Fishing for Feds. Get Face Time.
As a new contractor in the federal space, your biggest challenge is to gain VISIBILITY. Same for an established contractor seeking to grow your business by entering a new agency, office or selling in a new capability area. No matter how magical and tight your proposal is, if it hits the desk of a person that has never heard of your company or if they can’t immediately connect your name to what they are buying, you are at a huge disadvantage against incumbents.
You need to get visibility and establish a reputation so that when the buying opportunity arises, they know your name or product. You can get on all the right IDIQ blanket vehicles and GSA schedules, and you can tweak your SAM, SBA and GSA profiles so that your name comes up in a search. But to really be successful, you must have the kind of visibility and reputation that can only be established through direct client contact. Client meetings are the best way to be remembered when a buyer wants to buy what you sell. Nothing beats personal contact.
Whenever I do training, the most common question I get is, “How do I get a government client to answer the phone?” Admittedly, this is a tough nut to crack. Government agencies are understaffed, those who remain are overworked and there are a whole lot of contractors trying to get their attention. You must have given them a reason to meet with you—and it must be about their needs, not your pipeline.
All it really takes is a little confidence. That confidence comes with being prepared to talk the customer’s language and impress upon them that you can help them solve their problems. And that takes research. What ARE their problems? What is their current setup, and what is it that needs fixing? Do they have trouble finding the right people with the right skills? Are they strapped budgetarily? Are they under sudden or pressing orders from above? Are they in a time crunch? Is there a problematic inter-agency issue? Is the problem (systems interoperability, quality control, or what)?
And once you answer the above, you need to formulate an honest, clear-eyed vision of how you -- your services, products and people – can get in there and save the day.
Here’s the drill that I suggest:
Step 1. Do your Homework on the Prospective Customer. Before you waste their time with another generic dog and pony show about how fabulous you are, find out what makes their office tick and how you can make it work better. Talk with people you know, read the agency’s publications, and use their website to obtain information about the people and their positions in the organization, with emphasis on the prospect you want to see. Seek out any concerns/problem areas that you have heard about in open environments (e.g., briefings, symposia, conventions, etc.)
Step 2. Raise Awareness of your Company in Trade Venues. Your potential clients are like anyone else. They need to keep up with the current trends in your industry. What is your plan to make sure they come across your name in trade publications, LinkedIn communities, on their favorite Twitter hashtag, at professional meetings or at agency Industry Days? Even a simple awareness of your company and that you as the CEO are a participant in these discussions, helps when they see an email from you in their in-box.
Step 3. Be Persistent. Don’t think that a single No means that they will never say Yes in the future. I am sorry to be the bearer of this news, but you are in sales and sales means hearing a lot of No’s so you can get to that golden Yes. While there is a line between persistence and being a pest, don’t give up too easily. Three emails and three calls over, say, a six-week period, is a reasonable level of diligence. People are on vacation, people have deadlines. Just because they didn’t respond to your email doesn’t mean you give up on this lead. It just means you must keep things up until you get a response. When you start to feel like you don’t have the energy to keep up the chase, remind yourself that you have something of value to offer to this person. The meeting you are proposing will be mutually beneficial in that they will ultimately have the pleasure of working with you and discovering what your great company can do for them. You must believe this to keep at it, and to make a great impression when they surprise you and pick up the phone on that third attempt.
By the way, there’re right and wrong ways to make that first call. Although there are fewer admin assistants than there used to be, let’s assume a receptionist or assistant takes your call.
JOE WRONGO: Hi. I’m with Unicorn Data Products in Alexandria. Will you please connect me with the person in your organization in charge of purchasing copiers and pencil sharpeners? Hello? Hello …?
JOE RIGHTO: Hello. I’m with Unicorn Data Products in Alexandria. I spoke with Col. Warren Peace at the July 1 Pre-Bid Conference for the upcoming office equipment procurement DOTC-887-HA-0036 for Fort Belvoir. (ALTERNATIVE: “I read the article referencing Col. Peace In Army Times, concerning the upcoming procurement for … “) I’d like to have a word with him concerning any interoperability issues he’s facing, and about some related experience we had recently with another client. Would he be available anytime soon for a phone call or a brief visit?
See the difference?
Now, if Col. Peace answers his own phone, you basically follow Joe Righto’s line. Many contracting staffers will agree to be “briefed” on a technology or methodology that sounds anything like the cavalry coming to the rescue
Take whatever you can get to walk in that door. Then, lay the groundwork for future interaction.
“I’d like to send you a project plan we submitted … “
“I’d like to show you our facility.”
“I’d like to set you up with our Chief Engineer to discuss that very topic.”
Now you have the meeting. What are you going to do with it?
Listen. You may think that you are there to talk about your company. YOU’RE NOT. Before they care about your company, you must make them understand that you can help solve their problems. You have to understand them, their problems, their frustrations and their aspirations. Ask questions about the prospect’s needs, desires and fears, listen carefully, then follow their lead. You have to listen first so that what you offer back about your company fits with their needs.
Position Your Company. In order to build a positive personal connection with people at your target agency, offer a “briefing” on your relevant products/services that will show the customer you are able to help solve their problems with a low-risk solution. Show them how you can see things from their perspective. Stick to problem-and-solution, problem-and-solution. Any whiff of salesmanship will put off the customer until they know you better. Speak little, listen a lot, ask questions, follow their lead, and never disparage your competition.
Establish a Relationship. Emphasize that you want to bring about solutions by working together. Learn the prospect’s expectations of a trusted contractor. Respond to those expectations with relevant and very, very short stories about your capabilities that have compelling proof points. Always keep it professional and directly responsive to their needs.
Proceed Cautiously. Always get the prospect’s permission to ask about the needs and workings of their agency. Gather as much specific information as you can, but if the prospect seems reluctant to speak, back off immediately. A good interviewing technique is to repeat back what the prospect tells you, thus giving him the chance to correct any misconceptions or add further detail. Never appear predatory. Always be driving toward the solution.
What is the funding? If the prospect is serious about solving their problem, they will not hesitate to discuss their agency’s relevant funding plans. Funding is the key driver behind the timetable of when any procurement activity will take place. You need to know these facts, and they know you need to know.
Learn About the Procurement Decision. Who will feed into the go/no-go decision? Is there a schedule leading up to award? How does the target agency’s procurement process work? What kind of contract is anticipated (fixed-price, cost-plus, GSA Schedule, GWAC, IQIQ, etc.)?
Present Your Solution. Don’t just describe your product or service. Instead, keep referring to the prospect’s problem and touch lightly on your own perspective toward it. Don’t be a know-it-all and pretend you have a magic bullet in hand; remember that it is all about trust. Your job when dealing directly with a potential customer is to first flesh out their concerns and problems, and only then lay a foundation for a decision favoring your solution.
Client contact – over the phone or in-person - is a critical part of any capture or marketing plan. These same steps can equally apply to potential partners as well.
Next time we will dig deeper into the fine art of shaping the procurement. That is how can you use client relationships and meetings to modify the way the next procurement will be made and how they will set their requirements.
This month’s blog co-author is ZKDS affiliate, David Christovich. Dr. Christovich has over 30 years in marketing for high-tech software, engineering, IT and telecom companies supporting DoD and civilian agencies. He has managed over 300 competitive proposals to the Federal Government, ranging up to $1 billion in value with a proposal win rate over 40%. He has been a marketing/proposal manager and consultant for many small and large businesses in the Washington, D.C. region.