How to ask if an incumbent is performing well

Gathering intelligence on the performance of an incumbent is an important step in deciding whether to pursue an opportunity, but simply asking the question isn't always enough.

If we’d like to know before we bid, how the incumbent is doing, we can always ask.

Unfortunately the reality is we may not always get an answer.  The closer it is to the release of the solicitation, and the closer the individual we ask is to the acquisition process, the less likely it is that a government employee will provide a substantive answer to the question.

But if we’ve built some relationship, and we’re far enough ahead of the solicitation, and we ask the question in a manner that leaves enough wiggle room, the more likely it is that we’ll get some kind of an answer.

Sometimes the answer may be in body language. A raised eyebrow or a snicker might convey a wealth of information.

Just an aside: you won’t get this kind of feedback if you make your request in an email or a phone call. Face-to-face is always more productive.

But who is the customer?  If you ask the contracting officer how well the incumbent is doing, he will think about his answer from a contract compliance perspective. If you ask the government program manager, he will think about his answer from a programmatic point of view: How well does the contractor support the goals and objectives of the program, sometimes in spite of the fact that it really isn’t a very well-written contract and what he wants isn’t really closely aligned with what the contract document says the contract is for.

If you ask the government technical lead, you may get a response that reflects a technical concern, such as innovation; he really wants to see and touch the latest, newest technology, or which he’s terrified of. 

And then there’s the strap-hangers, whose job doesn’t really touch the contract, but they walk past that spot in the hallway occasionally, and they hear things and form opinions.

It might be too that the contracting officer is the only one who has actually read the contract through from cover to cover.

The question of how the incumbent is doing may be more nuanced.  If you ask how the incumbent’s employees are doing on the contract, you’ll almost always get good marks.  These are the people they see every day, the people they drink coffee and eat lunch with, the people whose kids their kids play soccer with.  The incumbent employees are almost always doing a good job.

If you ask how the management of the company is, though, you sometimes will get a different answer.  The incumbent management is distant or unresponsive, or doesn’t support the on-site personnel.

So, the answer to the question of how well the incumbent is doing often isn’t binary; it isn’t “good” or “bad.”  The old proverb about a camel being a horse that was designed by a committee may apply.  There are multiple stakeholders and they may not all hold the same opinion.