Competition is great. It drives innovation, keeps people on their toes and creates a great environment for buyers. In our over-populated digital signage solution space, this is especially true. Gathering competitive intelligence is part of the game, and a legitimate business activity. It is part of monitoring and adjusting your own positioning and keeping your finger on the pulse of the market. But there is a right way and a wrong way to go about things.

This week, we received an inquiry through our web site.  Here it is verbatim, with identifying elements obscured. As tempting as it is to expose the poseur, it serves no purpose.

Name: *******
Company: <fake restaurant name>
Title: Owner
Email: <fakename>
Phone: ***-***-**99
I am looking to expand my restaurant, <fictitious name>, into other locations here in **. I have heard that digital media can help me increase sales on high margin items. How much would a content manager cost and what are the features of it?

At face value, a fairly innocuous request that would deserve a response. But there were some factors to consider. First, the gmail address. In my experience, the hit rate on leads that relate back to a gmail, yahoo, AOL or hotmail address is near zero. Anyone making an inquiry from such a domain is either trying to obscure their actual identity, or has no company email to inquire from. Both are big red flags. A web search of his “restaurant” name and the location revealed no hits. Strike two. A quick look at recent web hits made it easy to isolate the visit that resulted in the request. The IP address from that visit was easily traceable back to a competing company’s server. Sloppy work. If you are trying to be clever, why not do it from home, fella? I thought the inquiry deserved a response.  Here it is:

Hi <name>:

Thanks for your inquiry via our web site.  It sounds like you have a single restaurant at this point, and we are really geared toward large scale operators. Perhaps a local resource like <His Employer> in <location> would be a good starting point for you.  If you need their phone number, let me know.  (Here is their IP address:

Needless to say, there was no response.

Gathering publicly available information, networking with people who have exposure to a wide range of products and companies, attending industry conferences, even speaking with customers and prospects about what they have learned are all in play (as long as no one violates non-disclosure agreements). But going undercover to learn whatever information you are after belies an underlying lack of character, ethics and guts. But of course it happens all the time. I would have probably taken a call from that company just to see if there were opportunities to cooperate. He may not have gotten the pricing information he seemed to be after, but he might have learned where our products and strategies intersect with their own, which might have been useful. We might have at least parted as respectful acquaintances. Instead, all I learned was the widely divergent approach toward ethical behavior between the two companies. Too bad.