Gifts are one of the ways we connect as humans. But even the newest GovCon quickly learns not to offer gifts to Federal buyers. FAR Part 3 on Allowable Conduct defines the limits of allowable gifts, and it’s better not to offer anything at all.
Our Federal buyers are human, just like us. They have dreams for life after government, too. How well we perform as their contractors — including following the Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) — has a big impact on whether their professional success leads to making their personal dreams come true.
Do Federal buyers like gifts? Of course they do! So, if you had a gift of no monetary value that were priceless to your Federal buyer, what would you do?
Let’s find out. But first, I’m going to talk about love, and then I’ll talk about GovCons’ wildest dreams.
What’s Love Got To Do With It?
You’ve heard me say, “There’s no such thing as doing business with ‘The Government.’ There’s only doing business with people. Real humans, real Federal humans, are the ones who sign our contracts.
And you know from your own experience that people do business with people they know, people they like, and people they trust. Face it: waaaay over 90% of your business is won on relationships.
As we move through the process of relationship building in the Federal arena, we learn that winning contractors figure out how to woo our individual Federal humans. You have to get to know them, and kinda romance them (in a professional and entirely ethical way, of course) before they’ll consider doing business with us, let alone award us a contract worth millions of dollars.
Now, think about it: when you were growing up, was there somebody you really liked, somebody you really wanted to get their attention? Or, when you walked into a crowded room and you saw someone you knew was THE ONE, did you run across the room, go down on one knee and offer up your entire self, a full proposal for life, at a first chance meeting?
Probably not. (And if you watched somebody do that, you’d probably cringe.)
Even if it was love at first sight, you probably realized you’d need to take your time, so you didn’t scare the socks off them.
Lots of my clients want to win a multi-million dollar contract. If you do, too, you’ve often heard me say, “Start small. Be persistent.”
Writing proposals for somebody who’s never heard of you is kind of the same thing.
So we need to slow down! Most of us take many small steps (and rarely a linear path) on the road to falling in love. And when the time comes for a proposal — certainly for a life partner, but also for business — we want to do everything we can to be confident they’re ready to say yes!
The Five Love Languages Of GovCon
Let’s go back to wildest dreams for a moment. Our Federal buyers have them…and so do we.
I often ask my clients, “If you were successful in Federal contracting beyond your wildest dreams, and had the chance to do anything you wanted, what’s something you would love to do with your time and money? Many people talk about “more time with family” or “fund a philanthropic project” but travel is usually high on their lists and mine.
Traveling to new places often means learning new languages. That takes me to “love languages.”
Dr. Gary Chapman’s breakaway book, The Five Love Languages: The Secret To Love That Lasts was a New York Times bestseller — 20 million copies over the past 30 years. He went on to develop love languages into perspectives for workplace leadership and even military families.
What got me is this: the “love language” I speak best often isn’t the language someone I love can hear or understand. Even more frustrating: if I want to get through to someone I really care about, sometimes I have to learn one or more languages I find really hard to speak! And if I want to build connection with someone, I have to learn to hear the language they speak best.
His work got me thinking about the way relationships work between Federal buyers and contractors. I wondered what that would look like, and gave it some thought.
When we travel to a new place, and speak to someone in a language you both understand, we share the gift of human connection.
As GovCons, when we travel to the world of our Federal buyers, we speak the technical language of our profession, the legal language of contracting… and the love languages that create the gift of human connection in the Federal arena.
I realized that we all speak a version of what Gary Chapman described as “love languages” every day in the Federal arena. What I think of as the Love Languages of GovCon become five priceless, powerful, gifts of human connection. Here they are, along with some suggestions to get you thinking about each.
- and Thanks
The First Gift: Time.
Precious and finite. Especially, but not just, in fourth quarter, you want to be really time- conscious and considerate of your Federal buyer’s time. For instance: show up on time (or, even better, early, whether that’s on zoom or in person. Another example: Respect the limits of the time you asked for. For the call you said you would be “…gee, we’re only going to take five minutes,” then only take four and a half and give somebody 30 seconds of their life back. If you were given a 30-minute meeting, plan to finish by the end of 25 minutes (and make sure you’ve left about ⅔ of the time for discussion). You’ll know this was the gift they appreciate when they reciprocate and invite you back.
