In tough-sell government market, contractors must study hard, schmooze and help customers<@VM>STEP 1: Do your homework<@VM>STEP 2: Align with your client<@VM>STEP 3: Follow the money, find the influences<@VM>STEP 4: Know your value proposition<@VM>STEP 5: Be quick<@VM>STEP 6: Be visible<@VM>STEP 7: Present yourself well<@VM>Have a nose for news: Tips for getting in print
- By Gail Repsher Emery
- Feb 05, 2004
Some companies get how to sell to the federal government. Some don't.
"Those that don't get it either send me a blind e-mail saying they want to meet with me, or they get on my calendar, come in and tell me what their company does. They don't help me understand how they can solve the business problems the department has," said Mike Sade, senior procurement executive at the Commerce Department.
Those that get it, Sade said, have embraced the procurement reforms now guiding federal agencies. These companies are "promoting the use of performance-based contracting and streamlined acquisition projects, and are maximizing the use of IT to solve some of our problems," he said.
Not long ago, federal agencies would buy information technology much like they bought office supplies: Agencies would write detailed descriptions of what they wanted, and contractors would supply exactly that.
Contractors had little, if any, insight or input into to the government's purchasing plans. Whether the technology supplied ultimately improved agency operations was an afterthought. The contractor's compensation wasn't tied to the technology's performance or how it helped the agency meet its mission.
All that has changed. Spurred by legislation designed to increase competition and streamline government processes, coupled with the need to get work done better, faster and cheaper, agency buyers are calling for technologies that directly improve mission performance. They're revealing requirements months, sometimes years, in advance of a requisition, so contractors can understand the buyers' problems and propose how to fix them.
The new buying environment has forced IT contractors to rethink their marketing strategies.
Long-time industry executives said they must spend more time getting to know their customers, developing contacts and building relationships, so they can be seen as trusted partners in helping agencies solve their problems.
With $60 billion in federal IT spending at stake, contractors are looking for anything -- insight into an agency's plans, a contact with a potential customer, an irresistible sales pitch -- that can give them an edge over competitors. In short, it's time to review the basics.
"I spend a lot of time reviewing upcoming opportunities and our activities, looking at how we are doing in terms of putting together winning strategies, technology solutions and proposals. It never ends. You never say, 'OK, I'm done,'" said Michael Fox, vice president and director of sales and marketing at SRA International Inc. in Fairfax, Va.
More contractors are learning how to give agencies what they need, Sade said, while some persist in sending unsolicited e-mails simply touting their companies' capabilities.
"The e-mails get deleted. That's just spam to us," he said.
For contractors who don't want their e-mail zapped, Sade and other federal and industry officials offered the following advice for selling and marketing IT services to government.
See "Also in this story" at the top of the page."You almost feel sorry for people when they don't know Customs is now Customs and Border Protection, and it has a new mission," said Jim Williams, director of the U.S. Visitor and Immigrant Status Indicator Technology program run by the Department of Homeland Security. "When you see people who are not doing their homework, you begin to question whether they can help you."
The homework includes scouring federal budget documents to discover agencies' priorities, scanning subscription databases produced by Federal Sources Inc. and Input Inc. for updates on specific procurements, reading agency reports to Congress, and poring over agency documents such as reports by inspectors general and the General Accounting Office.
"Any time the GAO presents a problem, somewhere there is an opportunity," said Tom Hewitt, founder of IT market research firm Federal Sources and veteran of the federal market. "Read about the budgets, what agencies are planning and what is being criticized. For instance, the Democrats are critical of the Homeland Security Department for not having appropriate IT security, so you know somewhere at Homeland Security they are very concerned."
Salespeople should also glean information from the prospective customer, said Paul Lombardi, former chief executive officer of DynCorp.
"As far in advance as we could, we anticipated what the requirements would be by visiting the customer and learning everything there was to learn about the work, their likes and dislikes and hot buttons," Lombardi said. "They might have a penchant for a certain hardware or software solution. The solicitation might not offer that information."
Meetings with potential customers serve another vital purpose as well, Fox said.
"You have to identify your key people -- the program manager, technical lead -- and get those people in front of the customer ahead of time, so the customer feels comfortable with them," he said.
Sharon O'Malley, vice president of marketing and sales for the federal civilian sector at American Management Systems Inc. in Fairfax, Va., said she briefs government executives at company headquarters even without a specific procurement in mind.
"My objective is to absolutely understand the customer," she said. "We just hosted a deputy CIO, and one of our conversations was about the future of wireless and the art of the possible. It wasn't so much about the technology AMS has produced, but about the agency's mission objectives."
AMS executives also demonstrated their electronic document management capabilities, although the customer has no such requirement. Still, "I could see that was really helpful. He could see the technology before the sales cycle," O'Malley said.
