Providing services to the government can help you grow your business while potentially doing meaningful work. While government contracts are awarded in variety of ways, a typical avenue is a competitive process that includes a request for proposal (RFP) or request for quote (RFQ) from the contracting agency. To rise to the top, you should consider ensuring you meet all the solicitation requirements and differentiate from competing vendors while offering a fair and reasonable price.
Here are some tips on how to get government contracts by writing a strategic proposal that can make your business more competitive.
1. Do your due diligence and homework – starting well in advance.
Government contracts can be a long-term strategy and you should consider starting your process far ahead of a published RFP. Jennifer Schaus and her firm, Washington, D.C.-based J. Schaus & Associates, specialize in helping companies sell products, services, and software to the U.S. government. She notes that the process for federal government contracts comprises several steps before a need turns into an RFP, and some opportunities can begin with a “sources sought” request or with a request for information (RFI).
“It can take months for an RFP to be solidified. You need to respond to the early market research from the government, as that is often how the government creates the parameters for the solicitation,” she says.
Paul L. Gunn Jr., owner of logistics firm KUOG Corporation based in Huntsville, Alabama, agrees that by the time you see the RFP, you may have missed important parts of the process.
“By the time the solicitation is out, you need to understand the customer very well,” says Gunn, whose small company works solely on government projects for agencies such as the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), as well as supporting other contractors in the aerospace and aviation markets.
Strategies recommended by Gunn and Schaus include to consider:
- Watching what’s happening in the agencies you want to work with and in the market overall, including the political climate and government budgeting (such as procurement forecasts published by each agency, for example).
- Doing market research – for federal government opportunities, the SAM.gov portal offers resources you can use for competitive analysis, such as who won previously posted solicitations.
- Partnering with other companies strategically, whether through a subcontractor relationship or joint venture, when you lack some of the required capabilities.
“Some companies will even partner with a competitor for the bid,” Schaus says.
2. Build relationships with government customers and industry peers.
Another long-term strategy that can make you more competitive and starts long before proposal writing is building relationships with contracting agencies. The U.S. Small Business Administration (SBA), for example, offers industry networking or small-business events where you can meet both agency representatives and industry peers.
“It’s a great opportunity to talk to contracting officers about your business and your services,” says Sacha Walton, CEO of event management company SWI Management Group, based in Hampton, Virginia. “They can also give you more insights into solicitations that are coming down the pipeline.”
If you’re just entering the government market, these events can also be a good way to meet prime contractors who may need to subcontract part of the work.
“It takes time to do due diligence and find teaming partners with the right experience,” Schaus says. “That’s one reason why government contracting is a marathon and not a sprint.”
3. Differentiate by offering solutions to problems and extra touches.
Without knowing who you’re competing against in the request for proposal process, it may be difficult to figure out how to differentiate. For Gunn, differentiation could be anything from offering “additional bells and whistles” to showing how you’re going to communicate or address problems when they arise.
“You want to build a line of trust with your approach,” he says. “The biggest thing I’m mindful of is how our team is going to support the contracting team’s program to ensure their project is elevated. We want to show them how they’ll get a better service, aiding in less frustration.”
For Walton, better service may entail adding in some extra touches that may not cost her much but make her business stand out. As an event production company, Walton’s SWI Management Group has organized events for local, state, and government agencies. Her value-added services may include things like bringing a photo booth for an Army family event or offering support to the agency’s childcare team – all at no additional cost.
“Event attendees enjoy a special experience, and I love bringing in extra services to elevate their experience,” she says.
To differentiate, Vancouver, British Columbia-based marketing company Setsail focuses on the problem the customer is trying to solve, rather than on what the solution may be, according to founder and creative director Jason Atakhanov. Setsail, which also has an office in Beaverton, Oregon, gets about 35% of its business from government contracts with Canadian and U.S. municipalities.
“We go far beyond what the RFP requires to understand the problem the municipality is trying to solve and provide a much more comprehensive solution,” he says. “Understanding the context behind the project is important.”
4. Create a compliance checklist.
Regardless of what type of government agency your bid is for, the RFP can have very specific requirements not only for the scope of work, technical capabilities, and past performance, but also for details on how to format the proposal – often down to the font and margin width.
“One of the things the agency looks for is how well you follow instructions,” Walton says. “A lot of times people fail because they don’t take the time to read the solicitation all the way through.”
Schaus, of J. Schaus & Associates, recommends creating a compliance matrix that ensures you’re “ticking off all the requirements.” Sign up for alerts that will provide you updates as well, because sometimes the due dates may change or parameters may get clarified during the open question-and-answer period.
“Make sure you participate and submit good questions, review all of the answers when posted and update your matrix,” she says.
The technical requirements may also be very specific, including precise measurements or the number of years you can include in past performance. Gunn, of KUOG Corporation, notes that even if you’re just entering the government sector, you can look for other ways to show proof that you can execute the project.
“If you’re new to government but have 15 years in the commercial sector, you’re not new to the area of your expertise and you’ll want to highlight that,” he says. “And if you win a bid, be mindful to service the work well because past performance will come into play when you bid the next time.”
5. Dedicate enough time and resources.
RFPs can be an investment that take time and money to develop. Larger vendors can typically have entire teams dedicated to it, including separate roles for research, pricing, compliance, and other components. While you may not be able to devote an entire team, Atakhanov, of Setsail, recommends you consider at least dedicating an individual to this activity.
Setsail, which has 12 employees, decided this past January to make government projects a prominent part of its business, and now submits about 20 responses per month. The company has optimized the process using tools such as proposal software, but even so, Atakhanov says the process is very intense.
“It’s not something you can just do for a week or finish quickly,” he says. “Dedicating a person to it is not only more efficient but also allows them to build up the knowledge to identify the best solutions.”
Try to ensure you’re investing in quality control as well by having others proofread and check the proposal for compliance. Schaus recommends looking for outside assistance for this step.
“Government agencies have their own vernacular, their own way of describing things,” she says. “You need someone with fresh eyes – who knows the subject matter and understands the industry, as well as the nuances of the agency – to review your proposal before you submit it.”
Resources also come into play in the proposal itself because your company may not be paid for several months for the project and the contracting agency wants to ensure you can carry out the work in the meantime. That’s why Gunn advises including your cash flow plan or source of capital in the proposal.
“You have to show that you have the funding, whether that’s a line of credit or another source,” he says.
Succeeding in the Long Term
One way you can improve your strategy is by asking for a debrief if you don’t win the bid. Schaus says this is a best practice that can show you’re open to feedback, and the agency may remember your company should the incumbent fail to perform. Gunn and Walton have both used debriefing conferences to understand what parts of the proposal they could improve in the future.
Government contracting can often be very competitive and for a new entrant, the process may feel daunting. Consider taking advantage of resources such as the SBA, government portals, and local procurement technical assistance centers is one way to gain insights into and knowledge about this world of opportunities. Try to keep in mind that it can take months, and likely a year or two, to build momentum – but once you do, your success rate can increase as long as you go about it strategically.
A version of this article was originally published on September 12, 2016.
Photo: Getty Images