By Anna Urman, Director Fairfax Virginia PTAP
Tell me if you’ve heard this one before – from contracting officers, OSDBUs, SBLOs, your well-meaning networking acquaintances and teaming partners and Chamber of Commerce #govcon speakers…And you have no idea what they are talking about.
What homework? How much do I have to do? Where do I start? What’s the point? Are you just letting me down easy to wiggle out of a conversation? (Well, I can’t answer that last one – but I can certainly help guide you in the homework-doing department).
What the industry experts mean by ‘homework’ is to be prepared for a conversation with a potential customer – whether it’s a government agency, a large prime, or a similarly small business who you want as a partner. Prepared to not just to recite to them how great you are, but to speak to your value proposition. What can you do for them?
Well, what can you do for them?
If you are even thinking about responding with something along the lines of “well, I can sell them my…” – STOP.
Federal agencies, and the food chain of contractors that you want to be a part of aren’t just buying products and services, no matter how shiny and cool. They aren’t “giving out” contracts, there are no magic words that would enable a government agency to suddenly bypass decades of processes and volumes of rules just to do you a favor.
So how do you figure out what your customer wants to hear?
Get to know your customer
How do you even know where to start, who would be a good customer for you? You may know from experience, which puts you a step ahead. But if it’s just a hunch – test that hypothesis through solid research before venturing out – you’ll save a lot of frustration and parking dollars.
- What have they bought before? From whom? Where? How much did they spend? What kind competition do they usually have for your products/services? What NAICS do they use to buy your gadget? Tools like USASpending and Schedule Sales Query are a good start. If you’re in IT, familiarize yourself with the IT Dashboard.
- What are they on the market for currently? Opportunities in FBO, Procurement Forecasts.
- Want more? Look at GAO reports, Inspector General’s office findings. What are your customers posting on Twitter? Are the decision makers speaking at conferences on topics of interest?
- If you’re meeting with primes, find out in advance what they do. Their websites are a great start.
Elevator Pitch, Business Card, Capabilities Statement, and a website. Know them, have them, invest in them. You want to present yourself as an established business that isn’t risky in any way. You want to appear polished and professional, memorable and knowledgeable. If you are even thinking about sending an email to a government customer from a yahoo or gmail account, don’t do it. Get a company website with an email @your own domain. There are tools out there that make it really easy to put together a presentable website even for non-IT folks, for not a lot of money. Wix, SquareSpace are so easy, even I can do it.
They’ll be much more likely to invest time and answer questions from someone they see potential in. They’ll be much more likely to send a complete newbie to their local PTAP office for the basic skills.
Engage and ask the right questions
Forget asking your customer “what do you do.” If you haven’t figured it out, you’re wasting your time and theirs. Now, if you are meeting a company you haven’t heard of at a networking event, that’s a fine question. At a planned appointment, when you’ve had a chance to pull up their website at the least, it’s a taboo question. If you’ve done the reading, you know what they do, you know what they buy, you know who they buy it from and how much they spend annually. The questions you ask should showcase your knowledge of their environment and challenges, a subtle indication that you know exactly how to fix things – and a desire to understand their ideal state.
There are a number of opportunities to meet your customers – yes, at their office. Also at industry days, conferences, in LinkedIn groups, in local AFCEA, NCMA chapters, industry-specific organization Federal Allies Institute, and even on social media. Where are they going to learn? Where are they going to share information? Don’t forget that your customers are people too – and can be found at dog parks and PTA meetings and home improvement stores. I’m not advocating stalking, but there’s a lot you can learn in a casual, no pressure, non-sales interaction that can enlighten your business development / teaming / proposal strategy.
This is plenty of homework to get started. If you need help, we’re here to help you work on your pitch, review your capabilities statement, assist with market research.
And Yes, there are instances where companies get work faster than the usual contracting timeline. That is the stuff of legends in our field. Usually, such miracles are the result of a lot of hard groundwork and persistence.