Few contractors do all these things well, but those that make the attempt get the best reception from government buyers.
"Let's say we have a soldier in the field who is challenged by communication back to the rear echelons," said Lee Harvey, an Army deputy program executive officer for enterprise information systems in Fort Belvoir, Va. "We would like someone to tell us how they can fix that, rather than tell us they have some great satellite phone that is going to help us. We would like them to demonstrate that their product will actually work and work well.
"We want somebody who is truly knowledgeable about the capabilities of the product and understands our challenges," Harvey added. "A pure marketer who doesn't know much about what we do isn't a great help to us."Align your sales force with your client, not with your products or services, said Greg Baroni, president of the Global Public Sector unit at Unisys Corp. of Blue Bell, Pa. Giving an agency just one point of contact in the company "allows you to present one face and an integrated value proposition," he said.
To line up its salespeople with the clients it serves, Unisys segmented its marketing into three groups: civilian, defense and intelligence, and homeland security agencies. Then executives were assigned to work with segments within each group. For example, a group of executives assists the border security segment of the Homeland Security Department. One executive is the primary contact for the Transportation Security Administration.
Such alignment promotes communication with company staff members working in the agency, helping sales executives to better understand the agency's needs, said Tony Urreta, senior vice president of business development at PEC Solutions Inc. in Fairfax, Va.
"The people on the ground know the customer, its problems and some of the possible solutions. They are a very important part of our business development," he said.
Sprint Corp. also has realigned to improve sales and services. The company used to have separate entities selling local phone, long-distance phone and wireless services. Now the company is selling solutions, not separate services, said Cathy Bryant, vice president of business development and state government for the Overland Park, Kan., company.
"It has enhanced our ability to be competitive," she said.Present your capabilities to the right people. In other words, the acquisition shop may be your last stop, not your first. That might be an agency program manager who has money to spend, the chief information officer, a contracting officer -- or all three.
"Everyone says it's good to sell to the 'C' levels: CIOs, CFOs," said Valerie Perlowitz, chief executive officer of Reliable Integration Services Inc. in Vienna, Va. "But do those people have the money? We spend a lot more time trying to figure out who has the cash."
Many business development and marketing managers believe they must meet with the agency CIO, but that's often not the case, said John Okay, a partner at Topside Consulting Group LLC in Vienna, Va., and a long-time federal executive.
"In most large departments, the CIO is a policy official with relatively little cash to spend on IT products and services," Okay said. "Most of the money gets spent by program directors and senior executives in charge of a program or function."
The person with the money usually makes the buying decision, but CIOs sometimes influence that decision, government executives said.
"Where you see a CIO who has no budget, a lot of people say that's someone who has no power. Mark Forman theoretically only had $5 million available to him, but he sure had a lot of influence," said Jim Williams of the Homeland Security Department, referring to the former administrator for e-government and IT in the Office of Management and Budget. Williams is the director of the U.S. Visit program at DHS.
Salespeople should also understand the influence of contracting officers, Sade said.
"The acquisition professionals are ultimately going to influence the procurement strategy, whether it is going to be off the GSA schedule, competitive or done without discussions," said Mike Sade, a senior procurment officer at the Commerce Department. "Many times, I have seen folks who have only followed the money, and they think a procurement is going to happen in two months. When it takes a year, that affects what a company is promising its owners or stockholders."
Set yourself apart. Because federal spending on IT continues to increase, more companies are entering the marketplace. That makes it more important than ever to distinguish yourself from the competition, said Sara DeCarlo, former president of Schlumberger Government Solutions and business development manager at AT&T Corp.
"It is really critical to know what your value proposition is and to have all the company reps live it and breathe it," she said. "Everybody in the company needs to have the same pitch. It can be technical, service, past performance, financial stability or knowledge of an agency or a specific program. Sometimes you get a minute to talk with someone in a leadership position. With practice, you can intrigue them enough for them to want to meet with you and discuss something further."
Above all, don't say your company's capabilities are unique, said John Okay of Topside Consulting.
"A lot of companies say, 'We have a unique, world-class offering, and we have a unique pool of talent.' In general, that's not true," he said. "This is very fluid labor market, from the people on the ground up to the management levels in companies. Companies can't really claim much uniqueness."
Identifying what sets you apart is hard work, said Michael Fox of SRA International Inc.
"It should make your head hurt," he said. "When somebody comes to me and says, 'We are going to win this job because we have worked 10 years with the customer,' I say, 'Tell me something about us that you can't say about someone else.' Like, 'We are going to deliver this system in nine months as opposed to the required 12 months.' That feature is a real benefit for the customer."
Be able to respond to a government customer immediately.
"They expect that you know their business, that you already have invested in lining up your competencies to meet their issues, and that you already have invested in the solutions that are relevant to their most pressing problems," said Greg Baroni, president of the government unit of Unisys Corp., Blue Bell, Pa.
