In the first two parts of this series, we determined that it may not always be possible to have direct contact with your end customer, a Federal employee. In fact, it may be difficult to identify the best and most reliable contacts. In any given acquisition, you must deal with Contracting Officers and Specialists, Program Managers, technical staff of many varieties, executive managers, small business specialists, and potentially other persons as well. Many agencies have created barriers to direct contact not in an effort to stifle the flow of information, but to protect their staff from what I have heard called “the mosquito factor” – they feel pestered by vendors were trying to suck information out of them while not really providing any useful feedback. Be it true or not, we must work within this environment.
What are the alternatives to direct intimate contact with the customer? As we discussed in the first two parts, it is important for us to know both our customer and ourselves. Therefore, the first two steps to nurturing alternatives are:
Do Your Homework! I cannot over emphasize the importance of this step. Every agency has expended enormous resources on their websites, social media, industry days, and other channels in order to put information out to both the public and vendors. Your failure to do your homework only results in ultimate embarrassment and rejection. Don’t forget to include third-party sources and websites, such as FedBizOpps or FedConnect, and articles in the trade press when doing your research. The list of items you want to know is very long, but let me suggest four major focus areas:
- How is the agency organized and what are the missions of the agency AND its components?
- What does the agency traditionally purchase from vendors and what acquisition strategies does it prefer?
- Who are the major contractors within that agency? Don’t forget to identify small contractors as well as large companies.
- What are the major associations, trade shows, or events where agency personnel like to speak?
Take Your Inventory! The second part of this exercise is to know yourself. You must understand how your products or services benefit the client. Blanket statements will not serve. You need to be specific and you need to be focused. If necessary, prepare separate “elevator speeches” for each potential contact. You might have one speech he gave to the Contracting Officer, another for technical staff, and yet another for prime contractors with business in the agency you are targeting. You need to set yourself apart from the crowd so that any potential sources of information will want to share with you. Be brutal and be honest. Avoid the mistake of being too general for fear that you might miss an opportunity. Whoever is listening to you needs to be able to identify how you fit into their goals, and they need to do it quickly.
Given this foundation, let’s look at some alternative sources for information:
#1: Agency Acquisition Websites: The Agency website should be your first source of information. It was developed by agency staff and will clearly demonstrate their perception of their agency’s mission and how they think. You also may be able discover the strengths of the agency and, even more important, the weaknesses. While each agency website is slightly different, they all have general information for the public, pages for each organizational element, acquisition information (including forecasts), and an Open Government page. Your failure to spend time on the agency’s website will only reflect badly on you and your company.
#2: Consolidated Acquisition Sites: In an effort to get information out to the public, the Federal Government has created a number of acquisition sites, the most popular of which is FedBizOpps. This is where the majority of federal acquisitions are published, as well as information about industry days and early notices such as Request for Information and Sources Sought. However, there are other sites, including FedConnect, eBuy, and contract-specific sites, that are also used. Set up searches to mark individual items of interest so that you receive notices when an update is posted. For example, I have a daily search set up on FedBizOpps to notify me of activity in the categories in which I am interested. On a busy day, I will receive approximate 100 items in my list. I review this list daily to find items of interest and to learn what is happening within various agencies and technologies. This is a good way to find out when agency it started as acquisition cycle in may be more amenable to contact.
#3: Commercial Research Services: There are a number of commercial research services that are available on a subscription basis. The most popular is Deltek GovWin, which was created through the acquisition of Input and FedSources, previously the two most popular research services. Be careful when using these services as the consistency and accuracy can vary depending on the opportunity. Keep in mind that many times even these services cannot get information out of the Government.
#4: Industry Days and Events: Many agencies are using industry days as a way of reaching out to the vendor community. They also provide information as part of organization events (such as ACT-IAC, AFFIRM, AFCEA, GovExec, 1105 Media, and many more). Generally, industry days are free and any information provided at industry day is also posted for persons who could not attend. Other events are usually priced fairly inexpensively and may be recorded for later distribution. There is a new service called GovEvents that is a growing repository of government focused events. Unfortunately, there are a lot of events occurring, especially in the Washington DC area. I have days on my calendar with 4 to 6 overlapping events of interest. I usually wait until the week before the event is scheduled to sign up so I can pick the most relevant event and minimize the fees I pay.
#5: Partners and Other Vendors: My most valuable resources have been my colleagues, partners, competitors, and other companies. As you will learn in a future post, intelligence gathering does not generally come directly from your client. I have found that other companies or individuals often have much better information through their channels and that exchanging information with others is a great way to learn the truth about what is going on. I have been told by some that my method is wrong, but it is seldom incorrect. Not only that, but I don’t irritate the customer or burnout favors prematurely.
#6: Consultants: There is a gaggle of consultants willing to share their unique (you know my opinion on this word) knowledge and customer access for a fee. Of course, they will share this information with anyone willing to pay their fee. If you decide to use a consultant, screen well and sign up for a trial period of 3 to 6 months. Do not, under any circumstances, spend any more than you feel comfortable.
#7: Small Business Advocates: Finally, one of my favorite sources of information is the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU). Every agency has an OSDBU whose mission is to help promote small businesses within the agency. They serve as a liaison between the agency program and contracts organizations and small businesses. Even when I worked for large businesses the OSDBU was instrumental in helping me formulate an approach that best promoted the small business message. However, as with any contact, make sure you have done your homework on an agency and that your message is crafted for the OSDBU to clearly understand what you do.
I apologize for the length of this article, but I do believe that good intelligence is the key to winning Federal business. I also do not place high value on individual contacts within an agency as I have found that they do not always have the full picture. However, in the event that you do need to speak directly with an agency employee, I will address how to get access in the next, and final, part of this series.