Okay, I’m done.
Now the truth is most who step up to the plate will never come close to realizing the rewards they envisioned due to fundamental missteps in planning and execution. That’s assuming there is a plan. Many who enter the arena of government contracting have no idea how their actions (or inaction’s) have destined them to a spectator role. Other than the number of dollars depleted from company or personal coffers, business size has little to do with outcomes at this stage, something my friend Mark Amtower notes time and time again. As he’s discussed on multiple occasions, plenty of large companies have thrown their hats in the ring only to wind up as chalk outlines on the pavement. What these companies ultimately have in common is failing to develop an approach based on facts to mitigate unnecessary risks and manage their cost of acquiring business.
To me, the most important investment anyone can make in preparing to do business with Uncle Sam is in developing context. Face it, there is no shortage of jokes related to the alphabet soup that is the baseline and punchline of GovSpeak, but joking aside, understanding the lingo is important. At least that which is applicable to your business model, offering and customer alignment. But it’s not just abbreviations and acronyms. Acclimating to this industry’s vernacular requires a specific level of understanding if your plan is to make or influence decisions that impact the growth of your company.
While there are several factors to consider, here are three I believe all companies should employ before deciding to hang out a shingle to pursue work in the federal sector.
Define the who, what, where, when, why and how for prospects.
Whether you’re a commercial sector company adding a government contracting activity, or you are moving from government employee or contractor to start your own venture, map out to whom your offering applies. Sometimes it’s intuitive and many times it’s not. This is where market research can be your pal because it can save you much grief and money at every stage. You can do it yourself or you can acquire it, either way, ensure someone in the room truly understands the environment. How? Leverage your trusted relationships. Government contracting is pervasive and impacts nearly everyone everywhere, whether they know it or not. Just as you would seek a referral for a family doctor, your due diligence should be no less when seeking Subject Matter Experts for training or consulting in this new industry.
Ultimately, what you want to know going in is:
- who buys what you sell or plan to sell (down to the specific organization within an agency, which also tells you which vendors);
- why they buy (not willing to understand their needs and objectives, then don’t bother)
- how they buy it (contracts or contract vehicles and competition types – which also tells you which vendors);
- how much they buy;
- how they describe it (NAICS, PSC and agency-specific terminology);
- other factors such as socioeconomic considerations, technical certifications, industrial security requirements and more.
Contrary to popular belief and rumor, all of this information exists in the very accessible public domain, for free. It’s your decision to pay a compilation service to do some of this work for you, but one of the big challenges of pushing that ‘easy button’ is although you are buying some of the information needed to make decisions, the fee you pay doesn’t include the ability to understand how to use the information populating your inbox or the CRM provided. This is where most learn the hard lesson that it takes intelligence to apply knowledge, and intelligence only happens when you understand the relevance and timeliness of collected information. No matter how you get the information, if you don’t understand it you can’t use it.
In the 2012 Washington Technology article Inside the critical bid/no bid decision, business development professionals were asked “What’s the key to determining whether or not to bid on a federal contract?” the article goes on to say “the one word answer you’ll hear most often is ‘knowledge.'”
Knowledge is key and context provides the means to leverage it.
Establish two-way visibility.
Hands down, one of the most significant “misses” for many companies is being seen by customers. As is likely the case for other industries,the business of government contracting is based largely on relationships. It’s less about who you know and more about who knows you and what they think of you, right Mark Amtower?
On the heels of defining who you intend to sell to, you need to establish lines of communications using direct and indirect methods. Among other approaches this should include targeted social media such as blogs posted in specific LinkedIn groups frequented by your prospects and customers, tracking them based on their participation in related associations and professional groups, op-eds to articles in publications they leverage for information and more. The goal is creating awareness that can open doors for business development and sales efforts, or at least point out which door you should knock on.
Don’t forget to maximize your company listings in the System for Award Management (SAM.gov) and if you are a small business concern, the SBA Dynamic Small Business Search (DSBS) tool. Fill out all of the fields and please take time to understand the importance of both NAICS Codes and PSC Codes. Both of these classification systems play an important role in how your company is seen by agencies and potential partners (or not!). Both also influence how you develop and maintain awareness of competitors, customers, opportunities, partners, prospects and more!
Develop and maintain situational awareness.
Situational awareness is learning and understanding what’s happening outside your organization at the earliest opportunity so you can achieve the desired competitive posture. This is positively and negatively impacted by the ability of your company to maintain a persistent information collection, assessment, validation and exploitation system. Unfortunately, and as is often the case with DCAA compliance, many incorrectly assume the term “system” relates to a product when in actuality it’s a process. In both situations a company can purchase what they consider to be a ‘top of the line’ product and still not achieve the results they seek.
I started doing business with Uncle Sam before Al Gore flipped the World Wide Web switch and long before government-hosted websites supporting transparency and general data dissemination. Somehow the companies I worked for and many others of the day managed to find and win business just fine. Honestly, it seems easier today than it was yesterday to get information for developing a business case for bid/no-bid decisions. The challenges lie with companies not knowing about information resources and not using the information once they have it, largely based on lack of planning and lack of context. On top of the many government-driven environmental factors increasing vendor costs, lackluster business development and capture techniques, a growing lack of concern about ‘mission’ in the newcomer ranks, and a ‘protest to win’ mentality employed by a number of companies, there’s little wonder the level of risk and cost are off the charts. These are just some of the indicators driving demand for companies to increase their ability to efficiently develop and utilize competitive intelligence.
- Understanding the problem
- Customer relationship
- Competitive landscape
- Management approach
- Technical approach
- Cost dynamics
- Customer dynamics
- Source selection
- Your company dynamics
Acquiring the information needed to answer and understand the ramifications for most of these factors can be achieved leveraging public sources hosted by Uncle Sam. The rest of what’s needed can be acquired through relationships discovered as a result of the same and related information. What drive’s this is having a process to collect and exploit knowledge and intelligence which enables companies to establish a position to win. All of this by implementing a simple process and using a spreadsheet or web-based CRM that costs less than twenty bucks a month.
So the question is, how much more will your company invest in federal contracting just to be a spectator?
Guy Timberlake, Chief Visionary
The American Small Business Coalition