Finding out what your rivals are up to is one of the trickiest tasks of running a business. Most companies gather intelligence bytalking to their salespeople and customers and by reading industry publications. Collecting promotional literature and puttingcompetitors to an actual test are ways to expand the scrutiny.

Joe Lethert, president of Performark, a $7-million provider of incentive services, based in Minneapolis, maintains a library ofcompetitors' materials so he can quickly compare his prices with those of 8 or 10 competitors, whose catalogs may listfrom 500 to 5,000 items each. To encourage the sales force to collect rivals' selling materials, Lethert pays his employees $35for each new piece of competitors' literature they bring in.

When Richard Skeie was CEO of $10-million CE Software Holdings, in West Des Moines, Iowa, he bought the competition'ssoftware, tested it, and called rivals' tech support, checking their answers for speed, accuracy, and friendliness.

And Pamela Kelley, founder of $4-million lace-curtain cataloger Rue de France, in Newport, R.I., puts in "tricky, horribleorders" to competitors to see how they handle them.