One of the questions we received last week was, “What should a first contact between my company and federal contracting personnel look and sound like?” It’s a common question. One reason that companies don’t speak directly to the customer is that they are intimidated by no knowing what to say. The article is broadly applicable — it applies to state and local procurement, and most of it is relevant to business-to-business transactions.
Let’s Start With Who To Talk To
Government procurements are so complicated that they have specialists called Contracting Officers who make sure that the proper rules and processes are followed. There are many titles for people involved in supporting the contracts process so we’ll refer to them collectively as Contracting Specialists.
Contracting Specialists represent the customer. The actual customer is the person in the agency who needs something to be procured. The requirements usually originate a program office. However, once the procurement process reaches a certain point, all of your contacts will most likely be required to be with the Contracting Specialist.
To best understand the customer’s needs, you want to talk to the person in the program office leading the procurement. But only if you are allowed to. This is one reason why identifying opportunities before the RFP is released is important. If you have questions about the procurement process, you should talk to the Contracting Specialist.
If you are a small business, most agencies also have a small business ombudsman who is there to help you learn your way around. If you are new to government contracting, finding and talking to the small business ombudsman should be your first step.
Depending on the agency and what is being procured, the Contracting Specialist may play a major or minor role in selecting who will get the award. Once a procurement is announced, the Contracting Specialist’s contact information will be published. The government program manager is usually not published, and can be difficult to identify if you don’t know a lot about how the agency is organized.
If you think about it, it’s still somewhat similar to how large companies buy things. Most big companies have purchasing departments. Someone from “Purchasing” typically drives the process they have to follow in order to procure what they need. The actual need comes from someone outside of Purchasing, but the Purchasing representative runs interference with the vendors so that the people inside the company don’t have to take their calls. Human Resources and recruiting are often very similar as well. The main differences are that government procurement procedures are more detailed, more complex, and in some cases mandated by law.
What Should You Talk To Them About?
As you can see, just figuring out who to talk to can be a significant challenge. And yet, there will be some people at the agency who want to talk to you. After all, they want to find companies that can fulfill their needs. So you should prepare in advance for what you will say when you find them.
The most important thing is to make the conversation have value to them. You may want to introduce yourself, but why should they care? What's in it for them? Rather, make it about how you can help them reach their goals instead of focusing on describing yourself. It's okay to ask them about their goals. In fact, you probably want them to do most of the talking.
Contracting Specialists are sometimes open, have time to speak to you, and provide lots of information. But on procurements that attract a lot of offerors, they might be defensive and not be able to afford to give a lot of time to each caller. You might even have trouble getting them on the phone. They are the most knowledgeable about agency buying policies and procedures, and communicating with them can be very helpful. But make sure you address their needs, do your homework before you call them, and don't push them for things they can't give you.
What Do You Actually Say?
We don’t recommend calling and saying “Here is what I do… Who should I talk to?” or “My company sells [fill in the blank] and I’d like to talk to whoever buys them.” Put yourself in the customer’s shoes… make the call about them and not about you.
Here are some possible sound bites that you can use to get a conversation started:
- I’d like to see if my company can help [agency name] with [problem] by [benefit of your offering]
- I'd like to find out what your plans are for [doing, buying, building, fulfilling, etc.] and see what my company can do to help.
- Is [fill in the blank] part of your short term [or long term] plans?
- Have you considered [describe how you can benefit them]
- We've done a lot of work and have relevant experience in that area.
- What options do you have for procuring [fill in the blank]? Follow up with questions to discover what their preferred contracting vehicles are.
You can also offer to send them additional information. A white paper that shows them how you can help solve their problems is better than sending them a description of your company. Speak first to the benefits you can provide to them [such as lower costs, fewer personnel, increased reliability] and then to features of your offer [less computers, lighter design].
What Else Should You Ask?
You should prepare a list of things you’d like to find out while you have the customer’s attention, such as:
- What is the procurement status, process, milestones, or deadlines?
- What is the size and scope of the procurement?
- How their needs are being met now
- Dates, deadlines, and time frames
- Who are the applicable points of contact?
- Where will the contract be performed?
Robert Kelly contributed to this article. He is one of our consulting partners and can help you capture government business. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org