How and when to talk to your customer

There are plenty of misconceptions about communications during the procurement process and capture expert Bob Lohfeld busts the myths that plague development of good contracts.

Everyone seems to want better communication between government and industry during the procurement process, and yet when we ask how well government and industry communicate, the answer is always the same—not very well.

One reasonably knowledgeable procurement official explained to me that the reason for this is that if he talks with one company, then he has to talk with all of them, and he simply doesn’t have time to do that. Instead, he makes it his practice to talk with no one. Wow! We all want a level playing field when it comes to federal procurement, but nowhere do the rules say the government has to level every player.

How could this procurement official have gotten it so wrong? Here’s some insight into what the rules are for communication during the acquisition life cycle.

Review FAR rules

From the government’s point of view, the earliest communication with industry is considered market research, and the regulations for doing that are found in FAR Part 10.  Market research is necessary to arrive at the most suitable approach for acquiring supplies and services. Agencies must conduct market research appropriate to the circumstances of the acquisition before developing new requirements documents and before awarding a task or delivery order under an indefinite-delivery/indefinite-quantity (ID/IQ) contract. The extent of market research can vary, depending on such factors as urgency, estimated dollar value, complexity, and past experience.

The techniques for conducting market research are set out in FAR 10.2 and may include any or all of the following:

  • Contacting knowledgeable individuals in government and industry regarding market capabilities to meet requirements.
  • Publishing formal Requests for Information (RFI) in appropriate technical or scientific journals or business publications;
  • Participating in interactive, on-line communication among industry, acquisition personnel, and customers.
  • Conducting interchange meetings or holding pre-solicitation conferences to involve potential offerors early in the acquisition process.

FAR Part 15 sets out the rules for negotiated procurements, and FAR 15.2 specifically addresses communicating with industry before receipt of proposals. It states that exchanges of information among all interested parties are encouraged from the earliest identification of a requirement through receipt of proposals.

The purpose of exchanging information is to improve the understanding of government requirements and industry capabilities, thereby allowing potential offerors to judge whether or how they can satisfy the government’s requirements; enhancing the government’s ability to obtain quality supplies and services, including construction, at reasonable prices; and increasing efficiency in proposal preparation, proposal evaluation, negotiation, and contract award.

Early exchange of information among industry and the program manager, contracting officer (CO), and other acquisition process participants can identify and resolve concerns regarding:

  • Acquisition strategy, including proposed contract type, terms and conditions, and acquisition planning schedules.
  • Feasibility of the requirement, including performance requirements, statements of work, and data requirements.
  • Suitability of the proposal instructions and evaluation criteria, including the approach for assessing past performance information.
  • Availability of reference documents.
  • Any other industry concerns or questions.

The only caveat about these communications is that when specific information necessary for preparation of proposals is disclosed to one or more potential offerors, that information must be made available to the public as soon as practicable, but no later than the next general release of information, to avoid creating an unfair competitive advantage.

Best practices in government

Much has been written about government best practices in communicating with industry, and yet we still see misinterpretations of the rules.

The latest guidance that I have read is from Air Force Col. Michael Claffey, deputy director of contracting at the Air Force Life Cycle Management Center at Hanscom Air Force Base. In his memorandum, Golden Rules for Communication and Early Industry Involvement, Claffey stresses that industry should be informed of upcoming acquisitions as soon as the needs have been identified.

Initiating early contact with industry allows time for industry feedback, which helps the government develop realistic requirements. By giving contractors more time to prepare for an acquisition, they will be able to provide better solutions for the government.

The most comprehensive guidance has come from Dan Gordon, former administrator of Federal Procurement Policy, in his Myth Busting memorandum, Addressing the Misconceptions to Improve Communication with Industry During the Acquisition Process.

In this Myth Busting memo, he takes on the misconception about government meeting one-on-one with potential offers. His guidance is clear—the government can generally meet one-on-one with potential offerors as long as no vendor receives preferential treatment.

“Prior to issuance of a solicitation, government officials—including the program manager, users or contracting officer—may meet with potential offerors to exchange general information and conduct market research related to an acquisition. There is no requirement that meetings include all possible offerors, nor is there a prohibition against one-on-one meetings,” Gordon wrote.

Best practices in industry

There is equally good guidance offered for industry when it comes to communicating with government.
In her Myth Busting–2 memorandum, Addressing the Misconceptions and Further Improving Communication with Industry During the Acquisition Process, Lesley Field, also a former administrator of Federal Procurement Policy, offers good guidance addressing industry’s misconceptions about communicating with government.

 For example, some industry executives are concerned that if they meet one-on-one with agency personnel, these personnel may share their proprietary information with other competitors; yet agency personnel have an obligation to protect proprietary information from disclosure outside the government or to other competitors.

Similarly, Myth Busting–2 deals with the misconception that the best way to present your company’s capabilities is by marketing directly to the CO and/or signing them up on your company mailing list. It points out that COs and program managers are often inundated with general marketing information that doesn’t reach the right people at the right time, making this method often ineffective.

Making communications meaningful

When I talk with government executives about what industry can do to improve communications, there is a consistent, recurring theme that we need to make communications more meaningful and relevant. Gone are the days when a government program manager wanted to listen to a generic capability presentation where your firm briefed 47 competency areas just to see if the government wanted to buy any of it. There is a forum for briefing capabilities, but it is not in a one-on-one meeting with a government program manager.

Program managers are interested in how you can help them solve their problem or provide services better, faster, or cheaper. To have meaningful, relevant communications, you need to do your research before the meeting, come in well prepared knowing what you want to learn and what you want to share, and most of all, provide information that is relevant to the government program manager’s mission. If you do this, you can have a productive, meaningful exchange of information.

As one CIO explained, if you are five minutes into your briefing and you are still explaining your company’s org chart, the meeting is pretty much over, and the only person in the room who doesn’t know it is the person doing the briefing.

Be prepared and be focused, and then the government will want to hear what you have to say.