After posting my comments on the trend towards a less receptive Federal Audience, I received several responses that wanted to know if I were going to post any suggestions for how to overcome this potential difficulty. I have decided to address this request in a series of four articles. Part 1 examines the reasons contractors think they need access. In Part 2, I will examine factors that impact how much access really is required. In Part 3, I will discuss alternatives to personal contact. Finally, in Part 4, we will look at some methods to gain access when you do need it and how to make the most use of the time you get. After you read this article, please take my survey so I can better understand your reasons for seeking direct access to Federal clients.
First of all, let’s be honest with ourselves. We are not talking about how the mega-contractors do business, nor are we speaking of winning huge multi-billion dollar contracts. I am writing this for the average small or mid-sized business who is trying to build a contract portfolio that will carry the business and provide a foundation for future growth. Given this foundation, let’s look at the top reasons I hear that contractors want direct access to the client:
#1: It is not worth bidding unless the client knows your company – This is the reason I hear the most. Many companies set a policy that they will not bid on any contract as a prime where there has been no direct client contact. While this may seem like common sense, it does not explain the fact that many contracts are awarded to companies that have never met the client one-on-one. Keep in mind that the Federal procurement process is geared towards providing a fair opportunity to all bidders and the number of awards that are unduly influenced by a familiarity between the client and bidder is rare. The decision to bid should not hinge on whether you have spoken to the customer, but on how you have reached out to the customer. We will discuss this further in Parts 2 and 3.
#2: The only way to understand the client’s hot buttons is to speak with them directly – Without a doubt, direct discussions with the client will provide insight into personal hot buttons. It may also provide insight into the organization’s hot buttons. By “hot buttons”, I include pain points, issues with past effort, desires for new capabilities, etc. – anything that will make your proposal stand out. This can be a double-edged sword. I have seen companies depend too much on what the client has told them, only to lose the bid because they did not comply with the solicitation requirements. Keep in mind that only the Contracting Officer can make an award and the Contracting Officer is bound by the Federal Acquisition Regulations and the documents that are published.
#3: We want to understand the requirements early so we can get a jump on the solution – This is actually a good reason, especially if you are going after a bid that requires you to build a solution. However, the Federal Government is pretty good about posting their requirements early and accepting comments, a practice which has become more common. You might gain some insight to “unspoken” requirements or how the solution fits into the organization’s overall strategy, both of which can help you when preparing your proposal. Just be careful that you still meet all the requirements in the final solicitation documents – these are the ones that will be evaluated. Be aware that many agencies prohibit their technical folks from speaking with contractors without going through the Contracts Office.
#4: The client need to understand our capabilities/products and why we are unique – “Unique” never is unique. While you may have a creative approach, it is seldom unique. If it is unique, then you may find it difficult to sell to the Federal Government, since they do not like single source solutions. This reason may be valid if you are selling highly technical products or have approaches which are non-standard. Educating the client on alternatives is always good, but do not try to convince they you are unique. They will just take that as a challenge to prove you wrong.
#5: We can influence the requirements if we get in early – Again, this is one of those “it depends” reasons. There are times when early interaction allows you to provide feedback to the client on their requirements. Generally, the Federal Government desires requirements that are inclusive (allow the most companies to bid) rather than exclusive (keep companies from bidding). Most likely, what you will be able to do is identify requirements that, if changed, allow you to bid with a reasonable chance of winning. Seldom will you get the client to add a requirement that eliminates most of your competition and, if you do, it will probably be questioned when the solicitation package comes out.
#6: We want to build a relationship – You will hear that “it’s all about relationships” everywhere. Sometimes this is true – more often it is not so. I will address this in much more detail in Part 2. I will say that the level of relationship depends greatly on the client and the project.
#7: We can gain an “unfair advantage” (my personal favorite) – Oh, yes… we would all like to have a monopoly. The idea that you can build a relationship to the point that the client will want to deal only with you is unrealistic, time-consuming, and expensive. Better that you focus on improving the client’s perception of your company and your product or service so that you might evaluation better. One method for accomplishing this is to convince the client to use a contract vehicle on which you know you can do better than the competition (more on this in a future article).
None of these reasons is good or bad unto itself. They all depend on the client personality, type of product/service, history of the procurement, number of interested bidders, and many other factors. We will examine these in my next article that will help you determine the balance of access you need to accomplish your goals. ==> Part 2: Factors That Influence Your Communications