Oct 1, 1999 12:00 PM,
William J. Hamilton
The secrets of selling to the U.S. Government involve understanding itslanguage and means of operation.
The government provides a substantial opportunity for professional A-Vequipment sales. This article is intended to serve as a guide in theidentification of potential customers in the government procurement system,and it suggests sales strategies that are designed to increase business.
Earlier in my selling career, I was the regional manager for ScullyRecording Instruments, selling tape recordings to the government under aGSA contract. Selling to the government was unlike any selling I had donebefore. The government’s motivations to purchase and its view of productsand competitive manufacturers differed from our private sector customer’sperspective. With a bit of study and a few adjustments to tailor my styleto fit the government’s system, Scully ultimately enjoyed lucrative salesincreases.
Successful salespeople know the advantage of asking questions. Getting yourprospect involved and getting answers tells you whether or not your messageis getting across. Over the years, I have seen many sales lost for onereason or another, but one of the biggest reasons is that many salespeopledo not know how to listen. It makes sense that if listening is important,you should be doing it correctly and to your best advantage. In governmentsales, your success will depend upon getting the right information from thespecific agency.
There are eight things to keep in mind when trying to get the properinformation from government. First, go with a game plan, and have as manyquestions prepared in advance as possible. Stop and listen. Pay fullattention instead of thinking of the next thing to say. Persuade yourcustomer to keep talking, and refrain from cutting him off in mid-sentence.Listen for keys to the sale, and find out what your customer really needsor how your product will benefit the agency. Further, listen between words;customers will often say one thing and mean another. Take notes, therebydemonstrating your interest in what the customer is saying. Finally, askfor the order. As amazing as it may seem, the most important tip oftenhangs salespeople up the most. You cannot wait for the customer to yank thepen out of your hand to sign the purchase order.
It could be said that following these eight tips should help you achievesuccess whether the customer is a government organization or not. A goodsalesman is a good salesman, and if you have sound business sense in theprivate sector, you will easily succeed in the public sector, right?
It is important to review the goods and services you are selling to makesure that they will be desirable to the government. Do solid, establishedcorporations manufacture your products? Do you install only high-quality,reliable equipment that is supported with a strong service ethic by thecompanies, and do they have excellent repair parts availability? If you cananswer yes to these questions, then you are already at an advantage, which,along with an investment of thorough preparation and follow-through, willhelp you to enjoy a long, profitable tenure in government sales.
Never has there been a situation that profits more from your walking a milein your customer’s shoes than does empathizing with a federal employee.Federal employees often invest their entire working careers in one branchof the government and will be looking at the long-term rather than theshort-term ramifications of buying your products. This point of view isdistinctly different from the majority of other customers who function witha longer, lower, faster, wider mentality about goods and services.
Be aware that your business ethics and pricing are open to public scrutinyand investigation as soon as you begin selling to the federal government.Remember, it is your tax dollar, too. Those free passes to the big game cando more harm than good, possibly placing your customer in a position ofconflict of interest in a world where public oversight is the rule, not theexception.
A few basic principles will go a long way toward helping you meet yoursales goals. First, learn the system; product procurement is by far themost important procedure to master in order to succeed in a governmentenvironment. Believe in the quality of your service, and be prepared todiscuss a tentative installation schedule, service policies and contracts.Get down to business immediately. A government official’s time is asvaluable as yours; remember that the prospect invited you to provideinformation on your services during his busy time schedule. Be thorough,and provide the information needed in the time given to you. If you areseeing the user for the first time, be sure to offer the materials you haveprepared with all relevant pricing.
Be as helpful as possible in any meetings with government officials.Although the purchasing process may be lengthy, the time may be right topurchase immediately, so it is always advantageous to be helpful. Theprocurement officer’s requirements are simple – the right product, at theright price, from the right source, delivered to the right place, at theright time. Prepare yourself so that doing business with you is as easy aspossible within their system.
Follow up with your government user regularly. Be sure to supply any newinformation about your product and to include any suggestions you may havedeveloped from earlier discussions. These follow-up calls are alsoopportunities to cultivate new business.
Be candid and timely. When a product or service has been discontinued or aprice has been reduced, make the extra effort to call and inform. The usermay already have the information, but your call will strengthen yourrelationship. Be prepared to offer alternatives to help the user performhis tasks.
Avoid undue familiarity. Always use terms of protocol, and use rank titlesuntil the government employee has made it clear that he prefers to beaddressed otherwise. The people you deal with are federal officials, and itis in your best interest to treat them accordingly. There is likewise noplace for discrimination within the federal government.
