How to be a contract loser, guaranteed

Our panel of experts offers different strategies for success in the market, but what one thing do they agree contractors should avoid at all costs?

EDITOR'S NOTE: First in a three-part series on how to succeed in the federal IT market in 2011, in which four experts give away their best advice.

The acquisition storm is coming, and it’s bringing with it an onslaught of new competitors fleeing the sagging private-sector economy, shrunken federal budgets, mounting award protests and new technologies demanding new investment. You could go emulate an ostrich — no one would blame you for the impulse — or you could read what four of the top IT consultants in Washington tell their clients.


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Washington Technology talked with Ray Bjorklund: senior vice president and chief knowledge officer, FedSources Inc.; Philip Kiviat: partner, Guerra Kiviat Inc.; Kevin Plexico: senior vice president of research and analysis services, Input Inc.; and Warren Suss: president, Suss Consulting Inc., and asked each one this question:

How would a company in the federal market best keep its existing customers and add new ones in the coming year?

Some of their answers surprised us, but before we get into that, let’s back up a tick. Although the members of our ad hoc panel offered different strategies for achieving success, they spoke with one voice when describing the fastest route to disaster: Failure to take care of your customer.

You think that’s obvious? So did we, but listen to this: “I have so many clients -- companies large, midsize and small -- whose senior management (and some midlevel management) never talks with the customers — I see it all the time,” Kiviat said.

It doesn’t take long before those customers think their business is being taken for granted and start considering their options.

“You have to keep them happy,” Kiviat said, “and the only way you can do that is by knowing what they need and what they want, by continually asking: ‘How are we doing?’ ”

Don’t confuse the IT business with information technology itself. Technology is not the issue, Kiviat said. “We have so much technology today that, unless you’re on the bleeding edge, you can do many [kinds of IT implementations] quickly and in different ways, depending on the customer. The question they don’t necessarily ask but that you have to answer is: “What do they really want to do?”

If you’re not tending your customer, others stand ready and willing to take on the job. Even the most well-placed incumbents have their vulnerabilities.

For example, Bjorklund said, “I heard about this incumbent that was delivering a high level of service. The agency loved the incumbent contractor; they had a great working relationship. Then it came time to recompete the contract. The agency said: ‘We like you guys a lot, but your competitor came in with a bid that was 25 percent better than yours.’ And they were out.”

Your reaction to technology changes can make you appear either eager and able to take on new business or inflexible and mired in the past. Take, for example, the shift to cloud-based services, which typically requires an investment in infrastructure and technology networks in anticipation of returns.

“Federal contractors are not used to investing upfront,” Suss said. “They’re used to investing in the proposal-and-capture process but generally are reluctant, before an award has been made, to make these kinds of sometimes significant infrastructure investments and establish supplemental capabilities before they know it’s going to generate revenue.”

Not only is that a great way to sour a relationship, he said, but also “inattention to such changes in the competitive landscape may create openings for newcomers.”

And believe it — word of any real or perceived failure to perform well on contracts you have now will travel fast.

“If your past performance is not strong, you become a nonstarter, not only from the agencies’ point of view but also in the view of prime contractors,” Plexico said. “You’ll be digging a big hole for yourself.”

But getting your own house is in order is only the beginning of your to-do list to achieve success, because, Bjorklund said, “no single initiative or strategy will ensure a win. You must pay attention to all the subtleties.”

Next: Our panel members define some of those subtleties and spell out their top strategies for success in 2011.