Competitive intelligence is not a list of product features

Peter Mertens
3 min readAug 9, 2020


“Do we have access to [competitor XYZ]’s products? I have something I want to test.”

I get this question a few times a quarter. It is usually from an overzealous salesperson. They want to know exactly how our competitors’ products work so that they can use that information against them. I understand why they’d want that level of insight. Sometimes I wish I had it. Good competitive intelligence is more important now than ever before.

But I give the same emphatic answer every time: no, we don’t have access and we don’t need it.

Many SaaS buyers have become way too concerned with every tiny feature in a platform. For Sprout, this leads to questions like “Can you publish videos to Twitter that are longer than 45 seconds and bigger than 100mb?” or “Do you have the 3-second, 5-second and 10-second view rates on Facebook video ads?”

While these features may be valuable to an individual customer, they only solve a single problem. And they don’t really bring a solution-oriented mindset to software evaluations. But the customer wants them, so we get overly preoccupied with all of the minutiae instead of considering the holistic value we provide our customers. We become less focused on how we can make their business more effective. We get distracted with a checklist of features. And those blinders ultimately lead to a fixation on understanding how our competitors do or do not handle that feature so we can try to find an edge in our conversations.

But you don’t need that level of granularity to win a competitive deal.

Good teams don’t get fixated on simply copying what the competitors do. The idea of testing how a feature performs in a different platform sounds great on a case-by-case basis. You could attack the weak parts and steer the conversation away from the parts you don’t support. But if you went this route, you’d miss the big picture. You’d end up with a platform where you talk about every feature under the sun, but don’t explain how they work cohesively to solve your customers’ problems.

For sales teams, it’s tempting to send a customer a list of 20 features your competitors don’t have to show your value. But simply having a feature-packed product doesn’t mean you have the better product. There are plenty of platforms that offer up more functionality than Sprout, but the customer either doesn’t need all of that or it’s too clunky to use on a day-to-day basis. But you can easily outsell these competitors by focusing on how you are going to solve your customers’ problems.

The most strategic sales reps lead with value-focused messaging first, which is usually competitor-agnostic. The tactical reps come out guns blazing on competitive differentiators and turn the evaluation into a pissing match over who has a longer list of features.

I often tell our team that when a competitor is mentioned (whether as the incumbent or a challenger), we need to ask more questions before diving into what makes us different. We can collect more information and then differentiate throughout the sales cycle. The more we can get the customer to tell us about what they don’t like about the competitor, the less competitive selling we ultimately have to do. We don’t need to go for the knockout blow right away.

It is natural to feel a need to understand all the ins and outs of your competitors’ products. But it isn’t necessary.

I push our sales team to not get overly focused on the exact list of features that our competitors support. When we do, we lose focus on our own messaging, strengths and value-drivers.

Competitive selling is best when the customer doesn’t feel it at all. If you understand at a high level where your competitors are strong and weak, you can use that information to lead your customer to the outcomes on their own. Conclusions drawn are better than conclusions given.

The initial question in this post kicks off another completely different topic, which are the ethical considerations around pretexting as a form of competitive intelligence. I’ll dive into this in a later post because I believe that way too many CI professionals are willing to engage in “lite” pretexting to gather information, something I consider unethical (tipping my hand here a bit).



Peter Mertens

My name is Peter. I live in Seattle. I work for Sprout Social. I’m a diehard Portland Trail Blazers and Oregon Ducks fan. That’s about it.