In a previous post, I wrote about how to get started in cybersecurity. You can talk to your current customers, the ones with whom you already have relationships, and see if anybody needs help in this area. This could be even one or two people, or re-scoping or retitling somebody’s duties to include a cybersecurity component. You just need a place to start.
In the wake of the OPM breach where the personal information of millions of current, former, and prospective Federal employees and contractors was compromised, interest in cybersecurity is reaching even newer heights.
So what does this mean, and how can cybersecurity contractors take advantage of the current environment?
- We know that more money is going to come in.
- We know that cybersecurity jobs are going to come up.
- We know that agencies are looking to score high on their small business scorecard.
- While at the big business level cybersecurity work is often done at a data center or a security operations center, a lot of the day-to-day core work is done by small businesses.
So the critical factor is to follow through with your relationships. We talked in the last post about steering your current clients towards new cybersecurity work. Let’s talk now about another set of relationships.
Most small businesses have favorite prime contractors that they’re working with. Let’s say you’re in the IT support field, or another area that would allow a natural migration into cybersecurity.
Ask if your prime contractor has any job openings on existing cybersecurity contracts that their current subcontractors may not be able to fill, or any upcoming procurements they’re targeting.
They may be willing to consider people who have customer knowledge and a good name in an agency, even if they’re not necessarily functionally competent. They know the relationship carries weight in the evaluation of the proposal.
Your prime contractor is going to do most of the legwork in procuring these cybersecurity jobs, so in these cases you need to work on your relationship with that prime. This is a good opening for us to talk about how almost all large businesses have what they call a diversity person.
This person serves a similar role as the OSDBU, acting as a small business liaison to help small companies find and win opportunities within the company. Just like the government ODSBUs, these corporate representatives don’t necessarily have any work for you, but they can help you get on teams.
Also make sure to update your entry in that company’s supplier database, and include keywords related to cybersecurity. That will put you in front of the people who are already actively looking for help.
Targeting cybersecurity in your contracting business? Work your relationships. It all starts from there.
In a series of three blog posts, Judy Bradt of Summit Insight put together a list of things government contractors can do to prepare for the fiscal year end. Here is a snapshot of her points, along with my own thoughts that build on her recommendations.
- Revisit your forecasting
- Ask for referrals from your best customers
- Stay top-of-mind
Bill says: These points go back to what Judy and I have always been preaching – success in federal contracting is about building long-term relationships.
Revisit your forecasting – that’s the FOCUS – see who you can really touch and make a part of your business. Referrals are what I’ve been calling “nearest neighbors” – friends of your customers’ friends.
And finally, this is a continuing process, so stay with these folks. See them on drop-bys and wherever they are. For example, if you notice they’re speaking at an event, show up – even if only to listen and say hello.
- Give the golden leave-behind: gratitude
- Plan multiple touches, tactics, channels
- Update and share your capability statement
Bill says: TAPE leaves behind little chocolates branded with our logo, but the key here is to make sure you express gratitude to your customers for their business. Build those relationships (see above) with the multiple touches of being where your customers are.
Maintain your currency by keeping up with your customers’ hot buttons. Does your one-pager (description of your company’s capabilities) hit those hot buttons?
- Refresh and maximize your online presence
- Leverage customer feedback and testimonials
- Expand thought leadership
- Be ready to sell the way they want to buy
Bill says: Maintaining and keeping your website fresh is critical. People look at that and if the visual picture doesn’t align with what you’ve told them, you can lose out. Include a prominent display of your CPARs (ratings in the Contractor Performance Assessment Reporting System) – especially the really good comments, and your kudos letters. Leverage these positive testimonials in call-out boxes on your website as well.
The best road to thought leadership? Blogging! You can always think of something to say about your industry, and the problems you solve for your customers, even if once a month. Feature your best staffers as bloggers also – they’ll love the publicity.
Always sell what your customers want to buy – your people, your best product ideas and innovations, and keep it up. Never forget what you’re selling, and what your focus is, that’s how you’ll succeed.
Lastly, remember to keep your certifications and small business status handy – sole sources and simplified purchase opportunities can be leveraged handsomely.
