By Jon Van, Tribune staff reporter
Chicago Tribune

Calling a sales representative or other employee at the competitor’s office and asking questions can yield valuable information on that company’s products, research or future plans

Dropping in

Standing near a competitor’s booth at a trade show or similar function is a common method of gathering intelligence on what the company is up to.

Conducting “war games”

Simulating the marketplace moves a competitor might take can prepare a company to react quickly in order to maintain a competitive edge.

Chicago Tribune/Max Rust and Phil Geib

Kurt Neubauer doesn’t wear disguises or sift through a company’s trash hunting for secret information. But he is involved in corporate espionage.

Rather than calling himself a spy, however, Neubauer’s job title is competitive intelligence analyst. Everything he does is legal and ethical, he says, and his services increasingly are sought by mid-size and large firms that spend an estimated $1 billion a year for inside dope, a figure predicted to grow tenfold by 2012.

Competitive intelligence analysts like Neubauer collect inside information by simply talking to people who work for or are associated with companies that his clients want to learn more about. At the top of the list, firms want to know what products or services are in their rivals’ pipelines, so that they can plan countermoves.

Learning a few years ago that a competitor planned to launch a new line of men’s personal care products to coincide with the Super Bowl, one client locked up as much retail counter space as possible for its products to throw a curve at its rival.

Neubauer’s best sources are salespeople, he says, because they like to talk. One mission was to learn how many salespeople were employed by a target company, their sales strategies and how much they earned. Calling one salesman’s home number, Neubauer got the wife instead. She was unhappy with her husband’s employer, knew quite a bit about the company and was eager to talk.

“It’s not a typical source we would go after,” said Neubauer. “I stumbled upon her.”

Neubauer, who works for Proactive Worldwide, based in Rolling Meadows, said he told the disgruntled, loose-lipped wife his real name and that of his employer, saying he sought information about sales practices. He didn’t identify his client, a rival of the husband’s employer.

Neubauer used the wife’s information as a starting point for conversations with people who worked directly for the company.

“You’re more likely to get a response to ‘I hear you’ve got about 300 sales reps, is that right?’ instead of asking how many people they have,” he said.

Other than sales people, engineers can also be good sources if you can understand the terminology they use, Neubauer said. But lawyers or accountants? Forget about it.

“They’re used to protecting information,” he said. “It’s best to avoid talking to them. I won’t call them.”

The Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals estimates that among its 3,300 members, only one-quarter work full time at CI, said John Fiegel, the group’s interim executive director.

SCIP has a code of ethics and regularly holds educational forums to help practitioners improve their techniques, Fiegel said.