Contracting 101

A class dispenses advice about life for people hoping to sell to the government.

Want to win government business? Eileen Kent has some advice for you. First, show up at a federal agency and wander the halls looking lost until someone offers to take you to the right person. Next, become best friends with the federal employees who you want to use your goods or services. Then cultivate those relationships by dropping by to say "hello" with popcorn in hand and calling with condolences after their favorite baseball team loses. Eventually, she says, you'll work your way into the hearts and budgets of federal officials.

"I don't work for the government-so I can tell the truth," she says at the start of her daylong seminar, Federal Sales 101: Winning Government Business. The course is run by Bethesda, Md.-based Fedmarket.com, which has taught more than 2,500 companies nationwide how to sell to the government. Dozens of similar organizations have sprung up over the last decade, especially in the Washington area, to help the many businesses trying to break into the federal market.

Before Kent gets started, she wants to hear the pain of novice sellers to government. She asks the 10 class participants, most of whom head small businesses and have little experience in the federal marketplace, to name their problems. Frustrations pour out: Too much paperwork. Federal employees don't understand their own information technology needs. No one gives feedback. Meetings and group decisions slow sales.

Kent, who has the charm and energy of NBC Today show host Katie Couric, embraces all the angst enthusiastically. She acts like she believes everyone in the room can start raking in million-dollar contracts next year. Her boosterism is bolstered by personal experience: She rents high-end furniture to the government, so she understands how "the game" is played, which is how she refers to the contracting business.

The importance of relationships takes up most of the seven-hour class, which participants pay $500 to attend. "If you don't think things are happening behind closed doors beforehand, you're dreaming," says Kent. In fact, she recommends against bidding on requests for proposals on Federal Business Opportunities, the Web site for federal procurements. If a government employee didn't call you the night before to tell you the request was going to be posted, then it's too late to win the contract, she says. The agency already has a vendor in mind.

Kent tells her students to get to know the would-be users of their products. How do you find them? Search for your competitor's name or enter your type of product or service into a database on the General Services Administration's Web site, and see which name pops up as an agency contact. Then set up meetings with those people. If an agency releases a "sources sought" for more information on a potential solicitation, call the person listed as the contact and find out more. "Get all over them like a bad date," Kent says. Even if you're already on the GSA schedules, you still need to drum up business through relationships, or you'll never receive any orders, she says.

After contact is established, your next job is to become the best friend of program managers who can use your product. Offer to show them the latest technology. Stop by when you don't have a scheduled appointment. Ask them what they wish could change about their current contract with your competitor. And become what Kent calls a "known angel"-fix anything and everything for them, from a computer virus to a double-billing problem, even if it doesn't directly relate to what you're selling.

If you're still having trouble getting to the right person, just show up at an agency unannounced, Kent says. Tell security guards that you need help and you want them to point you in the right direction. Tell them what you sell. Kent says they'll probably know whom you should talk to, and within minutes you could be in a corner office with an important decision-maker who could buy your product or service. "If you think you look stupid doing that, great," says Kent-there's more of a chance they'll find you endearing and help you out.

When she goes on cold-calling expeditions, she judges herself using a point system: One point for a name; five points if the person comes down to the lobby to speak with her; 10 points if she gets invited to an office; 50 if she's asked to write a price quote and 100 if she gets an order. If she doesn't earn 250 points, she considers the day a failure.

Once you get that meeting, keep your PowerPoint presentation in your briefcase. Act like you're a reporter, she says, and ask questions. "There's nothing better than asking a military person about their service," she says, adding the official will feel like you care and will be more apt to give you contracts.

A class participant stops Kent to ask whether the federal employee will be annoyed that the vendor did not bother looking up the background first. "That's not going to happen in the government," she says. Government officials love to nurture, she explains, in large part because time is not thought of as a limited, valuable commodity the same way it is in the private sector.

The participant persists. He asks at what point do you become that annoying person. "Never," Kent says. "These are now your new best friends." That means asking them about their dentist appointment last week and knowing who their family members are.

As in a friendship, there are some things you never, ever do. Never file a protest when another contractor is selected over your company. That rule is so important that Kent asks the class to chant it with her. "The only two companies that can afford to protest are Lockheed and Boeing. The rest of us will look like an angry loser that doesn't get it," she says. Don't go to debriefings for vendors that lost a solicitation, because then you will be forever associated with the angry losers, she says.

After about a year of cultivating relationships, Kent says you'll start winning government business. Begin by asking for small amounts of work, and build up to the bigger projects. Good lessons for any of life's pursuits.

Do

  1. Show up at federal agencies without an appointment and ask security guards to get you to the right person.
  2. Drive an American-made car if you're going to a military base.
  3. Become best friends with the federal employees you want to use your products.
  4. Show up at a agencies in the afternoon with popcorn just to say "hello," to develop your new friendships.
  5. If you want to sell to the armed services, hire former soldiers who served in Iraq.

Don't

  1. Go to trade shows-they're a waste of time.
  2. Bother bidding on requests for proposals if you first hear about them after they become public.
  3. Go to debriefings for vendors that have lost contracts-you'll be associated with angry losers.
  4. Quote the Federal Acquisition Regulation to contracting officers. "It would be like quoting the Bible to the minister," Kent says.
  5. Protest. Ever.
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