Thanks to Judy Bradt of Summit Insight for pulling together these crucial points!
Well, the folks behind the Contracting Officer Podcast have definitely shown some real focus, by targeting the concept of targeting (bad pun is entirely mine). I introduced hosts Kevin Jans (Skyway Acquisition Solutions) and Paul Schauer (CACI’s National and Cyber Solutions) in a previous post about the true cost of proposals.
The real issue with the topic of targeting is the law of large numbers. For example, the folks at Skyway Acquisitions target companies and that means their reachable market is all 500,000 companies registered in the SAM database (the Federal Government’s System for Award Management).
If they pare that down to target privately owned companies with over $500,000 in annual revenue, with five or more employees, who have won at least one government prime or subcontract in the last three years, that would still be 250,000 companies! As my millennial friends would say, “OMG!” that’s a lot of companies. “That’s a lot of phone calls, man,” Kevin jokes.
He says to also consider your weight class, “the right size of an opportunity that you can afford to win or lose without derailing your company.” This goes back to one of the three critical questions we talked about in the previous post: Does your company have the capabilities to win this job? What resources do you have available to solicit and deliver this potential contract?
Now for TAPE and many of you, our market is the Federal Government. I don’t know how many total buyers there are, or buyers plus KOs and contract specialists, and lions and tigers and bears, oh my, but I know there are a lot.
So how do we narrow down the targeting? It’s really quite simple. Start with who you already know. Who’s doing things in areas you already know how to do? Instead of sending out 25,000 pieces of junk mail (heaven forbid), we need to focus on where we can get in the door.
We can contact our 25 closest friends in the business, and then in our follow-up, ask, “Who in your agency might be needing our ABC services?” If they have no direct need, or their contracts don’t come up for years, or if they like their current support, then what about one of their neighbors or sister agencies?
What I particularly loved in this podcast episode was their focus on having a mindset of abundance, which Kevin explains as being able to think, “There’s more opportunity for me than I could ever chase, so therefore this one that doesn’t fit, it’s okay to walk away from it and keep going.”
It is indeed an abundant universe. You have resources like this blog and the Contracting Officer Podcast, you have friends, you have people you did good work for in a different situation, and now’s the time to test that abundance. But target the things you know and can do, and leave the rest of the abundance for me and other of my readers!
In The True Cost of Proposals, we talked about the effect of ambiguity on the capture and proposal process, and how contractors shouldn’t waste time or money writing proposals unless they can clearly answer three questions:
- Does this customer have money allocated to solve this problem?
- Can your company solve this problem?
- Do you have the capabilities to win this job?
I asked Bo Nak, a sales engineer at TAPE, to talk about how TAPE navigates through this process.
How do you see these three questions fit into the capture and proposal process?
At TAPE, our capture process really begins after we’ve identified an opportunity – through a government proposal site, third-party analyst, word of mouth, etc. Our first step is talking to the customer, learning what kind of problem they’re trying to solve, what they’re trying to do.
This really goes back to building a relationship with that customer. No one wants to do business with people they don’t know. You can win business [with strangers], but it’s a lot more difficult. Building that relationship is probably most important thing you can do.
That leads into TAPE’s bid/no bid, gate review process. Our own self-critique of our odds of winning that opportunity. Answering those three questions is going to increase our PWin (“probability of winning”) percentage. Whatever we can do to increase that, we should.
If you don’t have a good PWin percentage, you probably won’t or shouldn’t get to the proposal writing stage.
To answer Bill’s second key question, “Can your company solve this problem?” take an honest look at yourself and your company. Is the potential work within your company’s capabilities and will it take you in the direction you want to be going?
The third question follows along the same lines and asks us to take a hard look at our own company and team. Do we have the manpower? Do we have the time to put forth the proper effort into the proposal?
If you don’t have the people or the time, do you have or do you know of other companies you could bring on to form a team? Obviously you want to find strong partners for your team to build the strongest response and proposal.
Note from Bill: Also consider whether your company should act as the prime or sub.
Sometimes we have a relationship with the customer, but no bandwidth to be the prime contractor, or the size standard (NAICS code) is too small for us to be the prime. So we seek partners, also those with whom we have a long-term relationship. Knowing how they will allocate staffing afterwards is a critical issue for choosing a prime contractor.
