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Articles Outlining Business Development Techniques and Strategies to Accelerate Small Business Government Contracts. The articles in this category provide background, discussion, and recommendations for entrepreneurs and small business owners. 

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How and Where to Conduct Research Prior to Meeting with a Government Prospect

on Thursday, 14 April 2016. Posted in Techniques & Strategies

Have you ever had a meeting with a government prospect that didn't go the way you had hoped?  Or worse, you think the meeting went great, but then you never hear from the prospect again or they won't take your calls?  This is a very familiar scenario for government contractors.
 
Research will not only improve your meetings, but also increase your chances of winning contracts on the backend of a successful meeting.  I'm amazed at how many companies "wing it" when it comes to prospect meetings.  A lot of contractors walk into meetings with a plan to deliver their capabilities statement; talk about their company, products, and services; and ask about opportunities.  This is a recipe for looking and sounding like every other contractor.  And you don't want that.  You want to differentiate yourself and your company from every other contractor that the prospect has talked to.  And that requires an education / research on your part.  Luckily, there are a multitude of online resources you can use to educate yourself on your prospect before your first meeting.  And the good news is that this research shouldn't take you more than 1 to 2 hours to do.  It just depends on the volume of information available for your NAICS codes and the type of products / services you provide.
 
The first tool I suggest you check out is FPDS.  The Federal Procurement Data System is the most comprehensive free tool available to government contractors for determining who buys what you sell.  You can break down buying history by NAICS, PSC, Place of Performance, Agency, Department, and many other factors.  This allows you to quickly and easily determine if you should even be meeting with a prospect as well as how much they typically spend on your products.
 
FBO is typically the next place I suggest you use for research.  It's very easy to go into FBO and lookup an organization to see if there are any open solicitations for your products / services.  Make a list of any opportunities that relate to your company and be prepared to ask questions about them.  I'm not saying that is where your focus should be in the meeting, but it is something you need to be prepared for.  Something I might say in a meeting is, "I noticed you that you currently have 15 solicitations that relate to our products / services.  If you were us, which ones would you recommend we focus on?"  This is a great question to ask because you are likely to get expert advice on where you should spend your time.  Who better to tell you this than the prospect?
 
Every prospect you will EVER come into contact with is connected to a Small Business Office, officially known as the Office of Small Business (OSB) and has a small business officer.  That small business officer should be able to tell you all about the prospect you are meeting.  Now I will throw out the disclaimer that this is just like anything else in the world.  Some small business offices just aren't very helpful or knowledgeable.  The fastest way to determine if an OSB is worth your time is to ask them if they work closely with your prospects on solicitations before they are made public.  What you are probing for here is to find out their actual influence over the acquisition process.  The officers who work closely with the prospect in pre-acquisition are the ones that are going to know about opportunities BEFORE they hit the street as well as go to bat for you if the prospect tries to make a solicitation full and open as opposed to 8a, SDVOSB or whatever it should be.
 
Agency / Department or Location Sites - It's worth a quick search online to see if the prospect you are meeting with has an individual location website as well as if they are posting opportunities on acquisition websites outside of FBO.  Depending on the prospect and the size of the solicitation, organizations utilize many different websites to post opportunities.  For example, the Intelligence Community ARC, Navy NECO, or DLA DIBBS to name a few.
 
Last but certainly not least, you can always Google the prospect.  I like to google terms such as "prospect name" and contracts or solicitation, "prospect name" and press release, and simply "prospect name".  These three searches should return several quick results that you can scan to learn more about the prospect as well as the latest news on them.  For example, you could find out that their entire budget has just been frozen for six months.  This is something you should know before your meeting.
 
This next step is what turns research into actionable intelligence.  Use all of this research to build your meeting strategy.  Map out the questions you want to ask, what questions you should be prepared to answer, your goals and objectives for the meeting, what materials if any that you bring to the meeting, and think through and strategize about the possible scenarios.
 
Follow these simple tips and you will not only get better at conducting research prior to a meeting, you will get better at determining what is actionable intelligence and what is just "good to know" information and you will definitely get better at conducting your prospect meetings.
 
