No one knows your business better than you do. Not even public sector procurement officials charged with buying goods or services like yours. They are buying on behalf of many internal customers, and on any given day they can be asked to source everything from PC monitors to park benches to parking lot structures. Though government procurement officials spend hours diligently conducting market research before issuing a solicitation or awarding a single contract, most never become subject matter experts on every purchase they make. They typically rely on their more technically-versed customers to guide them in the right direction, requesting a list of clearly-defined specifications to help them write RFPs and evaluate proposals. Especially for the more specialized purchases.
However, that is starting to change. As Tucson, Arizona’s director of procurement Marcheta Gillespie once noted in American City & County Magazine:
“More and more, I find our client departments are relying upon us to be more ‘experts’ than ‘generalists’ in the more complex procurements. So, we must rise to that challenge and prepare our staff for those opportunities.”
In other words, procurement officials are going to need industry “experts” to help them become technical experts themselves. That’s where suppliers can step up and show added value. Here’s how:
- First off, it’s best to establish relationships with procurement officials in order to build trust and credibility as an industry expert. We’ve talked extensively about why that’s so important and how to become a model vendor. But here are more tips here if you need them.
- Ask how you can share your categorical expertise, and non-promotional resources. For example, find out if the agencies you want to do business with are going to hold an open house or vendor day in the near future. More often than not, these events are intended to recruit subject matter experts as much as suppliers. In fact, resource managers from multiple agency departments will often attend for the sole purpose of collecting business cards (and expert sources) that they can leverage as needed when sourcing for unfamiliar goods and services in the future.
- Don’t focus on just selling yourself or your solution every time you speak with a procurement official. If you have the opportunity to serve in that “industry expert” role, don’t squander it. Instead use the opportunity to educate buyers on the multitude of options out there in the market, the differences between each, and the situations in which one option may be better than the other (i.e. various workflow applications). Help them understand what certain technological specifications mean, and why they matter. Make sure they’re aware of new advances in your product category. And give them tips on third-party resources that could help with their solicitation-specific market research. As anyone in technology can attest, there’s rarely an apples-to-apples comparison to be made in any one product category. By pointing them to quality market resources, you’ll save buyers time and frustration in their journey to becoming technical experts. Plus, who knows, your insights could lead them back to you when they’re ready to buy.
- Ask questions about their customer’s requested specifications, especially if the solicitation seems vague, and don’t be afraid to get a little technical in the process. There is typically a Q&A period allotted for supplier inquiries about the RFP, RFQ or IFB prior to the closing date. This is your time to clarify what they need, and pose questions that may help the buyer better define their requirements. For example, they may be asked to buy 20 mobile computers for use by airport runway maintainers. But they may not know where to even start looking for one that will survive the extreme temperatures, the drops, the exposure to fuel and other contaminants, etc. that the computer will likely have to endure. In fact, they may not even be thinking about those things if their internal customer did not specifically ask for them – unless you ask them to clarify. In the end, posing these types of questions will help procurement officers better define their requirements, which will not only narrow the field of candidates (hopefully to include you), but ensure they’re ultimately happier with the purchase they make (which, again, we hope is you).
- Be on the lookout for Statement of Objectives (SOO), “Sources Sought” or Request for Information (RFI) solicitations. Many times, government contracting officers don’t know if there is even a solution for their customer’s desired outcome. (Remember, they aren’t technical experts or completely tuned into what’s happening in every sector). In these situations, they issue one of the aforementioned solicitations for “help.” For example, a typical RFx may include a Performance Work Statement or Scope of Work detailing exactly what is expected of suppliers that compete for that contract award. However, a SOO may be used if the Air Force wants a jet that can fly Mach 10, but isn’t even sure such a request is realistic. So, they ask “the market” for input on the feasibility of such a jet and information about how such a project should even be scoped, if it is possible. (Common questions include: Can you do this? If so, how? Are you the only one that has the capability?) These requests for industry expert “help” are also used frequently by new contracting officers, as well as those sourcing technology solutions. The rate of technology innovation and the constantly evolving compatibility requirements make it hard for even the most informed tech buyers to keep up with the “latest and greatest” options on the market.
One more thing: Don’t forget to articulate your expertise in your proposal. This is your opportunity to show that you know what you’re doing and, more importantly, that you know how to solve the customer’s problems. “Sell” your ability to deliver the outcomes that the customer desires. This will especially bode well with agencies that use “best value” evaluation factors more so than “lowest price” criteria.