How does TAPE manage their proposal writing costs?
It’s true what they said in the podcast, that capture and proposal writing starts long before the RFP or RFI comes out. That’s really where your costs start to accumulate. As in most companies, our CFO and company leadership form annual budgets, and its our job to match our spending to that.
Obviously that means we can’t chase after every opportunity out there, so we make sure to put our time and effort into the proposals we have the best shot at winning, ones that match our company’s capabilities and direction and that we have a realistic chance of winning.
What did you think of the podcast about how much proposals cost?
A lot of the messages in the podcast and Bill’s post were things that seem like common sense, but that some contracting officers never calculate or see. There are a lot of costs attached to what we do as part of writing proposals that aren’t necessary considered by the government.
Ambiguity leading to mediocrity was a huge point that needs to be reiterated. And this goes back to one of the podcast hosts saying that questions aren’t necessarily a bad thing.
Industry wants to create a great proposal and put their best foot forward, that’s why we ask questions. Getting back answers in a timely manner and getting the answer sufficiently answered is highly important to us AND the government.
I can’t tell you how many times the same question was asked four, five or even six times in the Q&A section of an RFP, where the government gave a canned response, didn’t fully answer the question, or took forever to answer. This really puts a strain on our ability to write a good proposal.
Hopefully contracting officers in the future will be able to take that part of it more seriously and make more of an effort to help industry and contractors by giving them the answers that they need. It comes around full circle – the better answers you can give us, the better response we can give the government, saving taxpayers more money in the long run.
As they said in the podcast, putting an hour of effort in now can save many more hours on the backend. And that’s certainly something anyone would want to do.
Bo Nak is a sales engineer at Technical and Project Engineering, LLC (TAPE). A graduate from Virginia Tech with a BSE degree in industrial and systems engineering, he has worked as a sales engineer for over six years developing solutions and proposals for private, industry, and government customers. He focuses on developing credible solutions and proposals, building revenue, and driving organic growth opportunities.
I recently listened to an episode of the Contracting Officer Podcast, a show that talks about the government market from the contracting officer’s perspective and aims to make government contracting better, one contract at a time.
Hosts Kevin Jans (Skyway Acquisition Solutions) and Paul Schauer (CACI’s National and Cyber Solutions) discussed how much it actually costs to write a proposal for a government RFP. An important and much misunderstood topic!
The first key point they make about proposal writing is that even though it seems like a no-brainer that proposal writing would be part of what they call Zone 3 – The RFP Zone, it’s not (their “zones” are explained in earlier podcasts, but you should kind of get the picture from my emphasis in this post on qualification and capture).
“Proposal writing starts long before the RFP is released, before the draft RFP is released,” Paul explains. The process goes back to the Zone 2 (Market Research for their audience of contract folks, or what we industry folks would call capture – shaping the potential RFP), so that’s where the costs start as well.
This is an extremely important point that often the government does not appreciate. From the moment of market research, and sometimes even before when the true customer begins to think of the requirement, cost is beginning for industry. There is where you as the contractor begin answering the question, “Can we solve this customer’s problem?”
By the time a Request for Information (RFI) comes out, “the writing’s already started,” Kevin says, “And that’s why it’s so important that the investment in brain power, in resources, in time, and of course, in labor” has already started as well. Here again, while we’re talking about brain power, resources, time and labor, what’s really going on is relationships – a company building a picture of what the customer is looking for, based on how the customer describes it. This is the early stages, even before the RFI or market survey comes out. Remember that often the RFI is about set-aside issues, not about solution issues.
It’s important for both sides – government and industry – to understand the true cost of proposals. This gives the buyer and seller a level playing field as they communicate through the proposal process. Kevin says this is one of his favorite sayings: “Ambiguity in here is going to lead to mediocrity.”
This is perfect, yes indeed, ambiguity leads to mediocrity, but if ambiguity remains, it’s the industry’s fault for not asking all the questions for fear something will be revealed to competitors, and the government’s fault if they don’t answer by bringing new clarity to the question. Questions are good, not a forced delay and to be resented. Over-explaining can be costly as well, Kevin points out.