Fox said a customer might meet with SRA officials on a Monday, ask them to come back with a solution on Wednesday, and then ask for a task order proposal to be delivered on Friday. To meet such tight deadlines, business development and technical staffs must work together closely, said Michael Fox of SRA International Inc.
"I have my technical resources very close to my business development resources," Fox said. "When business development wants to visit a customer, he or she can literally reach across the hall and say, 'Can you come with me tomorrow?'"
Responding in time might mean moving key staff to a new engagement while still making the first project succeed, said Tony Urreta of PEC Solutions Inc.
"You have to be willing to do that, and do it in a timely manner," he said. "Anyone who tried that in response to 9/11 but acted three weeks later, the government didn't need them anymore."
After making a sales call, IT contractors used to be able to roam the halls of federal agencies, even the Pentagon, where they would drop in on clients and meet other potential customers. The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, changed all that. Now, salespeople can't visit clients without an appointment, and they're often escorted to the door when it's over.
That makes networking functions more important than ever, said David Gardner, a former sales executive with NCI Information Systems Inc. in McLean, Va.
"Now you meet decision makers at trades shows and conferences," Gardner said. The events are additional opportunities to learn about agency requirements and present technical capabilities, he said. Government executives often speak at the events, offering insight into their plans.
"Going to conferences can be very helpful because you can get in front of the client, and you can validate some of your observations about its needs," said Sharon O'Malley of American Management Systems Inc.
It's also vital to get involved in industry groups, such as the Information Technology Association of America and the Industry Advisory Council, said Sara DeCarlo, vice chair for programs at Fairfax, Va.-based IAC.
Industry groups' meetings and events "are really critical ways for forming relationships with other industry partners, as well as government," DeCarlo said. "It's a pretty tight community of industry people, so when we are thinking of people to partner with, you tend to reach out to people you know. If an agency is gathering information for a future project, it calls industry."
The seller's job isn't over once a proposal is submitted. For large jobs, most agencies conduct oral bid presentations, and often they are the most critical part of the sales process.
"Oral presentations are a key piece of our evaluation," said Lee Harvey, an Army officer at Fort Belvoir, Va. "If [the contractor] brings people who can't or don't explain how they can solve our problems or what their capabilities are, it's not going to look very good."
How the company communicates matters, too, said Dave Gardner, formerly a sales executive with NCI Information Systems.
"Some clients warm up to different types of presentation materials better than others," he said, so it's important to ask before preparing the bid presentation. "Some love live video, the expensive approach. Some want PowerPoint slides with lots of questions and interplay. Knowing how they are going to make the decision is so important."
In addition, the presentation needs to be scripted and timed, said Paul Lombardi, former CEO of DynCorp.
"You don't want talking heads who parrot what was in the proposal," he said. "You want to add some uniqueness to it. Security might be a key driver, so you concentrate your presentation on the security of a network and bring in a security expert who is known in the field."
Most importantly, the customer gets a chance during the oral presentation to evaluate the person who will be responsible for the work after the contract is awarded, Lombardi said. No matter how good a company appears on paper, the customer still wants to look you in the eye and see if you can deliver on your proposal.
"I've seen where the chemistry between the contractor's program manager and the government's program manager just happened or didn't happen," he said. "I've seen the chemistry just ignite the room. You'll know."
Staff Writer Gail Repsher Emery can be reached at email@example.com.Being visible also means getting your company in the news. Washington-area public relations executives who work with federal contractors offered these tips for getting in print.
First, know the publication, its readership and the reporters' beats and deadlines, said Vivian Kelly, president of Interprose Inc. in Reston, Va.
Because most stories won't be about your company, understand the issues affecting the government IT market and offer the press your perspectives, said Joyce Bosc, president and chief executive officer of Boscobel Marketing Communications Inc. in Silver Spring, Md.
Explain where your company fits into the market and what it is doing that represents a trend or bucks a trend, said Marc Hausman, chief executive officer of Strategic Communications Group Inc. in Silver Spring.
Then, "talk about your solutions rather than your products, and focus on what's important to your customers, rather than on the 'gee whiz' aspects of your technology," said Sandy Levine, president of Advice Unlimited LLC in Olney, Md.
And let your customers praise you.
"Get your customers to sing, but not about you. Let them brag about how your technology will make their jobs easier," Bosc said.
And finally, give reporters as much information as possible. "They need details and are more likely to write a story, the more detail they have," said Meredith Bagnulo, a vice president at Merritt Group Inc. in McLean, Va.
When issuing a news release, "don't hide or leave out anything," Bosc advised. "If your company is one of two companies to win a contract, provide the name of the other company. List all services you're providing to your client, not just the sexy ones. By telling the press everything, you have more control over what gets out."