Four Federal Sales Myths (And How I Busted Them)

Four big myths stop people from winning millions of dollars in Federal contracts…and, worse yet, prevents talented small business owners from bringing expertise and value to Federal buyers who need what we do to deliver their missions and serve citizens.

I know, because those myths were stopping me, and my clients

Until I broke through. 

Here’s what happened.

Come with me into the heart of darkness of federal sales. I promise I’ll bring you back safely. 

But I can’t promise you’ll ever be the same again.  In fact, I hope you are changed forever (in a good way)!

The Story

I’ve been an expert in Federal business for over 33 years. But for 25 of those years, I had a dirty little secret.

I’d helped more than 6,000 people win hundreds of millions of dollars in Federal work, on everything from strategy to cash-in-the-bank to recompetes.

I’ve given hundreds of presentations and over 500 webinars. I’ve published two books on the subject that have helped thousands of business owners just like you.

By the time 2014 rolled around, I could have told you almost anything about how the federal government buys. Anything and everything about winning federal business, except the one thing you probably most wanted to know:

The magical thing about how people really win Federal contracts.

It wasn’t like I didn’t want to tell you. I’d landed a couple of small Federal contracts for my company, sure, but it was all relationship-stuff, I told myself. 

I honestly didn’t know.

…which didn’t really matter ‘til the day it really, really, did.

I started my career as a business strategist, working for IBM Canada in Toronto. It took me six months to realize that I was working for what, at the time, was the planet’s biggest sales organization. 

And that, to be successful there, I was going to have to SELL THINGS.

I was so horrified at the prospect of selling that I literally left the country — left my friends, my family, my home and native land — and moved to Washington D.C., and started a new career.  For fifteen years, I was doing consulting for a whole country: I became a Trade Commissioner for the Canadian Embassy in Washington DC, helping American and Canadian companies do business together to serve the U.S. Federal government.

By 2014, I’d been an expert in government contracting for 25 years, and a small business owner for ten of those.

My own business always paid the bills, but had never been especially profitable. The biggest reason I struggled was because while I knew a lot of stuff, the things I knew didn’t solve problems that most people had (or saw the value in spending) much money to solve.

Then came the day I landed the big one: a sustaining contract with guaranteed revenue for a whole year. I was gonna help a group of seven companies new to the Federal market make the journey from contact to contract, with targeting, training, custom Federal sales plans, and implementation.

Heavy deliverables: two months. Coaching them while they sold: ten months. Sweet. There’s no such thing as easy money in any business, but this sure looked a lot like that.  

Right up to the moment when I delivered the sales plan. I said, “Great, away you go, happy selling, talk to you next week!”

What was when the client said, “Great! When are you making the introductions?”

Making the what?

Whoops. 

Apparently we had had a misunderstanding about the statement of work.

I went through shock, and anger, and denial, and bargaining, and all the classic stages of grief. 

And I ended up at acceptance. 

The thing I’d been running away from for 25 years had suddenly body-slammed my business.

I was on the hook for thousands of calls and dozens of federal buyer leads, every week for forty weeks.

Epic.

My problem was not just that I didn’t want to do it. 

Now I had three problems.

First, I had just been turned into a full time sales person with quota and no experience. I felt overwhelmed and humiliated. I have a graduate degree. I’m a strategist. I don’t sell things. The project I was so proud to win had brought me to my knees. 

Second, I was terrified of being outed as a fraud, the contract expert who couldn’t.

Third, this project was my income — and the company’s major project – for the whole year. I had no other irons in the fire. 

In the words of Gene Kranz, NASA Mission Controller, “Failure was not an option.” 

I had never failed a client before, and wasn’t about to start now. There was only one thing to do.

I took a deep breath, pulled up my big girl socks, and picked up the phone.

This was my job: to cold call, find the right person, and get to know them well enough to introduce them to my clients.

Who made everything from glass containers and power generation equipment to waterless shampoo to root-canal repair equipment.

Yep.

I was dialing for dollars for endodontics.

I made thousands of calls and spent hundreds of hours. Awkward, scary, hours.

Weeks and months went by.

Then came the light bulb moment.

I was on the second or third phone call with Dr Ned, the endodontist for the Indian Health Service in Penobscot Maine. He was telling me about his nephew, who was applying for medical school at Georgetown. Boy, was he proud!

And good thing I caught him because he was taking Tuesday off. What was Dr Ned doing on his day off?

He was sewing curtains. 

And, sure, he’d be glad to talk to the rep from the company that made the root canal repair system. Just set up the call, no problem.

And I hung up the phone and sat there.

And it dawned on me: THIS was the heart of the job.

MYTHBUSTER #1: Selling isn’t about pitching. It’s about LISTENING.