Paul says to compare this to hiring a contractor to put a new roof on your house. You might use any combination of marketing messages, past performance, and talking to friends, and then get quotes from several companies. They pretty much all do the same thing, so the quotes will be pretty simple.
“Think about it,” he says, “if you went out to all these companies and you said, ‘I need a 12-page proposal with double-spaced, 12 Times New Roman font on the whole thing, graphics have to be no smaller than 8 font, and you can’t use anything, but the primary colours,’ …. You wouldn’t get a single bid ‘cause nobody’s going to put in that time and energy.”
Contracting officers should remember that “the amount of proposal documentation that you have to submit could drive decision making on whether or not a company actually bids on your acquisition.”
Paul explains that the government team writing the RFP has to realize that they’re driving more cost to the taxpayers with their complex RFPs that take longer to respond to and evaluate. And this is a critical point – bad evaluation processes and lack of clarity drive up costs. So do all the regulations, and these lead to higher costs to the government.
Now LPTA has adjusted that, but the competitive pressure means less well-constructed proposals, and lower quality of responses, or lower quality of people you can afford for the prices bid. We can never forget the trade-off between price and quality.
In government contracting some inefficiency in the process is a given, with so many regulations in the FAR. But it’s those rules that give everyone an equal opportunity to bid, says Paul. Unfortunately, most of the inefficiency is actually self-inflicted – by the government as they write RFPs, and by contractors because they don’t do a good enough job evaluating their decision whether to bid on a contract.
“If you’re really having to force that language [while you’re writing an RFP], that should tell you something.” We’ve talked a lot on this blog about focusing your federal contracting efforts, and being able to answer these three key questions about your prospective customers:
- Does this customer have money allocated to solve this problem?
- Can your company solve this problem?
- Do you have the capabilities to win this job?
If you can’t answer yes to all three of those questions, don’t waste your time writing a proposal. Contractors should never forget that business development and proposal writing cost money, and there will be a single winner and many losers. Every loser needs clarity as to why they lost.
The SBA recently released their 2014 Small Business Scorecard. This is where they rate how well each federal agency met the goal of setting aside a specific percentage of contracts for small businesses, and specially-certified small businesses.
Overall, the numbers showed improvement from last year (along with a few curious anomalies), but there is still lots of room for improvement. The good news for you is that the report highlights a definite need that your business can fill, provided you can find your right customer and focus your contracting efforts.
In this chart prepared by Set-Aside Alert, you can see that for woman-owned businesses, the government’s overall score was 4.68% – less than the 5% goal. When you scroll down the list you’ll see many departments with considerably low numbers (e.g., DoD, VA and NASA). Woman-owned businesses, this is your chance to go find customers – agencies that are hungry for companies that can help them meet their set-aside goals this year.
Service-disabled veteran-owned business? Look at the Department of Education’s low score in your set-aside designation. Time for you to make hay!
- Does this customer have money allocated to solve this problem?
- Can your company solve this problem?
- Do you have the capabilities to win this job?
NCMA has been holding its World Congress since 1996, and each year it gets better and better. TAPE has been an exhibitor there for the past several years, and it’s interesting to meet contracting folks in a very different environment from the usual locations, or with their small business folk, etc.
I asked NCMA Executive Director Michael Fischetti: What’s new for this year’s event, July 26-29, 2015 in Dallas, Texas?
This year you’ll see some changes in the “interactive” nature of the event. Along with education aligned with the Contract Management Body of Knowledge (CMBOK), attendees will have increased opportunities to provide solutions to problems of the day as well as meet new colleagues in the field.
What are you most excited about?
Our fantastic line-up of key leaders and practitioners in the field, most of whom are new to our podium!
I see World Congress has a mobile app (search “NCMA Events” in the Apple App Store or Google Play Store) – what features does it offer for event participants?
The mobile app contains the A to Z of World Congress. It includes the full agenda (which attendees can customize based on what they plan to go to), speaker information, sponsors and exhibitors, social media tools, and more. There’s even a part of the app that provides detailed local information about Dallas, including local restaurants, directions, and airport information.
