The federal government spends over 550 billion dollars every year buying goods and services from businesses of all sizes and types. Companies located not just in the U.S., but throughout the world, sell to the U.S. federal government and more businesses are looking to explore that market every day.
The federal marketplace is different from the private sector in many ways, one of which is the decision-making process regarding purchasing and procurement. There are existing rules and regulations (in the Federal Acquisition Regulations or FAR) clearly identifying the decision-making process, how purchases are made, who has the authority, what constitutes fair pricing, what is considered a poor or inadequate service/product, and how contracts are managed.
However, a factor critical to success, but not widely understood, is the understanding of the multiple layers of decision-makers in the federal purchase process.
Successful companies have cracked this decision-maker code, and those that are struggling or newcomers to the market will be well served to identify and understand these layers because each one is interested in very different information and should be contacted at different times during the business development cycle. If any of these people are ignored, or given the wrong information, or approached at the wrong time, the chance of success drops dramatically.
Small Business Representative
Every federal agency and military entity will have at least one person, if not a fully-staffed office, for the Small Business Representative (SBR). They may have titles such as the Office of Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (OSDBU), The Office of Small Business (OSB) crystal-method, Small and Disadvantaged Business Utilization (SADBU) or something similar. They are the informal gatekeepers. While they buy nothing, they are always the first people a serious contractor should meet when trying to sell to a federal agency.
It is the Small Business Representative’s job to help small businesses understand how to open the doors to doing business with a particular agency, the required registrations and the general purchasing processes. They are also interested in meeting with a large business when that large business is proactively looking for small businesses with which to subcontract or team.
One of the biggest mistakes a business person who owns a small business makes when meeting with the SBR is not doing their homework before requesting a meeting. Most uninformed contractors simply show up to the meeting and expect the SBR to educate them. Successful contractors, on the other hand, will have invested time in doing their own research and be ready to discuss specific topics during the meeting.
Recommended Research Before Requesting a Small Business Representative Meeting
Review your company’s listing in the Central Contractor Registration (CCR) and make updates if needed.
Review your company’s listing in the Dynamic Small Business Search (through CCR.gov) and make updates if needed (especially in the Capabilities Narrative and Keywords sections).
Check the agency’s mission to determine if your services/products are a fit with their needs.
Check the agency web site for the Small Business Office.
Determine if the agency has a registration separate from the CCR and if so, complete it.
Look for the agency’s Forecast of Contracting Opportunities, and review it to see if your services/products are listed.
Review FedBizOpps web site for specific upcoming opportunities and Sources Sought Notices.
Determine if the SBR hosts Vendor Outreach Sessions or other networking events. If so, sign up to attend.
The recommended research will take a few hours, but it is time well-spent. The vendors who have done their homework and are prepared will find that they make a very good first impression. By going through this preparation, you separate your company from all of those who do not make the effort.
The SBR will appreciate your professional approach and feel confident that you are a good match for their agency’s needs. However, when discussing the fit between your firm and the agency’s needs, do not go into great technical detail at this meeting as the SBR is not a technical expert. Save the technical details for the right person.
The SBR is the person most interested in what socio-economic certifications your firm satisfies. For those people who have completed the above research, the SBR will be very interested in helping find or develop set-aside opportunities that may fit the small business, 8(a), women-owned, HUBzone and service disabled veteran categories.
The Contracting Officer (CO) has the legal authority to make large purchases on behalf of the federal government. The CO undergoes background checks and specialized training, and, as a job requirement, signs an oath that s/he will spend our tax dollars wisely and not take unnecessary risks. S/he also accepts the burden of keeping up with the complicated legal requirements involved in the federal purchase process. Contracting officers (COs) are usually responsible for buying many different types of products and services and therefore are not expected to be technical experts.
When planning a meeting with a CO, it is important to realize that they are interested in different types of information than the SBR. Their focus is not on whether a firm has a particular socio-economic certification, but rather, what contract vehicle will be used and the level of experience of the firm. Remember, he cannot take unnecessary risks with federal funds, so the more proof you can give him of your capabilities, the better your chances of winning a contract.
Preparation Before Requesting a Contracting Officer Meeting
Research the agency buying habits.
Determine if your exact services and products are purchased.
Determine how they make purchases: credit cards, negotiated buys, competitive bids, etc.
Determine if sole source contracts are used.
Identify the exact purchase vehicle the CO normally uses, such as a GSA Schedule, credit cards, or a particular type of contract.
Complete a listing of your past experience in working with their agency or your other references.
Prepare to discuss the financial stability of your firm.
To conduct a successful meeting with a CO, a vendor will have all of the above information collected ahead of time and be prepared to use the allotted 15-20 minute meeting to discuss the fit with agency’s needs, the contract vehicles used, references and the firm’s financial stability.
It is usually a mistake to go into detail regarding the technical aspects of services or products with the CO as he typically is not a technical expert and would be bored or worse, irritated that a vendor did not take the time before the meeting to learn their purpose and responsibilities in the buying process.
Program Managers (PMs) are the people who actually use the products and services that that vendors provide and the CO is responsible for buying. These are the technical experts, and they are most likely to appreciate the details of why a product or service is a better choice. While the PMs may have credit cards with which they can make micro purchases (up to $3,000 per transaction) they usually have no legal authority to make large purchases.
It is very difficult to identify the PMs through readily available sources and even more difficult to schedule meetings. However, if a vendor wants to be considered as a viable bidder for larger contracts, it is important to take the time to identify and be introduced to the PMs, build relationships and become a known and trusted entity to the PM before the proposal is advertised.
A Program Manager will often have the ability to develop the technical requirements for procurement, and may even make specific vendor recommendations to the CO; therefore it is well worth the time and effort to get to know PMs and have them get to know your business.
Preparation Before Requesting a Program Manager Meeting
Determine the level of technical detail required at the meeting.
If you are not the technical expert for your firm, make sure to include him/her.
Research past projects run by the PM.
Determine what associations/networking events are likely candidates for participation by the PM.
Identify clear differentiators that your firm offers.
Wow her with your proven expertise.
The PM meeting is the one time that you want to pull out all stops regarding the technical details of your services and products. These are the people with whom you do go into as much detail as time allows, especially when you can back it up with strong references.
The Federal Contracting Decision-Making Team
The full decision-making process incorporated during developing, writing and awarding government contracts will involve all three of layers of people, and each advertised Request for Proposal (RFP) will also incorporate a formal team of decision-makers including at least one CO and one PM, often with multiples of each, with additional people participating as well. Successful contractors have spent the time to identify the layers of decision-makers, meet with them to discuss the appropriate topics and build relationships with them based on trust and ability.
Now that you can identify the decision-makers, the research required before meetings and the specific topics of discussion for each type of decision-maker, you are prepared to be very successful in setting the stage to win contracts.
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