For more information on this topic, please check out the Federal Access Webinar:  How to Engage and Position During Government Prospect Meetings.  This session will realign your expectations on what to actually focus on during an initial prospect meeting.  To register for the webinar just Click Here.
 
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Michael LeJeune is a Partner and Federal Access Program Manager at RSM Federal, a federal consulting and business-acceleration strategy firm that helps businesses in accelerating the education and processes necessary to winning government contracts. For more information, videos, and contact information, please visit www.rsmfederal.com

What You Should Know About the Top 4 Socio-Economic Certifications

on Thursday, 10 March 2016. Posted in Techniques & Strategies

The goal behind having these socio-economic status certifications is to help level the playing field for small businesses so that they can compete fairly against larger businesses with more resources.  The key part of that statement is "compete fairly".  Many companies believe that a socio-economic status entitles them to automatically win contracts. That is just not true.

Yes there are set asides and simplified acquisitions that in theory do improve opportunities for smaller businesses.  With the exception of 8(a), most statuses still require the 'rule of two.' Meaning that the contracting officer has a reasonable expectation that at least two or more companies (even disadvantaged companies) will submit an offer. There are situations where a sole source contract can and will be awarded when there is only one possible source or only one possible offer.  But this is increasingly rare.

The challenge for small business is that not every agency or organization is using these to their fullest potential AND you still have to communicate value. A socio-economic status without proven value is worthless.

The hard truth about socio-economic certifications is that they don't, on their own, win government contracts.  You still have to provide a great product or service and you still need to understand how to differentiate your company from your competitors. This article provides a short breakdown of the facts and eligibility requirements for the major socio-economic statuses. If you are interested in learning more about how to successfully position your status, follow us on LinkedIn and review the dozens of documents, videos, and other resources in Federal Access.

Quick side note - whether or not you complete and submit certification packets on your own or you pay someone to do it for you... our recommendations are the same as for submitting a GSA Schedule application. Whenever possible, you should try to do it yourself first. The whole discussion on whether or not you should do something or outsource it is covered fully in our article on Scams and Pitfalls published in January 2016. Click here to learn more.

Here is a breakdown of the top 4 federal socio-economic certification programs and what you should know about them.

1.  Woman Owned Small Business (WOSB) or EDWOSB (Economically Disadvantaged) https://www.sba.gov/content/women-owned-small-business-program

Key Facts:

  • You can no longer self certify. The 2015 NDAA revised a small portion of the Small Business Act. The language on self-certification has been deleted. As of the date of this article, the four third-party certifiers approved by the SBA are the El Paso Hispanic Chamber of Congress, the National Women Business Owner's Corporation, the US Women's Chamber of Commerce, and the WBENC.
  • See FAR 19.15 for more information on WOSB Program.
  • NAICS codes are assigned to industries that are substantially underrepresented by WOSBs.

Eligibility Requirements:

  • Must meet small business size standard for primary NAICS Code and contract.
  • At least 51% of the business must be owned by women who are U.S. citizens.
  • The woman must manage the day-to-day operations of the business as well as make long-term decisions for the business.
  • The woman owner must hold the highest officer position in the company and work full-time in the business.

Additional Requirements for EDWOSBs Only:

  • Personal net worth is less than $750K.
  • Excludes:  ownership in business and primary personal residence, income invested or use to pay taxes of the business, funds reinvested in IRA or other retirement accounts, transferred assets within two years if to or on behalf of a family member for select purposes.
  • Adjusted gross income average over three years is $350K or less.
  • Excluding income reinvested or used to pay taxes of the business.
  • Fair market value of assets is $6 million or less.
  • Excluding funds reinvested in IRA or other official retirement accounts.

2.    8a Small Business Development Program - https://www.sba.gov/content/8a-application-checklist

Key Facts:

  • See FAR 19.8 for more information on the 8a program.