Ask questions, which is a good way to discover future purchasing plans,budgeting situations, individuals who may influence product selection andhints on being better prepared to make a government sale. You mightdiscover mistakes in assumptions that you had made in the past, therebyallowing you to redirect your efforts. Pay special attention to the answersgiven to your questions, even if you are on a tight schedule. Do not beafraid to ask stupid questions, which are easier to handle than stupidmistakes.
Never knock the competition. Your job is to sell your service, so talkabout its advantages and how it meets the user’s needs for efficiency,economy and durability. Talk about the competition only if the prospectprompts you for a comparison, and even then, only if you know what you aretalking about. Be sure to be able to document your findings.
Lastly, remain in charge. Prevent improper order processing, carelesshandling of back orders, unmet deadlines and work-scheduling errors. Thesecan quickly destroy a positive relationship with the government user thattook so long to build. Take charge of the situation and let the user knowyou are on top of any problem that may crop up. The person who believes hecan do something is probably right, and so is the person who believes hecannot.
Developing the relationship is not only important for closing the deal athand, but also for future leads. A satisfied customer is the best possibleadvertisement in the government marketplace. The bottom line in selling tothe government is that you will be held responsible by the purchaser, soyou must follow through with every sale. Even after the equipment isinstalled and operating, follow up with a call. Make certain the userrealizes that satisfaction with the purchase is your ultimate goal.
As a caution when selling to the government, be aware that the GeneralServices Administration (GSA) keeps an active list of user complaintsconcerning the activities of salesmen calling on government agencies. Amongthe most frequently mentioned are taking advantage of or destroying apositive business relationship with premiums, gifts or social favors (it isillegal to buy government business), wasting the user’s time (the mostfrequent complaint), trying to sell through the back door (which rarelyworks in the short term and never in the long term), being overlypersistent (accepting defeat on a particular sale will win you more futurebusiness than beating the buyer over the head with something he does notwant or cannot control), and seeking special consideration (do not ask thatthe specifications be rewritten for your benefit, and if you do lose anaward, do not complain about it unless you have a legal right to do so).
By following good business sense and practicing mature business principles,you can easily stay one step ahead of your competition, and in governmentsales, being a consistently good businessperson is the winning ticket.
Be aware that government has its own way of looking at the daily routine ofbusiness, and it has its own way of communicating within its walls.Interacting with the government requires your learning its businesslanguage if you are serious about developing an ongoing businessrelationship. When you learn to speak its business language, your servicesare more likely to be considered. Some common business terms and theirgovernment equivalents are shown on Table 1.
Reaching the user
The first thing you must do is find the front door. Take the time to dosome research and find the right doors to knock on. For example, if you aretrying to get onto a military base or in the office of a prime contractor,askfor the base telephone directory or who to call in Procurement. In otherinstances, you can scan through the local telephone directory under “UnitedStates Government.” Look for such offices as Training, Director ofInformation, Management (DOIM), Research, Audio/Visual Services,Telecommunication Services, or Procurement and Contracting. Additionally,you will want to contact the small business advisor located within thelarger base facilities, who can provide you with valuable information onhow to proceed in obtaining government business at that facility. This sameinformation will apply to other government agencies. The government alsosupplies information to you through its information centers, businessservice centers and customer service centers, !located in each of the 11 GSA regions. Finally, stay current on local meetings and trade shows in which youmight find an opportunity to meet with government end users outside theiroffices.
After establishing this file of front doors, you are ready to introduceyourself to the government. Become familiar with the guidelines that thegovernment uses to distinguish between a large business, a small businessand a small and disadvantaged business (SADBUS). Most contractors fall intothe small business category, but if you provide equipment from othercompanies as their representative, then the government may consider you alarge company. Use the information centers to determine your class becausethere are different rules for the way each business is treated.
Visit the user
Using the front doors that you have uncovered, make appointments to meetthe identified users. Take a few minutes to learn about their departmentsfrom government manuals before calling. This extra effort tells them thatyou value their time. Upon making contact, ask what their A-V objectivesare and what equipment they anticipate needing. Have an outline of thequestions you want to ask. Although you may hear questions that you had notanticipated, do not wing it with bizarre answers. Also, a short tour of theuser’s facility is a source of pride for them and informative for you. Evenif you are told that there is no purchase planned, indicate that you wouldstill like to meet with the government agent at his convenience. Showinterest in the agency’s projects, and let its agent know that you wouldlike to see any innovative ways they use A-V equipment.
