Buy Lines: Best-value procurement starts with vendors' messages

Federal agencies talk "best value," but go with lowest price when they actually buy -- so say the many technology vendors voicing this complaint to me recently. Companies that pride themselves on delivering innovative products, services and solutions are frustrated by contracting officers who don't differentiate between one offering and another, except by price.

"There doesn't seem to be anything we can do about it," they say.

Actually, there is. If you want an agency to award you a contract or send an order based on best value, make sure the contracting officers have the necessary information about you and your competitors to make a best-value determination. Contracting officers usually get this information in an acquisition plan from the program office, along with a purchase request and a funding document.

Acquisition planning is the behind-the-scenes process that loosely parallels the complex sales cycle. While we in industry ask probing questions to identify problems we can solve, our government counterparts draft a needs statement and conduct market surveys to identify the offerings of our competitors before defining requirements and initiating procurement.

Companies that sell value know that it takes time for a buyer to articulate the implications of a problem to the extent necessary to put a value on the solution. It takes even more information about what is available in the marketplace to determine the evaluation criteria necessary to make a best-value decision.

The savvy government salesperson understands this process and makes sure his or her company's solution is positioned well before the acquisition makes it to the contracting shop.

Imagine you are a contracting officer, personally liable for spending public funds. You receive a purchase request with a lot of information about one company, but hardly anything about competing technologies or approaches. How do you make a best-value decision that you can defend?

The answer is you can't. As the contracting officer, you would need to ask the people requesting the purchase to go back and properly complete the acquisition plan.

If the plan comes back with little justification for best value, you likely would choose a more competitive contracting method and make the decision based on price.

If we in industry want the government to make best-value decisions, we must do the hard work of showing why our technology is a best value compared to its competitors. Anything less results in price becoming all-important.

Now that contracting officers are under more scrutiny, the burden falls to those of us in sales to make the basis for our value crystal clear. Otherwise, we will be treated like a commodity, and price will be the deciding factor.

Steve Charles is cofounder of immixGroup, a government business-consulting firm. Steve welcomes your comments at Steve_Charles@immixgroup.com.

About the Author

For the past two decades Mr. Charles has helped hundreds of technology manufacturers succeed in the government marketplace. His breadth and depth of expertise on every dimension of the government technology ecosystem provide technology manufacturers with a strategy and clear focus for the greatest success. Mr. Charles is adept at mapping technology product lifecycles and revenue models with appropriate channel and contract vehicle strategies in light of current procurement law, regulations and policy. He receives glowing reviews from the training workshops he facilitates to help sales teams understand the sales tactics needed to address each step in the government acquisition process. Mr. Charles is actively involved in government-industry associations including TechAmerica, ACT-IAC, Coalition for Government Procurement, and the National Contract Management Association. He meets regularly with leaders in government and industry to increase understanding and positive action. Mr. Charles co-authored The Inside Guide to the Federal IT Market, a how-to book for technology companies selling to the government. He is regular contributor to Washington Technology.

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