team analyze the CI needed to run the PTW models. I want my entire team to understand what price to win is and the models used to develop it. This allows the team to understand what types of information the PTW team needs and help ensure that it’s relevant, actionable and appropriate.”

ArchIntel: How do you balance your team’s workload to fill all of the information gaps?

“Our BD Managers are accountable for their own segments. They’re responsible for coordinating the activities on the front end, such as developing and executing a strategy. They work across the delivery teams to coordinate activities that put us in a better position to win. Part of this is developing the Key Intelligence Topics and coordinating the collection of CI across the company.”

ArchIntel: In 1982, John Naisbitt said, “We are drowning in information but starved for knowledge.” Do you still find this theory applicable and how do you address that challenge?

“Yes, I think that’s even more of a challenge today. To address this challenge, you have to go back to the fundamentals of competitive intelligence. That is key. You have to understand the question, then go find the information to help you develop an answer. Otherwise, you may get lost in the data. You have to take the time to plan out what questions you’re looking to answer, create the Key Intelligence Topics, and prioritize them to drive your research. 

It revolves around your focus. It’s understanding exactly what information you need to either support or not support the hypothesis you have as a business when it comes to your position.” 

ArchIntel: How do you manage data across your business?

“We use a CRM database to store information by account and by customer.  It’s a database that anyone who works the BD process can access. Within that system, we have information on past performance, lessons learned, and information on opportunities and customers.  The goal is to create a data pool that we can leverage throughout our new business processes.”

ArchIntel: How do you measure success within competitive intelligence?

“Our goals with CI are similar to those of public companies: to have a solid understanding of what the customers are wanting to do, to get an understanding of what competitors are doing, and to understand what can help us make decisions that put us in a competitive position.  

The challenge with all competitive intelligence is you have to figure out how to distill the data into actionable information. We teach basic analysis techniques that help us with that data distillation, so everyone understands how to do it.  The key is keeping our focus on helping us make decisions that put us in a good competitive position.”

ArchIntel: How is competitive intelligence unique for the government contracting (GovCon) sector? 

“What really makes CI in the government market unique is that the government is very transparent. Yes, there are things that happen behind the customer’s “acquisition curtains.” In general, it’s incredibly transparent and provides you with so much information. 

When I worked in the Business-to-Business and Business-to-Consumer industries, we were always challenged to gain a good understanding of a customer’s ‘requirements.’ We did focus groups, conducted surveys, did market tests—you name it—to get information on what the customer wanted.  Or at least what they thought they wanted.   But the majority of the time, even with all that primary research on what the customer wants, you never really got the right information.  So, it’s kind of nice to work in the Business-to-Government world where customers are way more open about stating their requirements.” 

ArchIntel: How do you determine which information is actionable?

“To determine if something is actionable, you have to determine if it helps you to make a decision that somehow affects the outcome or potentially affects the outcome that you’re looking for. 

When you develop a strategy, you set a goal or desired end-state.  Your strategy is about taking the right actions to help you get to that goal.  Actionable competitive intelligence helps you frame those actions and make the decisions to help reach your goal.”

ArchIntel: How has competitive intelligence technology advanced?

“I’ve been in this industry for over 18 years. And before that over a decade as a marketing manager in the commercial world.  When I first entered the space, we didn’t have the technology like we do today. A lot of CI was based on personal relationships, analyzing the government budget by hand, looking for opportunities from FedBizOps publications, things like that.  Now we have tremendous online tools from a variety of data aggregators that not only provide information on opportunities, but some very good analysis of opportunities, budgets, market trends, you name it. 

Although most of these tools are subscription based, many are now accessible through APIs that can link into your CRM and automatically feed information directly into your opportunity records.  When you take that capability and add in collaboration tools like SharePoint and OneNote, you can make some very advanced CI technology available to those who need it.”

ArchIntel: How has COVID-19 transformed competitive intelligence moving forward?

“This is another area where our culture of accountability has served us well. As I mentioned above, our delivery teams understand they have a role to play in developing CI.  They are the ones that are closest to the action.  They freely share what they hear, and we build it into our strategy.  I think the impact COVID-19 has had on how we work will dramatically impact CI moving forward. Before COVID-19, the focus of CI was developing customer affinity and leveraging it to gather information for deeper customer understanding.  

The challenge in the world of COVID-19 is that the one-on-one, in-person customer interface has been replaced by ZOOM or TEAMS calls. If teleworking continues to gain momentum, both in industry and in the government, it’s going to be harder to establish the relationships and levels of trust needed to make a virtual customer interface work. In the future, our program teams may actually become more of a resource for competitive intelligence.”

ArchIntel: How useful is Porter’s Model for building an effective strategy?

“Porter’s Model is a very effective model for building a strategy.  We used to use Porter’s Model as a basis for strategy at FedEx. I continued to use it throughout my career.  It’s always been a very strong model to work from. It gives you a great set of parameters to help define what drives your marketplace. It helps you realize factors and threats that may impact your business. The challenge is determining how to apply it. You have to adapt it based on your industry and the segment. 

If you’re working for a product-based company, you would have a different adaptation of the model than a service-based company.  But, no matter what type of business you’re in, the model is a good one to use to understand your competitive environment.”