Engaging customers can depend on picking the right event
- By Suzanne Liscouski
- Sep 23, 2015
We live in an era of constrained budgets in the government contracting industry. Both the government and contractors have had to take decisive action to maximize performance and value to successfully operate in this new age of contracting.
At the same time, the ability for government and industry to effectively collaborate has decreased. Gone are the days of large-scale, sponsor-driven trade shows. With protests on the rise, coupled with constrained travel budgets and other variables, government attendance at large trade shows is increasingly limited.
Having spent most of my life in the federal government, it was clear contractors added the most value when they truly understood the government’s missions and challenges. Large events were used as a conduit for this understanding, but they appear to have declined in stature.
Many argue they also are viewed as irrelevant by the government, therefore don’t attract coveted industry dollars. After all, if government doesn’t attend, industry won’t invest in attending either.
From an industry perspective, I am concerned that fewer of the right types of events lead to less opportunity to engage with government. Neither side will have the opportunity to discuss innovation, capitalize on lessons learned and ultimately, figure out how to do more with less.
With this as the backdrop, we have to be creative and look to other substantive means for dialogue.
In today’s market, there are several targeted and focused events, e.g., roundtables, consortiums, workshops, etc., that are designed to provide communication avenues and collaboration for both government and industry. I think smaller venues, such as the Washington Homeland Security Roundtable (WHSR), Government Technology & Services Coalition (GTSC) and others, do a noteworthy job of getting the right-minded people in intimate settings where government can leverage industry’s expertise.
These types of events provide a tactical focus for participants with specific agendas, and give contractors a better return on investment. That is, the type of information shared is relevant to vendors in their decision-making process.
Keeping ROI in mind, I have noticed there are at least four benefits to attending these smaller events. They include:
1. Most follow the so-called Chatham House Rules, which is an understanding for group discussions that allows for the use of information as long as the source of information is not revealed. Doing so can lead to a more open dialogue and allow discussion about true challenges an organization faces. Only then can industry discreetly propose follow-up that is detailed enough to be relevant to the customer.
2. Variation of official and working sessions. More choices of speakers in different leadership levels of an organization lead to more robust, targeted discussions. Smaller events can offer a pragmatic view of issues, which is more detailed, yet complementary and expands upon what senior leadership might share. Smaller roundtable discussions can attract speakers that offer an operational, program-side perspective, discuss day-to-day mission needs and have numerous breakout working sessions. Industry needs more than the “party line,” which isn’t enough to truly help in bid decisions.
3.The most successful engagements have focused topics, e.g., agile development, cyber, cloud, etc. When the specific topic is known, industry can ensure they have the right subject matter experts (SMEs) and solution architects in the room to meaningfully interact with government. If the topic is too broad or generic, it is hard for industry to send a true technical SME who could benefit from a detailed conversation, or provide their expertise back to the government.
4. Smaller events give government a better chance to reach more than one contractor at a time. The speaker need not worry about saying something that can be construed as an unfair competitive advantage to only one contractor during the privacy of a sole meeting. Though these events are smaller venues, they still qualify as appropriate forums open to industry, so all can hear the same message from officials. They also can set aside slots for non-member companies to join the event to ensure there is access for interested companies beyond their paying membership, further underscoring the desire for open dialogue.
Communication is Key
There are many reasons why federal officials can’t and won’t openly enter a dialogue with vendors. However, industry’s true customer knowledge is part of any standard bid decision. If a contractor does not understand an organization’s driving factors, such as Federal Emergency Management Agency’s survivor centric mindset that is part of its daily operations, it is unlikely that a contractor’s proposal response would be well received.
Risk would be high on the government’s part to consider a vendor that does not know the environment. Likewise, risk of the unknown factors in the vendor’s proposal may cause unnecessary assumptions or costs in the proposal response. Clearly, no one wins when there is limited to no dialogue.
Smaller events can help mitigate communication gaps and provide a way for customer contact other than just the predictable incumbent, badged contractor. When agencies say they want fresh thinking, they must ask how they are making themselves open to ideas; and of course consider speaking to groups of private sector participants in meaningful venues.
If there is no dialogue, industry will get stuck in the cycle of having no customer intimacy, which hurts the government as it will not receive informed bids nor attract new vendors. Best practices won’t be shared across the inter-agency if officials stay insular. Lessons can’t be learned. And, innovation, which also can lead to cost savings, will be stifled.
Suzanne Liscouski is the vice president of federal civilian agencies for NCI Inc.