Are contractor-customer relationships getting better or worse?

The findings of our latest insider report paint a mostly positive picture of the relationship between contractors and customers, but both good and bad comments point to areas where contractors can improve.

Pick your poison – budget cuts, sequestration, a government shutdown, lowest price contracting – all in all, the government contracting market has been going through a rough time the last few years.

As we explored what government executives thought of contractors in our latest Insider Report – Government IT Contractor Partnering: The Customer Perspective – the relationship between contractors and customers was always top of mind.

We’ve already explored several aspects of the study, with a focus on where companies can improve to better serve customers and gain a competitive advantage over their peers. See our "More Analysis" sidebar.

A lot of my writing to date has focused on what contractors are doing wrong, which in a way might misrepresent the findings. There is good news as well.

Take for example, the question we asked about whether government executives felt it was getting harder or easier to work with contractors.

Only 19 percent said it was harder: 16 percent said it was somewhat more difficult, and 3 percent said it was much more difficult.

Nearly half – 49 percent – said the relationship had stayed about the same.

That’s not bad at all.

I also have to think that the trend line is positive in that 7 percent said working with contractors had become much easier, and 25 percent said it had become somewhat easier.

That’s 32 percent who see the relationship headed in a positive direction, 13 percentage points better than the 19 percent who say it is headed in a negative direction.

From that question, we explored why it was easier and why it was harder.

The budget topped the reasons given for why the relationship has become harder. There’s not much that contractors can do about that, but some of the other reasons offer some action items to consider.

We received many comments that focused on performance and delivery concerns as well as technical competence and skills.

One respondent complained that project managers don’t understand their own offerings, which hindered the ability to successfully complete the project.

Another said that contractors have become more profit-driven and aren’t held in check enough by government personnel.

“The same contractors have worked with the agency for so long that they act like employees and don’t seem to have an urgency about providing what is expected,” a third wrote.

Others blamed contracting rules that have made the procurement process less flexible. Budget cuts also have created barriers between contractors and customers.

On the positive side, government executives said they see contractors that have increased their knowledge and understanding about processes and customer needs.

“We have educated contractors on our procurement process, and they have adapted their processes to fit,” one respondent wrote.

Contractors also won praise for their use of technology to improve deliver.

“Our organization is now able to meet its mandate with the right tools and systems setup by the contractors,” another wrote.

Those kinds of comments have got to make you feel good.

By looking at the "why easier" and "why harder" questions side by side – we put them both on the same page – you can draw lessons from survey respondents who have a positive view and from those who have a negative view.

My four takeaways:

  • Focus on delivery
  • Understand customer processes
  • Don’t get complacent
  • Understand the mission

Again, as with much of the other findings in this report, a focus on the basics first will carry the day with your customers.

Up next, I’ll look at some of the reasons cited for why projects fail and answer the question of the single most important thing contractors can do to please their customers.