As 2022 kicks off, I thought it would be great to review one of the most important but often overlooked tasks when it comes to business development – Customer Engagement. The COVID pandemic has changed how we interact with customers, but it hasn’t changed what we have to do.
In many ways, COVID has made things easier on business developers. More people have embraced virtual meetings, which has reduced windshield time traveling to and from meetings. We have found it easier to schedule meetings with customers. COVID also provides a built-in, expectation-free opportunity to connect with existing customers and your workforce. Asking how people are doing, what people are struggling with, and if there’s anything we can do to make their lives easier is a great way to hear about new opportunities.
Effective customer engagement starts with understanding the essential tasks and not overdoing it – no one likes a stalker or a pest. Engaging the government customer boils down to four key tasks: building relationships, collecting information, influencing the requirements, and vetting your solution. Let’s discuss these key tasks and how to complete them in the most effective way.
Key Task 1: Building Relationships. As you are building any relationship with a customer, you can only go and see the same person so often. You won’t succeed in building a relationship if you allow only a couple of months to do it. The process takes much, much longer because your visits must be spaced out over time. Your best bet is to get to the right people early in the process. But where do you start? You need to focus on three aspects of this task:
- Knowing when in the capture process to interface personally and most effectively with your government customers.
- Identifying and differentiating the various types of government customers.
- Earning trusted advisor status.
The Govies are often worried about breaking the procurement integrity rule, so you will have to learn when to talk to them and when not to. Generally speaking, you can talk to the government freely before they have developed an acquisition strategy for a specific pursuit, and then the communications become increasingly limited and formal. In reality, your opportunity to interface with the government gradually diminishes as the acquisition lifecycle progresses. For example, when the government identifies a need and performs market research, your chances of talking to them and their openness with you are the greatest. They may be willing to meet one-on-one and tell you much of what you need to know to win. Once they publish a Request for Information (RFI) or Sources Sought, they might treat the meetings more officially, if it is a large procurement; if it is a small procurement, you might still be able to talk to them freely. This will be especially true if you write a detailed response to their RFI with lots of useful advice on how they should run acquisition and what should be in the Statement of Work (SOW).
With a draft Request for Proposal (RFP) on the street, you can still ask questions and provide recommendations in writing that they might or might not make public. There could also be official vendor outreach events, such as an Industry Day or a site visit. This will provide you with an opportunity to ask questions in a public forum or have a word with the government at the end of the meeting. Keep in mind, though, that your competitors will be lurking, listening, and watching your every step.
Key Task 2: Collecting Information. When you meet with a government representative, your purpose is to listen. Dale Carnegie said that you can get a reputation as an extremely engaging conversationalist by mostly listening — and it holds true for working with the government just as much as it does in other aspects of life. This not only helps you form a great relationship with the customer but becomes an information-gathering technique.
You should come to your meeting well-prepared, having researched as much as possible about the customer and the agency’s mission. Be prepared to talk about yourself, but only in the context of the customer. Be prepared to ask open-ended questions about the procurement that you are chasing, getting the customer to open up and talk. Remember, it is much easier to get the government to be open with you early in the procurement cycle.
Key Task 3: Influencing the Requirements. The best of the best of government contractors shape the requirements in the RFP to raise their win probability. They wire the contracts to themselves early on and seal the deal with the perfect proposal. Wiring seems like something negative, but unless you are violating the procurement integrity laws, there is nothing unseemly or unethical in doing this. It’s just good business, and every company wants to find a way to wire contracts to themselves.
The recipe for wiring an opportunity to your company is simple:
- Build the relationship early and become a trusted advisor.
- Find a solution that will benefit you and make it difficult for the competition to win.
- Focus on the project at hand when you make recommendations to the government, ensuring that you prioritize the customer’s best interests and follow their rules. It cannot be obvious that you are receiving preferential treatment from the government, or there will be protests.
Key Task 4: Vet the Solution. You never want to surprise the government with a solution that’s so original they might not understand it or approve it. You want to run your original, potentially “risky” solutions by the government before you write the proposal (in the pre-RFP stages of the procurement). For example, what if you decided to get the same job done with three people, but the government previously used 10 people? Would the government be happy or upset? Are they attached to the initial number of people for different reasons, perhaps because these people are doing a lot more work for them than is apparent from reading the SOW? Do these people report to different departments that like to have their own resources instead of sharing a person? If they don’t approve your solution work with them to tweak the approach. During the process, they might drop a valuable hint as to what they would ideally want it to be.
You might decide against running the solution by the government in a couple of situations:
- If you know that someone in the government is very close with your competition, and they would most certainly disclose your solution to them.
- If there are too many other contractors involved who could leak this information to their strategic partners. People are people, and they tend to talk. You might want to carefully evaluate this risk. Although it is low, in some large and strategic pursuits, you should exercise extra caution and decide what you want to run by the customer and artifacts you want to leave with them.
If you execute these four tasks well, you will be halfway to winning.
OST Global Solutions is a professional business development consulting firm. We provide capture and proposal teams to develop winning proposals. Or we can provide consultants on a case-by-case basis to fill gaps on your business development team. Our services consist of capture management, proposal management, orals coaching, proposal writing, graphics support, editing, desktop publishing, and cost volume development.
Reach out to us to discuss how we can help you develop a winning proposal.