According to Eileen Kent, the Federal Sales Sherpa, “Everyone has a fair and open opportunity – to make a phone call – the rest is all about relationships.”
Many executives selling to the federal government believe that cold calling is the wrong approach to opening doors to new opportunities.
“Of course we all wish we could be referred into the ideal opportunity within the federal government, but that’s not always realistic,” says Eileen Kent. “Therefore, at some point, when all contacts, partners and customers’ referrals are exhausted, a federal sales executive is going to have to have to pick up the phone and make a cold call or two hundred.”
What is the key approach to selling to the feds? Kent says the approach should be a “hat in hand,” subtle approach of asking questions, listening and learning – not selling.
“When I’m selling to the feds, I’m looking for the key end-user on the inside who requires my product or service to complete their mission. For example, if I’m selling furniture, roofing or construction, I’m going to call on the facility manager, the property manager and the sustainability officer. If I’m selling software, I’m going to try to locate the CIO, the IT Director or the IT Security Officer,” says Kent.
“My approach is simple. I ask whomever answers the phone, ‘I was wondering if you could point me in the right direction – I’m looking for the person who handles……’ and the person who answers the phone 99% of the time helps me find my contact.”
When you get your key contact on the phone, tell them you are new to their agency, but you’re not new to the industry and you are here to help them look good. (Note from Bill: Start off by mentioning that you were referred by the first person you spoke to. Now it’s not a cold call at all!)
Then, Eileen suggests you continue with, “I have some industry intel (whitepapers/capabilities briefings/training programs) that you may find interesting for your next project. But before I do that, I have a couple of questions so I understand your role at the agency……..” Most end users, Kent says, are happy to endure a few basic questions regarding their role, their vendor who currently supplies similar products and services, and how they found that vendor.
From there you can ask the subtle question, “How is it going with ____(competitor name)_____?” Your hope is they share with you all the good, the bad, and the ugly. At first they’ll share the good but they always dish on their known devil – the incumbent.
Kent calls this the wedge issue. “Once you find a crack in the cemented relationship your new client has with the incumbent, wedge in with a solution to the crack, and then tap, tap, tap with a cost-effective solution.” As you fix more of these small fissures – breaks – in the fed’s relationship with the incumbent, eventually the client will start calling you for more and more tasks.
The ultimate goal is to unseat the incumbent, but that is something that happens slowly over time. You need to build the relationship and move it carefully. Your first call is the introduction. Your second call is delivering a capabilities statement. Your third call might be a possible capabilities briefing/webinar.
Your fourth call addresses a need. Your fifth call provides a suggested solution/white paper/recommendation/idea. Call six through eleven are for follow up. Call number 12 is a bid and then wait, wait, wait, wait and WIN! Federal sales opportunities take 12 to 24 months, just like courting someone for marriage. Take it slowly and steady and you will eventually win.
Every conversation starts with an introduction that feels cold, but as soon as the formal intros are done, it’s no longer cold. Find something in common and ask them for help. (Note from Bill: Talking about anything, from the weather to the big game, warms up a call at least from cold to neutral.) The federal employees work for you and they’re happy to help.
Kent says, “I have never had someone in the government behave rudely toward me and I have cold called in DC, Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas, Denver, Los Angeles, Las Vegas, San Francisco and San Diego for the past 12 years. They may be short because they don’t know me yet, or they’re shy because they don’t know whether or not I’m a nutcase, but once I set their mind at ease that I’m new and need a little help, they always point me in the right direction, which in time leads to a win.”
Eileen Kent has trained over 10,000 in federal sales, proposals and GSA Schedule Contracting. Her woman-owned small business has helped organizations win tens of millions in federal contracts, through teaching federal sales strategies one-on-one and in team training. For more information, call 312-636-5381 or connect with Eileen on LinkedIn (http://www.linkedin.com/pub/eileen-kent/1/a48/a80).