My job started with hearing their stories. Army Warrant Officer Sarah at Fort Bragg was heading out to make a presentation at Fort Huachuca. Air Force Colonel Dr Linda just got promoted to run the Postgraduate Dental College!

Ned and Sarah and Linda all had problems. And my clients had solutions for them! I just had to be willing to take the time to keep showing up and get to know them. Once they knew that I cared about them and what they were doing, something nearly magical happened: They told me what they needed. 

MYTHBUSTER #2: There’s no such thing as selling to “The Government.”

There’s only selling to people.

What I thought was the heart of darkness was filled with hearts of gold. 

When you win a contract, there’s going to be two signatures on that document. 

One will be yours. The other will belong to a real federal human who put everything on the line when they awarded that work to you.

Once I took my time to get to know them, often the first thing I could bring them was an introduction. I could connect the people who could help each other — whether that was another one of my contacts, or even someone else within the same organization! That felt great. Pretty soon, I can honestly say that I looked forward to my dialing-for-dollars days. 

The key to open up a federal sale was to start by finding and making friends with people who need you.

Thousands of federal contractors struggle because they never connect with the buyers and partners who truly need your expertise. 

Master the art of building relationships with federal buyers and you can leave those struggles behind

Mythbuster #3: Nobody ever died from making a phone call.

In fact, the lives of our businesses literally depend on it.

82% of buyers say they have accepted meetings with salespeople after a series of contacts beginning with sales cold calls. In fact, 92% of all customer interactions happen over the phone. So, as business owners and professionals, we need to make those sales phone calls.

However, I do admit that it’s possible to feel like you’re going to die from a phone call.

Despite being a seasoned public speaker, a professional trainer, and a national subject matter expert on Federal business, on this giant project when it came to making the first (um, actually, first few hundreds) of these calls, I felt…awkward. 

I didn’t know what to say. 

I tripped over my words. 

I knew about the products, I had the research. I had to get past my fear of failing or even worse.

Once I strung together a sentence, I’m embarrassed to say it was some version of “I’m lost. Would you please help me?” all the while I was thinking “Please don’t yell at me.”

Only once did someone growl, “Don’t ever call me again.” I just marked that line grey and didn’t bother him again. 

And you know what? I still think that maybe he was just having a hard day. I’ll never know.

Research shows that:

  • it takes an average of 8 attempts to reach a cold prospect — someone you haven’t ever called before and have no relationship with. 
  • 80% of sales require 5 follow-up calls after the meeting. 
  • 44% of sales reps give up after 1 follow-up.

It can take anywhere from 15 to 30 calls these days to get from contact to contract. 

Mythbuster #4: Federal buyers need — and actually do want — to talk to vendors.

Here’s what I discovered: even at my worst, even without a script or much in the way of notes, 99% of the Federal employees who took my calls didn’t notice! 

I was nervous. They were kind. 

I was confused. They didn’t mind! 

They wanted to help me!

That’s the super thing about calling on public servants: They’re employed to…serve. The. Public.

Which, in that moment, even though my goal as a vendor was to become of service to them, they were also paid to serve me. To answer my questions.

I knew the theory: FAR Part 15.201. Look it up. In short, exchanges with industry are encouraged. Not just in regs, but, turns out, in formal guidance!

So what was I so afraid of? What could go wrong?

My calls taught me that while I needed to be patient, I also needed to be persistent and consistent.  After tracking the results of a few hundred calls, I got more confident because my call plan showed me that I was indeed calling on the right people. It was going to take more than one or two calls to get through. 

How did I figure out how often to call? Whether to email? Or a mix of both? Rather than call my experience “trial and error,” I tracked my calls and learned that each person has a unique sweet spot for how often they wanted to hear from me: a special range on their scale between apathy and pestilence. I didn’t need to hit the precise spot, just get into the zone. It takes a few tries — certainly more than one call — to get into that zone.

In Closing

Once I had lived that experience, call after call, and really got it into the bones, I was able to tame and even harness the giant, ancient, primal, fear that was smack in the path of my success: fear of rejection. 

And I figured out that what it takes to get the job done is focus, a plan, and determination.

Maybe you’re an experienced career sales professional. Maybe you are one of those people who thrives on a challenge, who’s indomitable in the face of no after no. Who understands on some cellular level the ol’ cliches like  “It’s not personal!” or “You’ll hear no, and no and no and no…before they get to “NOW!”

That still doesn’t come naturally to me. But, after I understood my giant, painful, experience, I was determined that NO ONE should have to take that long, or get that stressed, to learn what I learned.

Which is why I serve YOU, a business owner in the Federal arena: so that YOU can win the Federal business that gives you the opportunity to make a difference in the world.

Action

Now that you’ve blasted through the myths, here’s what to do next.

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