Once you have set a scheduled meeting, be prompt, properly dressed andbrief. Make sure you leave a contract with them, and be prepared to deliverappropriate catalogs or spec sheets. Do not simply leave spec sheets withthe prospect. You may want to wait until you can develop a meaningfulproposal involving the user’s requirements. Handing someone spec sheets topass the day will not generate sales and may discourage a future callbecause the user will believe that he has all he needs from you. As youtalk to the user, try to establish what motivates his section and ask aboutany specific problems or requirements. This person may listen to your ideaswith quick interest, but he may turn off just as fast if you have the wronganswers or appear that you do not understand the situation. If you do nottake time to understand the user’s problem, he will make time for acompetitor who does.
Most importantly, do not push your service until you have a reason.Government users who feel you are trying to solve their problems will wantto know more about your business, its services and, ultimately, more aboutyour contract. Do not assume the user is a purchasing expert; most are not.
The procurement officer
You must make an appointment to meet with the procurement officer. Inlarger offices, procurement officers may be assigned to purchase specificcommodity types, so you should determine who specifically has theresponsibility for purchasing Group 58 (communications equipment) products.In your meeting, find out the rules of the base or department, who are thecorrect people to visit, the best way to make yourself available to them,and how they decidewhen to bid a requisition rather than use GSA contracts.Also, request a telephone directory and any organizational charts that youdo not already have. Leave your business card and GSA contract with yourcompany information with the procurement officer. Do not be concerned withspecific product at this point unless asked. Your purpose here is to beintroduced to the personnel who will eventually hire your company.
The procurement officer can serve you in many ways. He can provide a listof potential users for you to make arrangements to meet, procurementrequirement information and current purchases by the agency or department,and forms, regulations and procedures, which will give you a chance torequest any special regulations concerning A-V products. Some procurementoffices will require you to register with them before and after visitingthem and end users. By not following these local regulations, you mayunwittingly be excluded from receiving government purchase orders. Be sureto allow time for these before appointment tasks. After visiting theprocurement officer, do not canvass any government building unless givenpermission. Normally, the individuals you want to see will requireappointments. Finally, just because you went into one procurement office onan installation, do not assume it does all the buying for all activities.Sometimes several procurement offices coexist on a !given installation, all of which may purchase A-V equipment and services.
Surely your visits and continued assistance will generate the need for youruser to see the equipment you are recommending for purchase. To accomplishthis, reserve a meeting room for the time required for setup anddemonstrations. In advance, satisfy all requirements for entering andleaving a government installation with personal equipment. Also, bring allthe components necessary for a successful demo, including necessary cables,connectors and AC strips. Do not compromise your demo by assuming that theend user has required accessory equipment. Guarantee the cleanest demopossible.
When you begin your demonstrations, speak to the selling points youdiscussed with the user. Tailor your presentation to focus directly on theuser’s needs. Even though you may not immediately receive a purchase order,this is when you will close the sale. Keep foremost in your mind that ourgovernment will buy the equipment that fits its needs. Finally, invite thegovernment users to shows, exhibitions or open houses you may be planningconcerning your products and services. This provides another avenue forcontact to keep users abreast and for extra opportunities to demonstrateyour goods and services.
The proposal (or justification)
With users who are not in any immediate need of equipment or services, yournext step is to follow up with new product introductions or any otheruseful information. With users who are interested in getting to know yourservices or products and are interested in a future purchase, the next stepwill be developing a proposal. This proposal (sometimes called ajustification) is to be a presentation that will show your professionalismand salesmanship. If written properly, it will be in your favor if theformat you choose for your proposal happens to mirror your user’s localrequisition format. This proposal will represent your business through theprocurement process and must follow the guidelines of the government.
Never assume that departments using A-V equipment will have these obvioustitles. Look for such categories of application as documentation,surveillance, security, training, government software products,distribution network and medical. Also, establish yourself as a reliablesource of information with the procurement officer and government users.
Know the user’s potential budget so that you will make reasonablerecommendations that are in line with his ability to purchase. Although thegovernment may plan a budget in late winter, it may not initiate the actualprocurement until the end of the following fiscal year. Position yourselfso that when money is available, the user will think of your business andits services.
Once you master the basic principles of doing business with the federalgovernment, you will become an asset to the system. For continued success,review these principles often because you will soon find that there are twoways to do things – the wrong way and the government’s way.