By: Eileen Kent, Federal Sales Sherpa Show Host
How did you feel when you first considered selling to the government? I always thought I was looking into the face of the “Great and Powerful Oz.” The process seemed overwhelming and a little frightening. When you look at a web site or a flyer from the government inviting you to get on their “Solicitation Mailing List,” you are looking into the face of Oz.
The federal government has gatekeepers who make you “feel” like you’re receiving an opportunity to be invited to the table. The reality is that the gatekeepers are just another black hole. [Editorial note – You need to know that I am generalizing. Each agency has designated employees who receive your unsolicited proposals. Some might give each vendor a fair shot but there is no guarantee it will get into the proper hands. It will simply be stamped “Received” and could well be tossed aside.]
Therefore, you need to find what is behind the Great and Powerful Oz. As the federal sales sherpa, it is my role to pull back the curtain to reveal the true government employee. You are searching for the government employee who might be a little shy, but is also very willing to help if you have the savvy to ask in such a way that they’ll be happy to help you. How do you find these people? You need to FOCUS your efforts.
Your first task is to select three agencies that you firmly believe have an immediate need for your products and services. The agencies may not know that they need you yet. Or they are using your competition, who is sub-par. Your mission is to educate them on your capabilities and close them when they’re ready to buy. Once you have identified your target agencies, focus on the most critical positions in the agency from your perspective, the contracting officer (CO) and the end user.
The CO is the agency employee responsible for deciding that the government’s goal of “fair and open competition” has been met. The CO signs on the dotted line to allocate the funding for the purchase of the desired product or service. A contracting specialist is usually a subordinate of the CO. This person must receive approval from the CO to move forward on purchases exceeding a certain dollar amount.
The end user is the person who will work beside you to complete the job. Typically, the end user’s purchasing authority does not exceed $3k unless they have an emergency role and would therefore need to have flexibility on their purchasing limits. It is worth noting that each agency (and its different offices) may have different rules and job titles.
Here are some typical End User Titles:
Human Resource Director (Training, HR Products and Services)
Project Manager (Technology Products, Training, CPU Hardware, Software, Consulting)
Facilities Manager (Construction, Interiors, Furniture, IT, Engineering, Safety Products/Services)
The contracting officer and contracting specialist live to follow the rules and to make the end user (in essence, their customer) happy. You need make sure all of the players know who you are and you need to establish trust with them before they will consider you for the job. You’re thinking, “How can I do that when the RFP, or Request for Proposal, says not to contact anyone at the agency.” Well, it’s too late for that RFP, so you need to get in early and often in preparation for future opportunities.
Your Federal Sales Sherpa’s Suggested Approach:
1. Make a commitment this year that you’re going to become embedded in an agency. Create a special database called “focus” so you know that this agency is one of your three focused agencies. Only end users and contracting professionals who make statements such as “Yes, I use a product/service similar to yours,” or “Yes, I have purchased your type of product/service in the past and plan to do so in the future” go into the focus database. If you speak to someone in the agency and they tell you they are not the contact, but they refer you on to another, the initial contact’s name should not clutter your focused database. Only your new friends – the end users and the contracting officers who purchase what you offer – get the honor of being entered into this database.
2. Follow up with your list of contracting professionals and end users at least 12-18 times. This can be accomplished via email, phone, personal meetings on-site, at trade shows, speaking engagements, networking events, lunch and learns, etc.
3. Your job is to get to know these individuals on many levels. First, uncover how their current vendor is doing the job and how you can fill in the empty spaces in the meantime. If you uncover that the CO or end users is experiencing outright “pain” with their current vendor, take the extra time and materials to fix it. As you get to know their situation on that level, uncover their personal goals, hobbies and background information. This is Sales 101, but it works.
You can do this. Face the Great and Powerful Oz, pull back the curtain and ask for their business.
Focus! Focus! Focus!