Who will benefit the most from attending the World Congress?
Anyone involved in contracting, whether they’re from industry or any level of government. Anyone who wants to network with others across the profession and the environment they work within.
Does the employee justification packet really work to convince employers to send people to the event?
Absolutely, and our attendees tell us they love it! World Congress is well worth the investment of time, and this packet provides answers to the questions that their training officers, leadership, or customers ask.
See you all in Dallas!
If you’re a contract management professional and you haven’t registered for the World Congress, click here to learn more. If you’re a business developer, this is a chance for you to meet contracting folks over a beer or soda between sessions. You’ll hear them discuss the issues relevant to you, like LPTA or small business. This year we’re sending our CFO, who’s also in charge of our contracts shop.
The General Services Administration (GSA) is launching something called the Acquisition Gateway, an online workplace designed to help simplify the acquisition process for government buyers, and reduce redundancies (hence the name “Act As One”).
The portal will initially cover three purchasing categories – administrative support, IT hardware, and IT software, with more categories coming.
This video from the GSA explains how the gateway works, and the rationale behind the initiative:
As Judy Bradt points out in her article for the Washington Business Journal, the risk here is that if your current and prospective customers enter this gateway, they will face an overwhelming number of choices.
To make the quickest and simplest decision, they may automatically look for the lowest price. Yet since vendors can’t access this portal, you’ll have no way of knowing how your price compares to that of your competitors.
Judy suggests you ask your customers what they think of the Acquisition Gateway. Their answer will tell you how loyal they are or whether they’re shopping around.
Read Judy’s full article for her two tips on how to make sure you end up front and center when your customers browse this new acquisition portal.
So what can you do, especially if, like many small businesses, the pricing strategy for Multiple Award Schedules (so-called GSA Schedules, like the IT70, or MOBIS), is to set “reasonable” prices and then discount in bids?
One thing is to add to your labor category descriptions a legend that indicates requirements matching is negotiable with the requirement. Another is to carefully screen customers and let them know in advance that bid prices may be adjusted/lower than Schedule prices. And finally, which I’m sure Judy would agree with as well because we’re preaching the same thing, build a relationship.
One more thing I’d recommend is to be sure your website matches the branding you use in your other materials. That’ll be a post for another day, but for now, just be aware that buyers go to websites, and often when you don’t even know they’re buyers yet.
Recently Judy Bradt wrote for us about the concept of chasing squirrels (opportunities). Let’s talk some more about how we decide to focus our efforts.
In the classic Shipley method of doing business development for contract award in the federal sector, we make a determination at the agency level how and what we’re going to go after. We must understand who we are as a company.
What are we selling? Information technology services? Cyber security services? Training? Leadership development? Logistics? Warehouse people? There is a whole host of possibilities. What exactly are the capabilities we’re selling?
Who are we selling it to? For example, a company might decide that they’re an Army contractor or a Navy contractor. But the Army and Navy are great big places. Be specific.
“OSDBU event! Veteran Business Owners Conference! Sources Sought! Vendor Outreach Session! HUBZone Day! Industry Day! Site Walk-through! Draft RFP! PTAC Briefing! SBA Matchmaker! Prime Vendor Meet-and-Greet! And there’s this guy you should meet, maybe they need a teaming partner like you. And, whoa, did I see an RFP deadline sail past? Where did that go?”
The fact of the matter is, often we’re too broad in estimating our capabilities. While we do want to stretch ourselves into new opportunities (that’s what marketing and business development is all about), it’s important to start where we are.
How can you turn something you’ve already done into something that you’d like to do? Who are the nearest neighbors to your existing customers and the function you’re performing?
For example, let’s say I’m supplying warehouse logistics people. Well, it wouldn’t be much of a stretch to get into supplying the folks who assemble the components that will be stored in the warehouse.
If I’m working for the Navy’s SPAWAR warehouse in Charleston, maybe I should go talk to a nearby GSA warehouse. From there, maybe I’ll bid on a GSA warehouse in Virginia. It’s a different location, but I’ll have good GSA references.
The best new customers come as referrals from our best current customers. That’s why when we break down the work we do in our business, at the top of the list is taking care of current customers. We never want to lose that focus.
