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What federal contractors can learn from retailers about how to differentiate themselves in the marketplace.

Here in the States, the Friday after Thanksgiving is known as the biggest shopping day of the year. This week we’ve all been buried in advertisements about Black Friday and Cyber Monday. This is on sale, that is on sale, and wouldn’t you just love to spend all your money on those?

Black Friday advertisement

In some ways, this resembles the frenzy that occurs in contracting at the end of the fiscal year, when government agencies are trying to spend the money they’ve accumulated, and contractors are out to get more than their fair share of that largesse.

So what lessons can we learn from what the retailers are doing to entice us into their stores or online markets, and use those same capabilities in our selling – not only at fiscal year end, but all year round?

The main tactic retailers use in this period is to hold special sales. Let’s say you’re shopping for a TV. The retailer hopes that if they offer a great price on TVs, you’ll come into their store, and once you’re there, you’ll buy the rest of your electronics as well.

Now we’re not going to discount our service merchandise as government contractors (though we do when required in this competitive world), but let’s look at how each of these retailers is trying to tell the “Why us?” story so that you will come in to their store instead of another.

It all comes back to relationships, as have so many of the topics we’ve discussed on this blog. In order to get noticed, and then establish or build on relationships with customers, retailers use discounts and special sales. Federal contractors, on the other hand, use their discriminators and special capabilities, and tap into their customers’ hot buttons.


In discussions we’ve been having recently in various small business communities, we’ve often noticed that even in a “lowest price technically acceptable” (LPTA) marketplace, people are still interested in what you have to offer, and how what you have to offer is different.

That’s the key to how you get in the door to talk to your customer at ANY time of year. Because no matter how strong an emphasis there is on price, you still have to get in the door and talk to your customer.

There are three ways in which federal contractors can discriminate:

  1. Offer the same service for a lower price
  2. Offer a higher version of the same service
  3. Offer special add-ons

For example, a gardener with 20 years of experience will offer a higher level of service (discriminator #2) than someone with fewer years behind them. A company with access to a special laser-cutting tool will be able to guarantee a higher level of precision (discriminator #3).

Hot buttons

A hot button is whatever is most important to your customer. To continue our gardening example, let’s say the customer has a vendor, but that person is chopping up the hedges in a way that looks messy and uneven. So this customer’s hot button is an even hedge, even though that wouldn’t necessarily be detailed in the requirement – it may only say, “Trim the hedges.”

You’ll only find the hot button by having a conversation with the customer and asking lots of questions about their current situation and what’s working and not working. Once you dig up the details about the uneven hedge, imagine how much more attractive your bid will be if you can guarantee even hedges because of one of the discriminators mentioned above.

That’s the magic combination right there, and the key to success as a federal contractor – when the customer’s hot button matches your capabilities and discriminators, and you make sure they know that. That’s what will get you in the door so you can show them your wares.

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