Well it can be complicated if it is a gadget you are trying to reverse engineer such as a camera, laptop, tablet, android phone etc. Or a recipe perhaps. Or it can be easy as 1-2-3 if the product you are trying to comprehend is very simple such as clothing, school supplies, a pillow, a cabinet, etc. In other words, reverse engineering is very much applicable to businesses, it is the product to be comprehended that makes it either easy or difficult.
So what exactly is reverse engineering? Well in my own words it is the process where you try to understand how competition does its products by breaking down their finished product to see its parts and how they make up the whole. This way, you sort of get to know how competition was able to arrive at the product. Then your action point will be whether you immitate the parts (considering copyright issues of course), the way it was assembled or you improve on the parts to come up with a better product compared to competition.
The practice probably started in the gadgets industry where Company A will buy finished products of Company B, disassemble the product into its main smaller parts, and try to comprehend how Company A does it. Or maybe in the car industry where reverse engineering can be very costly and crucial, plus very exciting.
With this they get to know which parts are made up of which materials, and how the parts fit together. It’s like buying a completed jigsaw puzzle, then disassembling the whole piece, and studying the puzzle per puzzle piece.
I hope by this time you already get the drift. So for small business, we can also apply our own version of reverse engineering. Or whatever way you want to call it: espionage, mystery shopping, imitation, competitor analysis, etc. All you have to do is buy an item you want studied (in the market of course so you get a standard random sample for customer purchase, and discreetly of course since you don’t want competition knowing what you do), then disassemble it (again discreetly).
For food items, attempting to discover the competitor’s recipe might be more tricky to do since you can’t always disassemble a finished food product. Maybe you can start by looking at the list of ingridients used. Or maybe observe cooking practices when possible?
For clothing, the materials used, the cut, sawing quality etc. For other items, the size, thickness, quantity, dimensions, number of sheets, print quality, ink used, pricing information etc might be easier to secure and comprehend.
Bottomline is, knowing your customer constantly is not enough. Businesses also have to be on their toes in knowing what competition does, and how they do it. As Sun Tzu puts it in The Art of War, knowing you opponent is winning half the battle.