Bill Scheessele

Talk and listen to your customers

Becoming the contractor of choice doesn’t happen overnight. Winning business takes time and necessitates the alignment of your company’s resources with your customer’s requirements.

But if alignment is the key to winning business, dialogue with your customer is the means to successfully holding onto that business during re-competes.

Dialogue is a true exchange: It requires that you hear your customer’s message. It’s a conversation that doesn’t end when you get the business. The secret to winning a re-compete is continuing the dialogue after you’ve won the contract.

Yet, being the incumbent is fraught with challenges.

First, an incumbent has the disadvantage of overconfidence, the ego trip of believing you know what your customer wants and needs. After all, you won the contract.

But in dissecting a losing re-compete effort, incumbent teams often realize that their comfort level was dangerously high, becoming a trap that equated with complacency. They wrongly assumed that because everything was fine at one time, it would be fine in the future.

Second, the incumbent company’s program manager and his or her team have the responsibility of serving in not one, but two roles. Along with satisfying the customer and fulfilling contract requirements, they are also business developers. They must ferret out new objectives, technologies or directions that might affect the requirements in a re-compete effort. They need to constantly talk to the customer. They need to identify and engage any individual who might influence the program, including new employees.

If the program manager and his or her team are not executing the business development role consistently and well, an incumbent could miss something of major significance and suffer in the re-compete process. Failure to address changing customer needs is a sign of complacency.

Business development should be a priority for all program managers and even part of their job descriptions. They must be able to execute a formal business development process and understand how and why to ask customers the hard questions. If they don’t do it well, they won’t keep the contract.

If you listen and hear your customers, you might discover that the work you did yesterday is not the work they need tomorrow.

Third, there’s also a cost disadvantage to consider when competing for follow-up contracts as the incumbent. Here, dialogue is again an important means to an end. Getting to the core of the cost considerations allows an incumbent to align its proposal with the customer’s expectations. A bloated proposal won’t match up with lean requirements.

That approach could become particularly critical given the Obama administration’s likelihood of increasing procurement oversight with a focus on cost cutting and eliminating budget waste, as signaled by the appointment of Nancy Killefer as the administration's chief performance officer. She was chief operating officer at the Treasury Department during the Clinton administration.

Maintaining the discourse sends a reminder to customers that you, the incumbent, are diligent, dedicated and focused on meeting their needs.

Last, but not least, solid discovery and discourse can keep companies out of programs with loose contracts that tighten after being awarded. Sweating blood to make a contract work with resources that are stretched to the limit results in tremendous overhead and is a losing proposition for both sides.

Especially during times of change, maintaining a dialogue with customers can insulate an incumbent from surprises in the re-compete process.

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