How important is using your sales force for competitive intelligence?

Recently McKinsey & Company published an article titled How B2B companies talk past their customers. The article is based on research McKinsey did analyzing the advertising/marketing themes consistently used by major corporations and comparing them with survey results from executives on what the executives consider important in “brand strength.” I've posted an article on the broader findings on my other blog.

But one point in the article stood out for me as being particularly relevant here when I read it – the active, managed use of the sales force as a customer and competitive intelligence collector.

According to McKinsey:

Leading companies make extensive use of frontline interaction and market research to stay in tune with customer needs and perceptions. For example, Hilti, a maker of professional construction tools, has its salespeople do double duty as distributors and hands-on market researchers at customer construction sites.

Notice the description “hands-on market researchers”. This goes well beyond the typical Salesforce.com or CRM data entry that gets turned into forecasts and sales projections, or the ad hoc anecdotes that appear in sales meetings only to be lost in corporate bureaucracy.

What McKinsey is describing is the use of of frontline personnel as an active, managed source of strategic information. Aramark, the national uniform company, does much the same thing, using its drivers to feed its competitive information collection in an organized, structured way.

This type of personal engagement is at the heart of Competitive Management. Having frontline personnel who know what to look for, have an infrastructure that lets them report it in a meaningful way, and feel like what they contribute actually affects company strategy is a real competitive advantage.

Companies like Hilti and Aramark have learned this lesson and use it every day to stay in front of competitiors. What is your company doing? Would you describe your sales force as source of strategic information?