Finding out what your rivals are up to is one of the trickiest tasks put to any CEO. Most companies gather their intelligence by talking to their salespeople and customers, listening to the grapevine, and reading industry publications. Don a sleuthing hat and try on for size these four tactics.

* The competitive library. Joe Lethert, president of Performark, a $7-million business-to-business provider of incentive services (awards, catalogs) in Minneapolis, maintains a library of competitors' materials so he can quickly compare his prices with those of 8 or 10 competitors, whose catalogs may list from 500 to 5,000 items each. To get the sales force to constantly collect rivals' catalogs and more, Lethert sometimes rewards his five salespeople with, say, $25 for each new piece of competitors' selling material they bring in.

* Dialing for dirt. Richard Skeie, CEO of $8.6-million CE Software, in West Des Moines, Iowa, buys the competition's software, tests it, and calls rivals' tech support. He asks, How does this product work on this type of system? and gauges answers for speed of response, accuracy, and friendliness. Pamela Kelley, founder of lace-curtain cataloger Rue de France, in Newport, R.I., puts in "tricky, horrible orders" to competitors to see how they handle them.

* A little help from your friends. Pamela Wright, founder of Wright Travel, a $5-million corporate travel agency in Nashville, gets facts and figures on upcoming trends and the competition from Travel Trust International (TTI), a Bethesda, Md., group of more than 100 independent agents. (Membership in the trade group costs Wright $20,000 a year; for that she gets all the data she requests.) When Wright prepares bid proposals, she uses TTI information on national and regional competitors to estimate what their bids would be, and decide how to price her own or whether to bow out.

* Getting the straight dope. Whenever Frank Martin scouts out a new location for his Longwood Group, a $2.2-million developer of geriatric facilities based in Springfield, Pa., the CEO asks soon-to-be competitors directly for information on fees, fill-up rates, occupancy, and service programs. Frank says most rivals cooperate in the spirit of self-preservation; a "bad" nursing home drags down everyone's reputation. Michael Lindsey, CEO of Lindsey Limousine, in Manchester, Conn., still works an occasional Saturday-night shift. While waiting for concerts to let out, he mixes with competitors' limo drivers and gets the lowdown on what's working and what's not at the other companies.

-- Susan Greco, Michael P. Cronin, and Phaedra Hise

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