Episode #91 of the B2B Market Research Podcast – How to Build A Competitive Intelligence Team: Interview With Varun Chhabra, Microsoft
- How to find and hire good competitive intelligence analysts
- Tips on how to prioritize a research agenda when there are a lot of requests
- Competitive Intelligence for B2B Software Companies
- Varun Chhabra’s key pieces of advice about building an effective competitive intelligence team
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Sean Campbell – CEO of Cascade Insights
Varun Chhabra – Director of Product Marketing, Cloud and Enterprise Division, Microsoft
In this episode, we’ll be talking to Varun Chhabra of Microsoft.
Welcome to another episode of the Competitive Intel Podcast. In this podcast episode, I’m going to be talking with Varun Chhabra, who is a Director of Product Marketing within the Cloud and Enterprise Division at Microsoft. Varuna has been at Microsoft for close to seven years, and he’s done a variety of product marketing roles. In his current role, he is focused on working with the compete team.
Before we get into that, a few brief programming notes; this podcast is brought to you by Cascade Insights. Cascade Insights specializes in competitive intelligence services for B2B technology companies. Our specialization helps us to deliver detailed CI insights that generalist firms simply can’t match. To learn more about us, visit us at cascadeinsights.com, also check out our free resources on our site, and sign up for our newsletter
How is Varun’s compete team structured?
With that, Varun, let’s go ahead and get into this episode of the podcast. Tell us a bit about how your team is structured. There are so many different type of models, and obviously you’ve spent some time building yours since you’ve been in role for a bit.
Yeah, absolutely, Sean. The first thing I’ll say from a context perspective is that my team works with what is a very specific part of Microsoft, so we don’t cover compete for all of Microsoft. We focus more on the cloud business with a focus on supporting the Azure business, Windows server, System Center, and some of our more back-end cloud products.
The first thing you realize when you start looking at how you structure a team in this situation, is that there are a lot of competitors out there. They range from large competitors that have massive platforms, to point solution vendors who maybe do only a very small part of what your platform does, but they can be very disruptive. Hence, we see a lot of companies on both ends of the spectrum.
The way we’re structured, is that we picked who we believe to be our biggest competitors. Those who have the ability to either pose an existential threat to us based on them having a very large platform, and we also took some competitors that we feel are maybe more nimble, but who are very disruptive and are therefore are likely to be someone we would want to watch. We need to make sure that we give the rest of the organization some insight into what these nimble yet very dangerous competitors are doing. In my team, we have five people, and basically each person owns a portfolio of competitors that they focus on.
Drive, Desire, Domain Knowledge, and Competitive Intelligence Skills – All Matter
So, how do you pick good people? When, in this case, you need some mix of competitor product expertise along with Competitive Intelligence expertise?
That’s a really good question. I’m in the process of hiring for one of the positions on my team right now. I’m living that day-in and day-out. Generally in Microsoft, people change roles quite often. Nobody really does one job for a very long time. The longest you’ll see people stick around in a single role is two or three years. Usually people change every two years. And, within marketing, they change very, very often. Sometimes they move between very different disciplines.
Hence, when I’m hiring someone, I can’t optimize for competitive intelligence skills alone, because if I optimize for that, that person may have a very short runway in terms of what they could do next for the company. In general, I’ve found that there are not a lot of people that really specialize in competitive intelligence within the marketing organization, as you can imagine.
There are not that many people who have competitive intelligence as a core skill set. Therefore, you really have to optimize for what’s available within the organization. If you go outside the organization, I, as a steward of the company, want to make sure that someone who comes in here is set-up for a long career in Microsoft, not just in this role. That’s something I’m always thinking about.
With that being said, compete is an extremely fluid space, and one that requires a fair amount of agility, a fair amount of understanding, and a need to be comfortable with ambiguity. More than anything else, because we have the word, “Compete” associated with our team, a lot of stuff gets thrown at us, a lot of stuff that falls between the cracks of other teams, including between our team and other teams. Sometimes we take on problems for which nobody else really steps up and says, “I want to take this on and do something about it.”
