Federal contractors figured out a long time ago how to sell well within the federal government’s structured procurement process. Those of us who sell to other businesses or to state and local governments can learn from these industry veterans.
The contractors who have been most successful do four things well.
1. Successful contractors are proactive
Successful contractors are proactive. Instead of waiting for an RFP to fall in their laps, proactive sellers take time to identify—ahead of time—the contracts they want to win. They have a list. Written out. In detail. The list identifies the contracts they want to win, the effective dates for each contract, when each contract will likely be rebid, which contractor is managing the contract currently, etc.
2. Successful contractors build client relationships
Successful contractors invest lots of time and money building relationships with important people in the buyer’s organization. In fact, they begin calling on the account years before the RFP is issued. They do this for good reason. It takes time to identify all of the important influencers and decision makers within an organization. It takes time to schedule meetings with these people, get to know them, learn about their professional issues and concerns, their personal issues and concerns, and ultimately, gain their confidence.
3. Successful contractors build targeted solutions for each client
Successful contractors invest lots of time and effort developing unique solutions that are uniquely responsive to the unique needs of each unique buyer. Sensing a theme here? They understand that even for a product or service that many people might perceive to be a commodity, there are differences. Real differences. Tangible differences. To succeed in this market, sellers must be able to articulate how the solution they are proposing will deliver what the buyer wants in a way that is both different and better than what anyone else is offering.
4. Successful contractors are skilled sales strategists
Successful contractors invest lots of time and effort developing their message. “Of course,” you may respond in an affirming tone, “we do that, too.” But when I say “developing their message,” what I mean is they invest lots of time, effort, and money to develop a strategy, determine their “win theme,” draft a storyline or story board that documents what they are proposing, and much more. In some cases, they may write one or two proposal drafts before the RFP is even published. Really. Contractors often use the previous RFP that was issued for the contract, incorporate what they learned from influencers and decision makers in the client’s organization over the last 12 or 24 months, and then they write a draft proposal. Or two. Or three. All in preparation for when the “real” RFP is published.
I shared this information in a seminar I was teaching and one student, clearly startled at the enormous investment in time and effort, responded in a shocked, almost unbelieving tone, “You’re kidding, right? They actually write multiple proposals before the RFP is even issued? You can’t be serious!”
This student articulated well what a lot of non-federal sellers feel when they begin to understand the significant contrast between their typical approach to RFPs and the enormous effort that federal contractors use in their approach. This man’s approach was to wait until he received an RFP, then he assembled a team of subject matter experts, a salesperson, and perhaps an administrative assistant who would be tasked with assembling the finished product, and then they worked to develop a proposal in response to the RFP they received. He came into the class feeling proud of their responsiveness, but he fell in to a state of mild shock when he began to see the larger picture.
My goal is not to put attendees into shock, of course. Still, in my effort to teach students the correct way to approach RFPs—to be proactive instead of reactive, to reach out to buyers long before an RFP is issued, to invest considerable time and effort in developing their message—a temporary condition of mild shock is not uncommon. But often, it is precisely this shock that is needed—the proverbial resuscitative charge—that makes us realize the errors of our reactive ways.
True success does not, will not come from reacting to the RFPs we receive.True success will only come from saying, proactively, two years ahead of time, “I want that contract, and here’s how I plan to go win it.”
There are many things we can learn from federal contractors, but there is one idea that stands above them all—we have to be proactive.
David Seibert is a professional salesperson, proposal writer, and proposal consultant. He is also the founder and president of The Seibert Group, a proposal consulting and training organization serving businesses that sell to other businesses and to state and local governments. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.