Few things about a potential contractor will impress a client more than knowledge of the company: its products, its competitors, its marketplace, and even its culture. The quickest way to get a client to remember you is to offer insight into how the company can get an edge over the competition. There’s no excuse not to do your homework—especially considering that you can do all the necessary research right from your desk.
Of course, the more you know about a potential client, the better job you can do for them. When you know how your role at the company—however brief—fits within with the company’s larger mission, you can bring that insight and understanding to your work there.
In this article, I’ll discuss how you can ferret out the financial and business information about a company that will help you figure out what makes it tick and the obstacles it faces.
Second in a series
This is the last of two articles that gives consultants tips on how to check up on potential clients. Last week’s installment, “Research your clients before agreeing to work with them,” discussed company status, culture, and payment history questions to consider before taking a contract with a new client.
Finding business and financial reports
A company’s credit report is the first basic piece of information you need. As you’re searching through this information, look for the challenges facing the company. Are sales slumping in a particular sector? Are they facing problems with supply or manufacturing? From your angle, watch out for excessive debt as compared to company sales.
You can find this type of information at several places, including Dun & Bradstreet. From here, access financial data about a company by clicking on either the U.S. Business/Credit Reports or U.S. Company Profiles links. (My search turned up the same results regardless of which path I followed.)
You can obtain most reports with a one-time credit card payment, although some are available only by subscription.
Another helpful resource for gathering information on publicly held companies is the Yahoo Finance page. You can access detailed business descriptions and a listing of the company's top shareholders, as well as the company's competitors—information that is vital if you’re vying for a project that will go up against a rival. All of this information is free.
You can round up several sources of business information at Hoover’s, which is most useful as a starting point because of its steep subscription price. On the Hoover’s home page, enter the company name into the Search box. If you get a match, you’ll see a list of links to Capsule Information, Competitive Landscape, Officer Biographies, Key People, and News And Analysis.
Of these categories of information, the only one available to nonsubscribers is the Capsule Information. Fortunately, you will find useful stuff here: a business summary; a list of the company’s top competitors (a list more reliable than the one at Dun & Bradstreet, which, for example, named AT&T Broadband and Verizon as competitors of CNET Networks); and a link to the company’s corporate hierarchy, which will tell you if the company is owned by another company.
More importantly, at the bottom of the search results, you’ll find links to business reports and other information on the company from five other business reporting services:
Follow those links to go to either a list of the products available or to that company’s Web site.
If you do decide to subscribe to Hoover’s, the company promises access to full lists of competitors, comparison data to industry and market levels, and more, but the price is steep: $1,800 a year. Occasionally, Hoover's and other companies offer free trial offers. Currently, Harris InfoSource allows you to sign up for 30-day trial access to Selectory Online, allowing you to search its entire database.
Don’t forget stock information
If the company is publicly held, you can find a wealth of information by searching on E*Trade’s Quotes And Research page, even if you don’t have an E*Trade account. You can find not just stock valuations but also net sales and losses, debt rations, and analyses of the company’s health and the challenges it faces. You can also find sector information here too.
Another free resource for stock information, besides Yahoo Finance, is MSN Money. Enter a stock symbol and get information on legal issues, the company's filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission, analyst ratings, and company reports.
Researching industry and company trends
Once you know all you can about the client company itself, it’s time to learn about the world in which that client operates. You can find plenty of information on industry trends in myriad trade magazines and on the Internet.
For the most recent news in the industry, go to PR Newswire and utilize its Industry Focus page. Choose a topic to see recent company news releases.
Don’t overlook traditional news sources either. Once you know the top names in the industry, enter them and your potential client’s name in the search engines at CNN and MSNBC. Although you aren’t likely to find out anything the client doesn’t already know, you will at least be up to date on what may be shaping the company's needs and goals.
Of course, you'll want to check out the company’s own Web site as well, especially its PR pages and news releases. You’ll learn a lot by knowing how the company likes to talk about itself.
Putting it all together
Your last step is to synthesize all the information you’ve found. Don’t just repeat a string of facts to your client. Instead, incorporate what you’ve learned into your pitch to the client to demonstrate that you understand the client’s goals and obstacles. If you can display understanding and insight about the company, you’ll be far more likely to land that contract than someone who can provide only a resume.
How do you research your clients?
Do you use some of the resources we’ve covered here, or are there other methods that you use? Share your comments in a discussion or send us an e-mail.