Essentially, for me, the biggest criteria I focus on is this – Does this person have a lot of drive and desire? Because if they do, then they can learn a lot of the other things they need to know, including some of the competitive intelligence skills. I don’t think they’re going to become an expert in competitive intelligence efforts if they don’t have a competitive intelligence background. But, I am betting that if I have someone who has a demonstrated track record of delivering results along with being very curious and passionate about the space, that they’ll pick up some of the other functional skills.
Keeping your Research Agenda Manageable
Given you have a lot of requests thrown at you, how do you effectively prioritize your research agenda? Knowing that the shape of that agenda is not fully just yours to lay out – as in any large company that type of thing tends to be a group decision.
I think that’s a fair question. I’ll answer it in two parts. The first part is compete … What I would call, “Competitive Intelligence,” or insights are only a part of what our team does. That’s something that’s a little bit unique about our team.
We report up through a marketing organization. In fact, the team that I work with is actually within an integrated marketing organization; and it’s a very customer-focused. There is a fair amount of expectation on us to, not only to do competitive intelligence work, but also for the team do customer-facing content as well. In essence to help support the creation of content that explicitly differentiates us from our competitors, and thereby help our customers understand what makes Microsoft a better choice for them than some of the competitors in the playing field.
This leads to something that I have to balance. I think we can all agree that people who are really creative and talented marketers aren’t always going to be very strong from an analytical perspective and strategy perspective. And if you also ask them to have a very strong sense of what the competitors are doing in the marketplace, that’s really asking for a lot. There are not a lot of candidates that excel across all of those dimensions. So that is a balance that I have to focus on every day, both at a personal level for people in my team, but also, as you said, managing expectations with other stakeholders within the organization.
We have had to very clear with our constituents within the broader marketing organization about the kind of things that we are going to do, and what are the kinds of things that we are not going to do. As it pertains to your question specifically on a research agenda, obviously the place that you are in the broader organization does play a role in what kind of research agenda is going to get more traction. For example a compete team that sits in a product development organization is going to have a more technical focus. They are going to try to understand what the competitors are doing from a product perspective, doing teardowns, and things like that.
Given where we are in the marketing organization, we don’t tackle the teardown type of work. We focus on understanding what our competitors are trying to do from a go-to-market perspective, what kind of investments are they making via the channel, what success are they seeing there. We spend time talking to our sellers, and try to be an early warning system. When we start seeing trends begin to appear around a particular competitor we can start the process of educating the rest of our organization.
That’s fair, and that’s a really good summation with a lot of good detail on how you tackle that issue. Let’s move on to another area. If you go to your average competitive intelligence conference, there typically is a lot of discussion about how competitive intelligence teams want to affect strategy, and how they want to be as high up in the organization as they can be. But I think from a practical standpoint, you can take this kind of thinking too far.
In a large company like Microsoft, you have all of these teams that need different types of intelligence. Some of them are more product-focused, some more focused on B2B marketing, some are just purely sales-focused in terms of how they look at things and the types of intelligence they need. What are your thoughts on that dynamic?
Competitive Intelligence in the B2B Technology Sector
In the technology sector, more so than in other industries, the market is constantly being redefined by new products and new vendors. Hence, most of the people that I work with already have some degree of understanding of what their competitors do. For example, the product development teams within Microsoft and some of the divisions we engage with, including what you might call “the engineering teams,” have an amazing amount of understanding of what our competitors are doing.
I think this is all part of the business that they’re in, and hence that does elevate the quality of insights that you need to drive, because it’s not enough to just say, “Hey, this company has these products and they all are doing well. Because the person you’re talking to already knows that, and that’s merely table stakes. That imposes some interesting challenges on us as well, but it also generates good opportunities for us.
Yeah, that’s a really, really good point because while I think everyone, in every industry, wants to believe that their job is to some degree I a little harder than the next guys, I think there is a legitimate point to be made that the technology industry has a faster cycle time. Otherwise it wouldn’t be used so frequently as the example of an industry that’s disrupting itself as well as an industry that disrupts other industries. I think that dynamic alone creates some interesting pressures and like you said, also a few opportunities. That definitely helps.