The Second Gift: Talk.
For starters, learn how to leave a kickass voicemail. You are literally inside someone’s head. How intimate is that?
Think of it this way: when you leave a voicemail, you’ve got 30 seconds of someone’s undivided attention. You’ve seen some awesome movie trailers or Super Bowl ads, right? Make your voicemail a Super Bowl-quality voicemail. It doesn’t have to be fancy or even ultra-clever. It does need to be energetic and authentic. Put a smile on your face, they can hear it in your voice. Be just as excited on that voicemail as if you were right in front of that person you’ve been trying to connect with.
Let your voicemail give them a taste of how amazing an actual conversation with you is going to be!
The Third Gift: Touch.
By touch I mean not physical touch but emotional connection, empathy, genuine caring for the person that you are building a relationship with.
It’s still true: in-person meetings are the gold standard, better than zoom or phone…if you can get them. Recently, they’ve become harder or even impossible to arrange (and often more stressful than ever, too).
Don’t let that stop you.
For instance, there’s never been an easier time to ask “Before we dive in, how are you doing? How’s your family?”
Those are the questions very few people stop to ask and really care about the answer. When you do, you make a depth of connection that someone will always remember.
As you get the conversation started, what have you researched about this unique person, their professional responsibilities, their interests? What background or experience or friends might you have in common? If you were them, what might you be concerned about right now?
The Fourth Gift: Tasks
By “Tasks”, I want you to think “acts of service.” Done right, all our marketing and sales activities are acts of service. What tools or tips, articles, connections, what kinds of effort or research or information asset, could you offer to somebody that are free – link to a book or an article — that could make your buyer’s life easier? Save them time? Ease their burden? Lower their risk? A report? A white paper? A draft statement of technical requirements to have on hand just in case money comes through? A relevant blog post (whether you wrote it or someone else did)? Some market research? A checklist comparing the offerings of Federal vendors your buyer might be considering?
The Fifth Gift: Thanks!
FAR Part Three on ethics says you cannot give physical presents or items of monetary value to your Federal buyers, so don’t even try. But you can give gratitude! It’s the most overlooked (and the most powerful) gift of all.
What are you grateful for?
How did that Federal contracting officer, small business specialist, or end user, help you understand the requirement and be able to serve them better?? Fine-tune your capability statement? Bring together the people you needed to talk to? Give you a great debriefing that helped you write the next winning proposal?
The few minutes you take to write a letter to that person’s management can change lives and careers!
Be genuine and specific. Talk about what they did and how it contributed to both you and to the agency’s achievement of their mission. That letter goes in their personnel file and adds to the conversation at appraisal and promotion time.
Oh, and what’s in it for you, speaking everybody else’s love languages and doing all this work? Turns out that giving and receiving gratitude might be equally awesome: research at both Harvard Medical School and USC suggest that gratitude can make givers happier, too!
I studied French as a second language growing up in Canada. As my life and travels adventures unfolded, at various points I learned to speak enough German, Finnish, Japanese, Spanish, Italian, Korean, Greek (and even British English!) to get to know the people I was with.
If you’ve traveled abroad, you probably discovered that when we take the time to learn even a little of someone else’s language, they always appreciate the effort. Even if we struggle with the other language, our new friends smile and help us along, and teach us more.
The Five Allowable Gifts: The Love Languages of GovCon.
- and Thanks
Love languages are lifelong conversations, not a one-and-done performance. So not only don’t worry if the language you speak best isn’t one that your Federal buyer understands well. about getting it perfect the first time. Feeling awkward about trying this? Actually, that’s good. The person you’re reaching out to feels that energy. They know you’re stretching to reach them, to connect with them. That you’re pushing the limits of your comfort zone not on a technical issue, but on a human factor: vulnerability. And that ends up opening the door to greater intimacy — not closing it!
RESOURCE: Discover more about vulnerability and connection from one of my other favorite resources, bestselling author Dr. Brene’s Brown’s Gifts of Imperfection.
Tell me which one you find hardest to give. Which do you love to receive? Which ones do you “speak” most easily?
What happens when you use those love languages to build relationships and woo your Federal buyers?
And, finally, which ones might your Federal buyer have been speaking, offering you and making a bid for connection, that you might have been totally missing until now?