The last few weeks of the Federal fiscal year can feel like a mix of excitement, anticipation, confusion, and, sometimes even despair — for buyers and vendors! As vendors, often we feel like we have so much to offer… if only that buyer would return our calls or emails! What does it take to break through?
We are all humans in the Federal arena. Want more wins? That success starts when we shift our focus from the agency level to the individual Federal humans who need what we do, and are making and influencing decisions.
That changes everything.
Know Your buyer: Discover the players at every layer.
There’s no such thing as selling to “The Government”. “Homeland Security” doesn’t buy from you. Individual people do! So, who we talking about: the Contracting Officer? The End User? The Program Manager? The incumbent prime you have to team with?
The answer is: All of them, and probably a few more. If that’s news to you, or discouraging… let me make that easier. The Govcon Personas Guide defines the players at all five layers, and gives you some great ideas for what to do, what to say, and what to ask as you plan your calls and build your relationship with them! Once you’ve got that idea firmly in mind, consider the tips below.
Make It Personal: before you call, research the specific person you’re calling, and bring them something they can use.
Want to get your calls returned? Here’s three reasons why Federal buyers say they don’t call you, and how to turn that around.
- Call people who need, and buy, what you do. Someone who doesn’t need what you do is not going to return your calls. Tap the free public information first to discover who buys the services you provide or the products you offer. I showed folks how to tap that on the recording, Federal Data Diving. Make sure your call list is filled with end users and contracting officers that the data shows DO buy what you do.
- Focus on their problems and needs — not yours. Your Federal buyer’s top priority is to deliver their mission. “Awarding contracts to small business” is not your buyer’s mission; it’s just one of many secondary goals. Focus your voicemails, emails, and conversations around the unique way your specific product or service can help your end users and the contracting officers who support them to solve their problem and help them achieve their professional, and organizational, goals.
- Start small dollars with high-ROI! Especially if you’re a new vendor to that buyer, or you’re looking to scoop up some fiscal year end business, focus on a small problem or a project you know they’re struggling to finish, and offer some equally small, easy, ways you can help them make some progress. If the agency forecast shows a multimillion dollar project set aside for a company like yours and there’s just a few weeks to go, you’re likely way too late to be a contender. In Q4, when time is short, if they don’t know you and it’s a big project, you’re probably not going to be a top priority for returning the call.
Lower their risk.
Past performance outsells a full list of set-asides. Your Federal buyer is one of the most risk-averse life forms on earth. A new (or “new-to-me”) vendor represents…RISK. If they don’t know you, then the current vendor — even at a higher price and with inconsistent performance and crummy customer service — is “the devil they know.” Break through by sharing how you’ve solved their problem, for someone who looks just like them, yesterday afternoon. You can even showcase your experience with a marquee-name commercial client that is in the same region or has similar size and scale of needs. Your first win is to get the conversation started.
Make It Easy — FOR THEM.
Federal buyers have a ton of choices when they want to buy. Just because they can buy a certain way (e.g., use a GSA Schedule) doesn’t mean they will. Sometimes their agency limits those choices (for example, directing them to use Best in Class vehicles). Other times, all other things being kind of equal, they’re going to lean toward the vendor who’s already set up on the contract vehicle they like best.
Show them you understand their world: Before you call, use public data to learn how every Federal office and agency you’re calling on buys what you do. If you’re not on some of those contract vehicles, you may need to set yourself up with partners. You might even have to sacrifice some margin to subcontract to an incumbent your buyer tells you they want you to work with who’s on a vehicle you don’t have. That way, when you meet or talk to that buyer, you can list the ways they can reach you via the contract vehicles the data shows they use most.
Remember that small is beautiful, and powerful! That one small contract award gives you…past performance (which lowers the risk and opens the door to new work).
Don’t just focus on the multi-million-dollar contracts — especially if you are new to that agency, and even if you know you have a world-beating solution. Give your prospects some smaller, low-risk ways to get to know you and see how well you perform. What problems could solve for under $10,000? If you master micro-purchase, you can line up some easy wins without big, expensive, proposals. And, again, super LOW RISK.
What solutions do you have for under $250,000? Learn more about how Simplified Acquisition Procedures work. These streamlined procedures are often used on purchases worth far more than $250,000, actually! If the data shows that your buyers like to do business this way, show up to the conversation with some “right-sized” ideas they can grab-and-go with.
PS — Why, oh why, won’t they just sole-source to you? After all, the rules say they can! Yeah, but… Sole-source often actually represents a huge amount of time and RISK, often a lot more so than conducting a competition. Contracting officers are under a lot of pressure to show that they conducted maximum practicable competition. Show them you understand their world by showing them all the easy ways they can choose you, at your price, using one of the many competitive options open to them.
Show Your Long Game: Start small, be persistent, polite, and patient.
Sometimes what they need most from you at this time of year is what we call a “loser bid.” They want your fully compliant, robust, bid in the file so they can show they shopped when they award the work to someone else. Why, and when, would you do that?
Only if you’re in it for the long term! This isn’t about “throwing spaghetti against the wall” or “writing novels for strangers.” While you don’t expect to win, bid fully ready to perform if you do. Routinely ask for a debriefing (if that’s an option) or an informal post-bid follow up conversation (if the FAR doesn’t require a debriefing) to learn more about your buyer as well as how to do better next time.
Even if they don’t need you right now, your easiest ask is this: Get on the calendar for a conversation in mid-October. They won’t be spending money, they’ll be a long way from new awards. Probably no RFP’s will be on the street.
And they’ll be relaxed and have time to talk.
Be relentlessly cheerful and grateful for every call, every conversation. Why? Because you have chosen this person, and their agency, and their mission, with exquisite care. You are showing up because you know your product, your service, your expertise, can make a difference for them. And you’re going to keep showing up, checking in, bringing ideas or articles or invitations to your webinar or an industry report or good holiday wishes.
One of my favorite clients, Elena Yearly, actually called up her contracting officer to offer thanks when her company LOST a bid! She said, “I just wanted to say how much I appreciated the opportunity to compete, and to congratulate you for choosing the vendor who is right for you, right now.” Talk about grace! Elena made herself unforgettable, in a great way!
Are you eager for the win? Well, sure! Just remember that your priority to meet your business goals might not be aligned with the urgency your Federal prospect feels to do business with you right this moment or even this fiscal year.
The biggest obstacle to the wins we want is the giant misunderstanding that Federal sales are all about the “procurement process.” The biggest secret hidden in plain sight is this: Federal buyers are just human.
TO SUM UP: Make it personal: come to the conversation focused on what, and how, they buy. Lower their risk: lead with past performance. Make it easy for them: including by starting small and being persistent. And bring your long game: pack your patience, and stay fueled by focus.
Your Next Wins
Check out my on-demand webinar, “What Your Contracting Officer Wants in Q4 (and how to give it to them).