3 Key Pieces of Advice Competitive Intelligence Team Leaders Need to Follow
Let me ask you a question in a slightly different area, “What’s the key piece of advice that you would give to your formal self – when it comes to building a competitive intelligence team?”
This is a question I think about a lot. The number one thing, and this is probably true for not just compete teams, but any team, is if you don’t have strong people on your team, your chances of success are severely limited.
The people that you have on your team I think are the most important determinant of your success, regardless of whatever organizational clarity or lack of clarity you have.
The people that you have on your team I think are the most important determinant of your success, regardless of whatever organizational clarity or lack of clarity you have. I think we’ve had periods where we’ve had great organizational clarity and we’ve had periods where we’ve been in organizations where we haven’t had as much clarity.
The one constant in both of those has been that we have people on my team who’ve consistently performed well in both scenarios. Their job description may change, but they find ways to do their job well, so I think that’s the number one thing.
The second thing is I’ve found that it’s very important to keep meeting with your stakeholders. It took me a long time to get to this place, but I now have quarterly meetings with most of the stakeholders that we work with only if it is just to keep telling them, “Hey, these are the things we’re working on.”
Having that sync time is super important because sometimes the best work you do is when you co-create value with other people versus doing things on your own.
The last thing is that I’ve gained a lot of benefit from just accepting the fact that there will be a lot of random asks and you need to set up your resources in such a way that you are able to address at least the most important ones. For example, a week doesn’t go by where some high-ranking person in Microsoft will reach out and say, “Hey, can you tell us about this, or can you find out a little bit more about that?”
We went through a phase where we basically just said, “Look, we’d love to help you with what we can,” and I think we still do that, if we don’t have capacity. But now we just budget time for unexpected asks every week so we resource appropriately. Part of this is having external vendors that can help us do some of the basic scrubbing and then have my team do some more detailed analysis on top of that. At this point we’ve made it a very efficient process and I think that’s really helped, although it does drive a little more randomization across the team. Just accepting that that’s some randomization is part of the job description has been helpful.
Those are really excellent points because it’s very important to manage a project’s flow from inception to end. In essence, getting every project onto the tracks in the right way — with the full knowledge that they aren’t going to be the same size and that sometimes they are going to come in clumps of work. Because you are supporting other parts of the business, you’re not really driving the day to day for those business, hence their requests are going to be somewhat lumpy in how they come in. And it sounds like you feel like you’ve got a much better handle on that process as time has progressed.
I’m sure my team will roll their eyes when I tell you we’ve become really efficient, because there’s still a significant amount of churn and it is just difficult to predict these types of things. But we have weekly reviews where I have literally costed our capacity for people and said, “Look, 20 hours a week and you are just going to have to plan for this type of random ask, or maybe it’s 10 hours a week for you?” Then we do reviews every week where I’m going through what we’ve been asked to do and I’m saying, “Okay, what does the pipeline look like for research, please, for the next few weeks,” and then, “Are you structured to handle this?”
If I know that there is flex in somebody’s calendar coming out, that gives me some ability to take on more projects. Because new projects come in all the time and I’m usually the gatekeeper for these project and I tell people “No,” as many times as I tell them, “Yes.” But that gives me, I guess for a lack of a better word, almost a factory line approach to it which has really helped us.
In a lot of ways, what you’ve done is that you’ve put things together the way a consulting organization would. You can’t really control the inbound research requests all that well, what you can control are your knowledge of what assets you have to apply to that inbound. If you can do that well, then usually the stakeholders will understand if you can’t meet their demands or at least be cognizant of how you are under-resourced to meet their demands.
Yes, but I would argue that an individual stakeholder’s understanding of our under-resourcing or capacity constraints is certainly limited. It’s just the nature of business. People don’t necessarily want to hear how tough things are, so I don’t know if people appreciate how much work goes the research we do, but I can tell you they certainly appreciate the insights that we’ve been able to give them on a more predictable basis going for the last six months or so.
And that’s exactly it. The ability to generate predictable results throughout the research process solves a lot of the problems along the way. Not all of them, like you’re saying. But definitely some of them.
With that, I just want to thank you for coming on, Varun, and thank the folks for listening.