Buy Lines: Newcomers make hard work pay off

Steve Charles

Newcomers to the public sector inevitably ask: "What should my company do to be successful?" I usually respond by asking where the company has had success in the private sector. That's because government policy favors "commercial" products and services over those that are unique to the government.

This leads to my first recommendation: Leverage your company's past performance in the private sector by focusing on similar business problems in the public sector.

The next issue newcomers need to tackle is finding where the business problems are in the agencies, so they can introduce their commercial items as solutions. This is where real business development and sales work begins. Identifying customer problems requires knowledge of the government's organizational structure as well as its activities and processes.

The good news is there are numerous sources of public and commercially available information about government's requirements, operational challenges and direction. The bad news is that the amount of information is staggering.

You need a person dedicated to digesting all this information while building the relationships throughout the government hierarchy to position your products and services where they offer the most value. Too often, companies spend sales and business development resources scheduling high-level conversations with government executives rather than building relationships at the functional levels where the real action and sales actually occur.

"Just get me in front of the CIO, and I'll be able to sell our solution," is a common -- and understandable -- request of a confident sales executive with little experience working in the public sector. The fact is, today, government executives are fatigued by the constant requests for meetings in which they are asked general questions, such as "What keeps you up at night?"

Privately, many government officials wonder if the policy changes of the mid-1990s that promoted more open dialogue with industry are really the most effective way of doing business. These officials express concerns that too much open dialogue with industry keeps them from doing their jobs. They wonder why they can't go back to advertising what they want through a formal solicitation.

We in industry would do well to heed what these high-level government officials suggest. Companies new to the market need to spend their sales, marketing and business development dollars in ways that get them more engaged at the functional levels, so that when they meet the secretary, the administrator or the CIO, they have something mutually beneficial to discuss.

A company new to public-sector marketing should focus on developing success stories with messages that directly address the government's requirements using insider language. Avoid rehashed commercial messages that communicate a shallow understanding of your customer.

Developing a government marketing strategy that leverages all mediums and channels is more important then ever. Traditional direct mail and e-mail campaigns are being filtered, so messages seldom reach the intended government employee unless they are truly personalized.

Companies should go back to the good, old-fashioned concept of the media mix. Your mix will be based on what you offer, who your audience is and how much money you have spend, however incremental.

The bottom line is that in this market, there is no substitute for getting to know your government customer top down, bottom up and inside out; followed by messages delivered through trusted mediums, backed up by perfect performance.  

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

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