In Part 1, I discussed some the reasons that contractors feel they need access to the Federal Government personnel. In this article, I will describe some of the factors that impact the amount and type of contact you really need. As with most other aspects of business, there is no one-size-fits-all solution. One must look at the situation at hand and try to determine the optimal level of contact required. Based on my experience, I believe there are three different purposes for establishing communications:
#1: Build a long-term relationship with an agency – If the success of your corporate strategy relies principally on your success in winning contracts with one, or a few, agencies, you probably want to build a strong relationship with that agency. In this case, you’ll want to reach not only senior management (e.g., CIO, CFO, etc.), but you need to get your message to the technical folks, project managers, contracts, and any other persons who may be defining requirements or evaluating proposals you will be submitting.
#2: Establish a reputation within a community of interest – If your corporate strategy relies on a technology or service that is specialized, but targeted towards many agencies (e.g., security services, biometrics products, contact centers, etc.), then you want to identify one or more communities of interest who will help you promote your product or service. These can include federal working groups, trade organizations, and anywhere else where persons with similar interest aggregate.
#3: Position within a single acquisition – The most common objective that I hear is companies wanting to position for a single acquisition. This can get to be tricky, as each agency interprets the FARs differently and close off communications at different times. A lot will depend on the context of the acquisition, number of potential bidders, level of technical complexity, and the willingness of the agency to maintain open communications for prolonged periods. Recently, many agencies have opted to conduct industry days or pre-proposal conferences in lieu of one-on-one meetings.
The amount of weight your company places on each of the three purposes would depend greatly on your business strategy. As you assess the level of contact you require, you should ask yourself the following questions:
Question #1: Historically, what has been the nature of the target agency’s communications? Does the agency routinely meet with vendors and encourage vendors to demonstrate their capabilities? Some agencies have a policy that all contacts must go through the contracts office. It is not uncommon to get a deflection to the contracts office when approaching technical people. Aside from speaking with persons familiar with the agency, a good source for learning how an agency works is to research similar opportunities in FedBizOpps, the Federal Government’s official source for procurement information (search on “industry day” and “pre-proposal conference”) and research services, such as GovWin, who provide this information as part of their paid service. I will address more on how to reasearch an agency in a future article.
Question #2: Do you have a specific message or do you seek general awareness? If your goal is simply to get your company name and general capabilities in from the customer in the form of a presentation, you’ll probably find it more difficult to get an audience. On the other, if you have a specific purpose, such as a new product capability, education, or a “hook” such as a socio-economic status, you need to make your target aware of this to improve your chances of getting the meeting. Explain you goal when you reach out to potential contacts – do not be vague. “We have a technology for more accurately matching fingerprints at your visitor desk” works better than “We provide biometric solutions in which your agency might be interested”. The more you tell your target up front, the more likely that person will be to grant you access.
Question #3: Do you, or someone in your organization, have existing relationships upon which you can draw? If you have existing contracts with an agency or someone in your organization was work with that agency, you’ll probably have a better chance of getting your meeting. Likewise, if you have a contract with another agency for similar work, they may be able to get you into the new agency. At the very least, talk to these folks to see what they might know about how the agency works. I have found that each agency (and offices within agencies) has a method that works for them. Use your resources to better understand them.
Question #4: Has the agency openly stated their policy related to communications with contractors? Many agencies have publicly announced their policies regarding contact with contractors. For example, DHS holds numerous industry days to educate and communicate with potential contractors. Part of the reason for this approach is that there are literally hundreds of contractors who want to talk with DHS and they just do not have the resources to accommodate all of these contractors. However, at the same time, they do make it clear that companies with specialized products, new technologies, or a very focused message are welcome to come and meet one-on-one. Every agency has a page on their website to provide advice to contractors wishing to do business with them. Check out this information and read between the lines.
Question #5: Are there other channels they can be more effectively used than one-on-one discussions? Examine your target environment for other ways to get the information you desire and to transmit the messages you wish to communicate. I will discuss this more in Part 3 of this series, but suggest you look at industry days, technical exchange meetings, conferences and events, and trade organizations where your target audience can be seen and approached.
The bottom line is that one-on-one meetings are becoming obsolete and are probably the most expensive method to get your message to your target audience. There are situations when such meetings are necessary and desirable, but I contend that we focus too much on such meetings and not enough on our true objectives. I can recall many instances where a proposal was developed based on intel gathered from meetings or other personal contacts, only to discover that this intel was erroneous or guided us in the wrong directions. Therefore, I ask that you conduct an honest assessment of your goals, your resources, in your target audiences. I will discuss alternative methods to accomplish your objectives more efficiently in Part 3.