We are often asked a simple question – What does it take to do business with the Federal Government?
There is a lot of information floating around on this topic. And, most of it contains some kernel of truth, but a lot of it is very misleading, and too often there is some promise of an Easy Button. Let’s start by dispelling some of the myths. First, there is no Easy Button.
Obtaining business with the Federal Government is a drawn out, time consuming process that requires patience and perseverance.
When working with others in a successful teaming relationship, piggybacking on their advanced marketing can shorten the process. But, when starting from scratch, you need to allow eight to eighteen months to mature an opportunity.
Does it depend on who you know? This is a common belief and leads to big mistakes for small businesses who want to grow. It never hurts to know someone who can assist you (just be sure you are not asking them to violate their public trust). But for small to medium sized companies starting out in the government market, knowing someone can often help you with something like your first small consulting assignment. However, it will not enable you to achieve or sustain significant growth.
Happy to explain why in more detail if you are interested –but a Chinese proverb will serve to provide the short answer:
Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.
So, what is the fishy formula? Yes, there is a formula, or maybe you prefer the word process, and it takes hard work, discipline, dedication and creative skills to execute consistently over time. And, the process applies to pursuit of stand-alone defined contracts and competitive task orders under Multiple Award Contracts (MACs.) The process steps are:
1. Attraction - define what market segment is most interested in what you sell. Then, market your company value proposition to that community - you need to become a recognized player or you will always be coming off the bench. When people say I cannot get in to see government people it is because you have not made yourself interesting to them.
2. Insight - You need to work to understand your potential customer. This is the first stage of getting introduced, except it is not about introducing you, it is about letting the customer know you understand them. There is homework to do here, before you ever meet with someone. When you do meet it is to learn, by listening! Try leaving the PowerPoint at home.
3. Knowledge – As the relationship builds share information with the customer so they get a better understanding of what you offer and how it responds to what they need. Work to expand their horizon, and establish yourself as an advisor. Through this step you begin to shape your offering so it starts to become the customer’s idea. When they read your proposal you want them to feel ownership of your solution.
4. Confidence Building - once an offering takes shape you need to demonstrate you can deliver. Nothing bothers a government Program Manager more than the possibility a contract will end badly. And, no one likes to buy from someone they do not have confidence in. Whether it is personal or corporate history, you have to make the case you will be a reliable partner.
5. Coupling - Now your ideas have helped the customer to shape their statement of work so it “favors” your solution, allowing you to provide a compelling proposal that re-tells the entire story of the relationship you built through Steps 1 to 4. Combine this with a strong pricing strategy and win the deal.
I like the Staples ad, but there is no easy button! Each step in the process requires thought, energy, skill and creativity to execute well. It is best done by a team with marketing, research, technical (topical to your business), contract, and pricing and sales experience. It is not a one-person endeavor! If you are starting out, it is good to know someone on the customer side to help overcome the obstacles. If you are more advanced, and looking to build a growing business, it is time to figure out how to build a team and/or acquire professional services. It is hard for any small or even mid-size firm to have the right mix of talents to apply to the entire spectrum of activity. Even in large firms the talent is often not available where and when it’s needed.