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Stewart Hall
Managing Director of Ogilvy Government Relations
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Selling to the Federal Market: Complications and Opportunities

With declining commercial sales and an uncertain economic climate, many tech and IT companies are looking to the one certain growth market in today’s economy – the federal government. Given the growth in federal spending projected over the next four years in every area from healthcare to border security, there is no doubt that federal agencies will continue to procure record amounts of IT services and equipment.

However, selling in this market can often be a frustrating dead end for companies not attune to doing business with the government. Most adventures in government sales for the uninitiated bear little fruit for many years. The most frequent refrain from disappointed vendors is that the government could not “see the wisdom or merits of their technology or services.”

In addition, the anti-earmark climate permeating Washington today makes it far more difficult for a corporation to end run the purchasing bureaucracy by using a home state member of Congress to direct funds to a specific project or program that will benefit the company. Increasingly, the unelected civil servant has complete dominion over the disposition of federal appropriations and procurement decisions. Without an abiding relationship with purchasing officers, program managers and Senior Executive Service members, it is most difficult to move product in the federal market.

There are ways to build a stable and thriving federal sales market, but it takes commitment, time, money and savvy to realize that goal. Below are a few tips for those looking to break into the federal market or to significantly expand their presence.

1) Know Your Market and Capabilities – Whether it is health IT, communications, data storage and retrieval, or complex systems integration, you must have active intelligence of federal opportunities before word hits the street. This task requires active knowledge of agency plans for future budget cycles, agency requirements and Executive Branch and Congressional Initiatives. Furthermore, you must know whether your technology aligns with that particular need and is either competitive or can represent best value to the government.

2) Be in Your Market – Simply coming to Washington from the home office, armed with minimal intelligence to meet with a government official is totally ineffective. At best you will get a meeting. At worst, you will be regarded as an outsider with an unproven track record. Government purchasers are loathe to trust the untested and unknown. Without a consistent physical presence in Washington, you will never gain the trust of careerists whose futures depend on making the right decisions.

3) Staff Up – To be successful at both step one and two, a company must have a dedicated federal sales force and a lobbying team to open doors and provide intelligence on an almost daily basis. In addition, the company must have employees who have experience in the complex world of government contracting and requirements, and relationships with agencies that they have worked for or with in the past. This is a particular type of expertise that is no different from that of a software engineer or other technician and it can prove invaluable in winning contracts.

4) Team Up – Often the easiest way to win government business is to team with larger corporations or trusted government service providers who already have large, flexible contracts in place with agencies. Going after large contracts with major players as a sub can get the company in the door and begin building relationships for future opportunities.

5) Brand, Brand, Brand – As noted above, lack of familiarity in Washington breeds contempt. A company in the federal market must be able to tout not only its name and technology, but its past and present performance as a government contractor. Again, without the commitment to advertise and use public relations in the federal sales arena, few government purchasers will feel comfortable enough to take a chance on an unknown vendor.