We may have a strategic plan that lays out our capabilities and target agencies, but what’s key is to build relationships that support that plan. Because it’s from those relationships that will come information about new opportunities, and new functions we can perform within our scope, whether that’s for existing customers, or their nearest neighbors.
This is a guest post by Judy Bradt, CEO of Summit Insight LLC.
By the time federal small business contractors start to have some success, they’ve gained a certain amount of self-awareness. Which is to say, they often know what’s wrong, they just don’t know how to fix it.
“We need to stop chasing squirrels.”
That is the most common woe I’ve heard recently, from executives in industries that span professional engineering to facilities management. My response? Yes, you do!
What are the squirrels they are talking about? Why, opportunities, of course. And, boy, if there’s one thing the federal government has no shortage of, it’s opportunities.
OSDBU event! Veteran Business Owners Conference! Sources Sought! Vendor Outreach Session! HUBZone Day! Industry Day! Site Walk-through! Draft RFP! PTAC Briefing! SBA Matchmaker! Prime Vendor Meet-and-Greet! And there’s this guy you should meet, maybe they need a teaming partner like you. And, whoa, did I see an RFP deadline sail past? Where did that go?
On any given day, there may be no fewer than a dozen brand new top priorities landing in your inbox or delivered face to face. Of course this is on top of the priorities that came along the day before. And they’re all opportunities. Every one of them. For someone.
How can you tell which opportunities are really for you, without missing out?
First, relax. It’s time to accept a couple of simple truths.
Whether or not you run after everything, you’re probably going to miss some things.
The good news is that very few of these things are a once-in-a-lifetime federal contract opportunity that is gone forever.
The better news is that if the opportunity is truly a good fit for you, you’ll have plenty of notice; the buyer who knows you, likes you, and really wants to see your offer when she’s ready to buy has also let you know what to watch for and when.
Next, you’ll get the most value from any federal outreach event when you’ve had time to research the host agency or prime contractor, find out what they buy, and given some thought to what problem your company’s products or services might solve for them.
If you haven’t had time to do your homework before attending one of those events, and are just so hungry for business that all you have time for is to cruise through and do some brute force networking, you’re not just wasting your time once. You’ll waste it twice: first by attending the event in the first place, and, second, by following up with dozens or even hundreds of people who aren’t any kind of prospect for you at all.
There is an easy antidote to a squirrel infestation. It’s called focus.
Do you know which three federal agencies represent your best prospects? Write those down. Then, when anything outside of those three agencies crosses your path, set it aside for a time when you can think clearly about how or why straying from your focus is justified.
Next, think about lead time and relationships. Just because you feel desperate for business and cash flow does not mean that the right answer is to go crazy writing proposals until something sticks. Exactly the opposite is true. If you’re feeling a cash flow crunch, then carefully marshaling your resources, including staff time that goes into bid and proposal, is absolutely critical for survival.
If the first time you find out about an opportunity is on an electronic noticeboard, it’s almost certainly too late. Paradoxically, these are some of the juiciest, biggest distractions. “We could throw in a proposal and maybe we’ll win,” is one of the biggest distractions of all.
Instead, ask yourself two questions:
- How well do I know this customer and this agency?
- How well do they know me?
If you are fitting into an agency where you don’t know the people, and they have never heard of you, your proposal looks to them like a great big ball of risk. Risk, in case you weren’t clear about that, is a bad thing, and certainly a disincentive to favorable consideration of your offer.
In short, pay attention to the “squirrel” instinct, but not perhaps for the reason you have been. Instead of thinking about that distraction as a reason to run off in a new direction, think of it as a warning sign to slow down, stop, and figure out why you are thinking that way, and what kind of response is best aligned with your focus and your goals.
This post originally appeared at http://www.summitinsight.com/blogs/got-squirrel-brain-get-fast-cure-federal-business-frenzy and was adapted and reprinted with permission.
Judy Bradt is the CEO of Summit Insight LLC and author of Government Contracts Made Easier. For 25 years, Judy has worked with her clients on business strategies to win government contracts. Judy blogs at http://www.summitinsight.com/blog.