Editor’s note: This article, which originally published on October 29, 2001, was updated by TechRepublic blogger Susan Harkins.

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 my first installment of this two-part series, I outlined the reasons for and the benefits of researching potential clients before agreeing to work with them. In this article, I 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.

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? Is the company facing problems with supply or manufacturing? From your angle, watch out for excessive debt as compared to company sales.

Hoover’s (a D&B company) is a good 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 find a lot of useful stuff: a business summary; a list of the company’s top competitors; and a link to the company’s corporate hierarchy, which will tell you if it is owned by another company. If you 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 (starting at $75 a month). You can buy an individual report; the pricing starts at $69. (Hoover’s offers a free trial.)

Another place to find this type of information is D&B. You can obtain most reports with a one-time credit card payment, although some are available only by subscription.

A helpful resource for gathering information on publicly held companies is Yahoo! Finance. 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’ll get the best results for large and publicly-held companies; searching for a small or a privately-held company is hit or miss.

Don’t forget stock information

A 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, 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 & Markets 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 your potential client’s name in the search engines at CBS News and CNN. 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. While you’re at it, don’t underestimate Google — you might learn that the company has just been sold, has reported lower revenue than expected for a recent quarter, or has just hired a new CIO. Sometimes the payoff for relatively little effort is huge.

Check out the company’s 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 find. Don’t just repeat a string of facts to your client. Instead, incorporate what you learn into your pitch to the client to demonstrate that you understand their 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.

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