Turn the ketchup bottle upside down

Opportunities or obstacles? Spend more or less on marketing? Will the defense sector grow or shrink? Will oversight and transparency hurt business? These and other topics fed the discussion at a recent government contractors forum.

Cooper offered a very frank comment when he talked about being worried about how his employees interact with customers in this era of increased competition, compliance and contract oversight. “How many of our staff don’t have the training or the sensitivity to operate in this new environment,” he said. Raytheon, for its part, has stepped up employee training so they are better prepared, he said. Overall, the tone of the panel discussion was optimistic, but left little doubt that the government market is entering a new era.

Most contractors are gearing up for a busy 2009, but at the same time a significant number see obstacles to more business in the future.

According to a survey conducted by Market Connections Inc. of Washington Technology readers, 71 percent said they expected their bid activity to increase in the next year.

At the same time, 40 percent said that they thought the Obama administration would create more obstacles to new business. Forty-six percent thought more opportunities would be created.

The survey, which you can get here, was the jumping off point for a panel discussion at an April 3 event hosted by Market Connections.

Lisa Dezzutti, the research firm’s president, presented the study and acted as moderator. The panelists include Lee Cooper of Raytheon Co., Robert Clerman of Noblis Inc., William Hoover of American Systems Corp., Tricia Iveson of Vistronix Inc., and me. I’m still not sure why I was on the panel, but I’m glad I was there.

Lisa presented a series of questions built off the survey covering everything from upcoming opportunities to marketing strategies to business development.

Some of the highlights:

  • Expect more oversight. The rules of the contracting environment are evolving, so be agile and careful, Hoover said.
  • On defense spending, Cooper said he expects growth to be driven by the recapitalization of military equipment, base realignment and closure activities, and defense health care costs. 
  • Defense spending historically has been a powerful economic stimulant, Hoover said. He also expects more spending preparing for future threats such as China, though DOD maybe reluctant to call it that. The Navy will need more funding to address that challenge. 
  • Look to the DOD for leadership on other important areas such as climate change, energy and health care, Clerman said. 
  • Keep focused on what customers are looking for and what benefits them, Iveson said. Marketing materials need to be crisp. 
  • Use consultants to reach new customers if you don’t have enough insights or connections to decision makers. And don’t forget social-networking tools like LinkedIn, Iveson said. 
  • Don’t be afraid to solicit ideas from your customers. Cooper told the story of how Heinz developed its upside ketchup bottle after asking customers what would make it easier to get the ketchup out. They wouldn’t have thought of it otherwise. 
  • Companies likely will need to chose in the future whether they want to play the upfront development role or the downstream implementation role. Agencies are increasingly reluctant for the same company to play both roles, Clerman said. He didn't say this, but I took it to mean that concerns with organizational conflicts of interest will continue to grow as an issue.
  • Make sure business development and marketing teams talk to each other. Too often they don’t, Iveson said. She recommends regular status meetings. It’ll help keep your company’s marketing message focused.