The federal government spends about $500 billion a year on private-sector contractors. Yes: That’s half a trillion. You deserve a piece of that pie, but to win a government contract, you’ve got to play by the rules. When an agency puts out a request for proposals, or RFP, it’s important to respond with precision. Give them all the requested information. Communicate with the right contracting officer. Have exactly the goods or services required.
At the same time, it’s possible to gain an edge. There are a number of small yet significant steps a business can take to help land that coveted government deal.
Find a friend.
After the attack on the USS Cole in 2000, the Navy went looking for new technologies to safeguard its fleet. Enter Midé, a Medford, Massachusetts, engineering firm, with the offer of a (somewhat obscure yet powerful) "bulkhead shaft seal" that uses innovative hydroactive technology to stop cross compartmental flooding in a compromised bulkhead. It’s a narrow niche, but the Navy needed one and Midé had it.
To get in the door, Midé found a "champion," says Chris Ludlow, director of engineering. The Navy assigned a member of its technical team to guide the acquisition process, and while this individual was "not necessarily a key decision-maker, he was able to advise and influence the key decision-makers when it came time for financial support.
"He guided us through the development and qualification process and helped identify other Navy ship classes where our product would be beneficial," Ludlow says. "We believe our champion went above and beyond the call." Having a friend on the inside won’t win you the contract, but it can help pave the way.
Learn the (compressed) lingo.
For many small businesses, language can be a major stumbling block on the way to winning government work. There are more than 57,000 government acronyms in play today, and that number will soon swell to 70,000 according to Bob Mander, principal with Ryan & Co. and founder of Govlish, an online service that helps translate government babble to human-speak.
"Typical government solicitations contain hundreds of [acronyms], often never spelled out," Mander says. When you don’t know the code, "at the least, you damage your credibility, at worst, you run the risk of misreading basic conformance criteria that lead to non-response and non-performance determinations that either lose the award or make you wish you’d never won it."
In other words, words are crucial. Whether through tools like Govlish or through a simple Google search, small businesses need to learn the lingo before responding to an RFP.
A swell acronym we learned the first week of college: Answer the Question Asked. Too often, small businesses will ladle out steaming bowls-full of information in responding to a call for bids, yet somehow fail to respond to the actual request. There’s a disconnect in what is being asked for and what is delivered. "The government gets to decide what it needs and it defines that need as it sees fit," says Tom Reid, chief problem solver with the consultancy Certified Contracting Solutions. "Too often, when preparing proposals, new entrants into government contracting do not respond fully or else try to ‘sell’ the government what the company has to offer rather than what the government asked for."
RFPs require that everyone "include the same content, answer the same questions, explain how their solution meets the government’s needs, and provide all the requested documentation," Reid says. "Too often, small businesses don’t respond fully or assume that the reviewer will understand what they are saying. Unfortunately, as a general rule, if it is not in the proposal, then it is not considered in the evaluation. We refer to this as ‘not answering the mail.'"
Answer the mail. Find a friend. Learn the lingo. If a small business can do these things, it will stand a better-than-average chance of clearing the RFP hurdle and landing that much-coveted slice of the government pie.