You started your own business with the obvious intent to make it grow. But there really is nothing new under the sun, meaning that most people who start their own business will face some local competition for the same client base. Knowing what your competitors are up to is a great way to gain more customers, but how do you know what they are doing?

You can go the old-school route and hire a private detective, but that doesn’t make much sense. You can hire a company who specializes in competitive intelligence, but you don’t have that kind of money. What you can do that is both time and cost efficient is to become a cyber spy and a bit of real-world sleuth. Here are a few tips.

1. Think Bigger Than Google

Most people will jump online and conduct a Google search or even visit their competitor’s website. That will get you a bit of information, but not all of it. There are several sites that you should be looking at (including a few Google tools).

SpyFu is a site that allows you to see which keywords and Adwords your competitors are buying. Google Trends allows you to see what is happening in your industry, and typing your competitor’s name into a Google Alert will give you some idea what they are doing and who is talking about them.

2. Social Networks

If you haven’t yet taken a look at social networking sites, now is a great time. Jump on Facebook, LinkedIn and Twitter and monitor the information that is being traded. You may find out what people think about your competitors and what they think about you.

Be sure to keep your eyes peeled to review sites like Citysearch and Yelp as well. Why? Because if people are complaining about your competitors, it can give you a good idea about you may be doing right and what you could be doing better.

3. Dig Through Hiring Boards

Take a look at popular hiring boards like Monster.com and see if you can find out what your competitors are looking for. This can help to give you an idea of what they are up to.

For example, if your competitor is looking to bring on several HR people, they may be getting ready to expand. If they are hiring a programmer, they will outline the qualifications they want which will can provide some insight into what their tech needs are and, in turn, what may be happening behind closed doors.

4. Hire Them

Let’s say that you have an applicant that comes from your competitor. Your first inclination is to pass them by — but you may not want to. If the person has left your competitor, they may be a great source of information.

You can find out why they left, where the dissatisfaction lies, what is working within your competitor’s walls and more. Don’t be so quick to forego your competitor’s ex-employee in favor of another applicant. That person looking to jump ship and land with you may be more valuable that you can imagine.

5. Send Someone In

Have you heard of mystery shopping? It’s where a person is hired by a store to shop in that store and report back with their experience. You can consider doing the same but with a slight tweak. Hire someone, or ask a friend or family member, to pose as a potential customer of your competitor. You’ll have to entrust someone who can ask the right questions without raising suspicion.

Think of the things that you want to know and how you can phrase questions to obtain the information. The person you choose may even be able to conduct their “research” over the phone. The most important thing to consider when you do this is how you are going to ask your questions. Your “secret shopper” can’t just ask about a product or service. You want to know about the company.

Ask things that a cautious potential client or customer might, like, “How many people will be assigned to my account?” or, “What type of resources will you be able to dedicate in order to meet my needs?” These are more specific and you will be surprised at the amount of information people will give. While’s it’s not “cyber spying,” per se, it can be a great strategy.

6. Talk to Your Customers

Some of the best information can be gleaned from your customers. Take time to talk with new customers and ask who they previously used. Find out why they switched to your company. If you lose a customer, reach out and find out why. Read your own reviews and respond appropriately. The more you know about their customers and yours, the more you know about your competition.

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So, what are you going to start with? Remember those days when you were first starting out and you did all the research. Those days shouldn’t be in the distant past. If you hope to gain an edge over the competition, the research has to continue. You’ve got to know what you are doing wrong, what they are doing wrong and what you can do better.

It doesn’t take much in today’s technological age to find out what your competitors are up to. Take an afternoon, sit in front of your computer and do some searching. Chances are that you will find at least a piece of information you can use to your advantage.

At Company.com, we know that starting and maintaining a business is hard work. That is why we offer a suite of services and tools to help you operate your own company more efficiently. Reach out to our friendly and helpful team today to discover more about how we can help bolster your small business marketing, or to start a free trial of our premium software suite.

Chances are, your competition already has.