I routinely speak with technology vendors about the government market – who is doing what, which agency is buying, what new technologies government is interested in purchasing, best ways to penetrate the market, etc. In the last year I have seen a large upswing in one particular type of conversation – a vendor new to government wanting to know how to penetrate that market.
The reason for the increase in these types of conversations is obvious – government is one of the few places that still has money to spend in this down economy. I really wasn’t surprised by the increase in the number of calls and conversations along this track. What did surprise me was the number of vendors who are anxious to sell to government but know little to nothing about the market, the process, or how to go about it.
Let’s be honest, even though government is an enticing market there are a lot of barriers to entry – getting on a GSA schedule, getting security clearances and a SCIF established, understanding the different government procurement vehicles and the byzantine procurement regulations, and getting your product certified among others. If you are a small or new vendor who has never sold to government, breaking in to the government market can be a daunting task. Below are seven rules that you need to follow to successfully get through the door.
- Clearly identify a problem government has that you can help solve. Yes, governments buy a lot of products and services and not every one is clearly tied to a specific problem, but your odds of someone actually listening to your pitch increase exponentially if it is directly tied to a problem a government agency has. Also make sure it is a problem that has been identified as a problem by government, not just you.
- Identify who is tasked to solve the problem. You already know this, but it deserves repeating – you sell to people, not agencies. Once you have identified the problem you are going to help a department solve, you need to identify the role that is tasked with solving the problem. Just saying the CIO or the CMO doesn’t cut it. Yes, these C-level SES executives are the final authority, but they are not the actual role that is responsible for solving the problem. For a technology vendor you are probably looking at a GS-13, 14 or 15 in the Federal government who holds a title such as Manager, Chief or similar within the office of the CIO or a line of business.
- Identify the other roles that have a stake in the solution of the problem. There is never just one person who is invested in getting the problem solved, and in government there are likely to be several others who want to or think they should participate. You need to map out who these people are and what roles they play. This would include the C-level executives, line of business managers, Contracting Officers, Finance Officers, etc. Many decisions in government are made via committee and one of the committee members could kill your chances.
- Be able to clearly explain how the solution works. Be able to clearly explain how your product or service solves the problem as quickly and as simply as possible. When I was in government as a contracting officers technical representative (COTR) and as a program manager I was a large proponent of a variation on Guy Kawasaki’s 10-20-30 rule for presentations. As Guy puts it, most of the presentations I saw were 100’s of slides long and filled with 90% fluff and crap. Be able to explain how your solution works and how it solves the problem in 10 slides.
- Make sure your solution truly is different. Before you ask to meet with a potential government client, make the effort to identify other vendors that are already solving that problem or a similar problem and what differentiates you from them. More than once while in government I had to suffer through a vendor presentation about a unique solution to a problem when only two or three days ago I had heard about the same solution from another vendor.
- Do the groundwork beforehand to know whether your solution will work for government. I remember well a vendor pitch I as a COTR where the vendor did his best to demonstrate his ignorance of the government market. He was selling a performance management packaged application that was supposed to help us with the new OMB performance management requirements. When I quizzed him about how it met our basic requirements such as what type of platform it ran on, how it integrated with our budget system, remote access, and the type of security it used it became quickly and painfully obvious that hew knew nothing about these requirements. The moral of the story is that you need to understand what the requirements for government are before you make your pitch.
- Find a reliable partner. If you are new to government, find a partner who is already operating in the space that is willing to work with you. IBM, Lockheed Martin, General Dynamics, and other large government technology vendors all have programs to help new and/or small vendors establish a foothold in the government space. They already have the contracting vehicles in place and are on the important GSA schedules. Often your role will be as a subcontractor, but it helps you establish your government credentials and experience.
The Bottom Line: Upfront work like this will increase your odds of winning government work.