What it takes to crack the Top 100

Every spring, Washington Technology puts out the annual Top 100 contractor list. And each year, starting about three days after that issue is delivered, I start getting calls with questions that go something like this: "Hi Mark! My company offers the same stuff as many of the Top 100, but we have been stuck in the [second tier or third] tier for [whatever number of] years. How can I move my company up into that top bracket?"

There are a few simple concepts you have to understand to succeed in this market. They are simple, but they are not easy to do.

The first concept is commitment. There must be a companywide commitment - including the board of directors in companies that have them - to understanding the government market and where you fit in it. It is especially important to grasp the time commitment necessary to win business. This is a slow - think gladical - growth market where market share takes a long time to develop. So the commitment must be to the long haul, and it must also involve a willingness to get the best outside help when needed.

The second is focus. It is crucial to focus on being an expert in one area, not a generalist claiming expertise in several disciplines. Define your niche in terms of the value it brings to this market - not every market, just the government market. When you develop market share in one agency, the other part of focus means expanding your business in that agency - where they know you - before thinking about moving to new agencies. It is always easier to sell more where they know you than spread your resources too thin.

The third is time. All companies have limited human resources which translates to limited time. The government market offers thousands of venues: seminars and conferences, breakfast briefings, lunches and dinners, and associations and special-interest groups. Determining where best to invest your limited time is never easy.

The top salesman from the trade show and membership director of the association are experts at making their venue sound good, but not all such opportunities are equal. Certain venues - even those offering similar services - work for some companies and not others. There is no easy answer, no magic formula to determine which is best for you. But there is an optimum combination. Each department in your organization should be tasked with finding the appropriate venues for spending its time, and each department should allocate some resources to verifying this annually. The association that was hot and critical two years ago may be past its prime.

The fourth concept is relationships. This market - any market - is about relationships: who you know, how and why you know them, how they know you, and what they think of you. A good reputation is your best asset, and it leads to good relationships. At each stage along the way, you develop and refine your relationships.

The fifth concept is education: ongoing education for management on the market and the evolving role of your company in it; education for the frontline troops in sales, marketing, operations, business development, bids and proposals or whatever their areas of expertise might be; education for your customers on what you offer and why it is different; education for your business partners and investors, if you have them; and education among the disciplines in your company.

The sixth concept goes back to commitment. The overall commitment must be renewed regularly if you are to become and stay a significant player in the government market. And remember, there are no guarantees that you will migrate to the top tier. According to Bob Davis of Accenture, "Market share is rented, never owned." But if you execute on each of these concepts, you can certainly move up.

Most companies in the second tier understand much of this. Most companies in the third tier do not. And most companies entering the government market do not and never will.

Mark Amtower (amtower@erols.com) is a consultant, chief executive officer coach, radio host, author and speaker who focuses on the government.

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