Eligibility Requirements:

  • Social Disadvantage - Must be Hispanic American, Asian American, Black American, Native American, or a person who has experienced chronic discrimination against you on the basis of disability, gender, veteran status, race, culture or some other factor.
  • Personal net worth must be under 250K.
  • The 8a applicant must be the highest paid person in the company and your salary must be reasonable for your industry and a reasonable proportion of your company's annual gross revenues.
  • The 8a applicant's current market value of all of their assets must be under $4 million.
  • Adjusted Gross Income (AGI) must be under 200K.
  • Must be able to prove American citizenship with a birth certificate, passport, or other documentation.
  • Must meet SBA small business size standards.  This is based on your primary NAICS code.
  • The applicant must have full control of the company, own 51% or more of the company, and be engaged full-time in the business.
  • The applicant's company must contract history with at least one contract completed in the past 12 months.
  • Must have two or more completed tax returns that display the economic viability of your company.
  • Applicants with felony convictions or on parole are not allowed to receive this certification.
  • The applicant and all owners, directors, officers, etc., must be current on all federal financial obligations such as taxes, student loans, etc.
  • Company financials must show a minimum of 3 months of working capital via cash in business accounts or a combination of cash, credit, and loan resources.

3.    Historically Underutilized Business Zones (HUBZone) - https://www.sba.gov/contracting/government-contracting-programs/hubzone

Key Facts:

  • See FAR 19.13 for more information on HUBZone

Eligibility Requirements:

  • Small business size standards apply for your primary NAICS Code.
  • Primary difference between this certification and other small business certifications is that 35% or more of all of the company's employees must reside in the HUBZone and the primary office for the business must be in the HUBZone.
  • Certify that when performing HUBZone contracts, at least 35% of employees engaged in the contract live in the HUBZone.
  • Must meet at least one of the following:
    • 51% or more owned by a U.S. citizen.
    • Wholly owned, owned in part, owned by a joint venture or partnership by one or more Indian Tribal Governments.
    • Owned by a small agricultural cooperative.

4.    Service Disabled Veteran Owned Small Business (SDVOSB) - http://www.va.gov/osdbu/verification/ and https://www.sba.gov/sdvosb

Key Facts:

  • Certification is through the CVE at Veterans Affairs.
  • See FAR 19.14 for more information on SDVOSB.

Eligibility Requirements:

  • The Service Disabled Veteran must have a service-connected disability that been determined by the Department of Veteran Affairs.
  • Must meet the small business requirements for the NAICS code assigned to the solicitation.
  • Must own 51% of the company, control the management of the company, and hold the highest officer position in the company.

 

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Michael LeJeune is a Partner and Federal Access Program Manager at RSM Federal, a federal consulting and business-acceleration strategy firm that helps businesses in accelerating the education and processes necessary to winning government contracts. For more information, videos, and contact information, please visit www.rsmfederal.com

7 Steps to Crafting the Perfect Trade Show Call to Action (CTA)

on Friday, 12 February 2016. Posted in Instructional, Techniques & Strategies

Trade Shows / Conferences are one of the most expensive marketing costs that many companies will invest in. So it makes sense to go into each event with a strong game plan for how your company will achieve the maximum Return on Investment (ROI) for the event. How many times have you heard the phrase "trade shows are a waste of time and money" from one of your colleagues? Probably a lot. In fact, many companies despise trade shows because they don't achieve the results they want and feel like it costs the company money instead of making it money.

The reason most companies don't get ROI out of events like this boils down to one simple problem that you can fix before your next event. It's called a Call to Action or CTA. A call to action is simply a CLEAR ACTION that you would like prospects to take. Now before I get into the steps to creating a call to action, let me be clear about something. There is such a thing as a bad CTA. So if you think you have a CTA, but you aren't getting the results you want, you may need to review the CTA to see if it's any good.

In our business, we are always testing our CTA's with sample lists to see what our conversion rates are. My sample lists typically consist of 2,500 blind emails. These are people that have never heard of us. The reason I do this is that I want an unbiased review of the CTA to see what the worst response possible is going to look like. Because if we can get a decent response from a blind list, I know I'm going to get a good response from people that know us.

So let's talk about how to craft the perfect trade show CTA.

1. Start with a Goal in mind. When I use the word goal here, I'm not saying: How many sales do you want or what is your overall goal for the event. I'm simply saying: What action do you want people to take when they see your CTA? What you should be thinking is: How do I get qualified people into my system / pipeline / funnel? You DON'T want raw volume here. You want qualified prospects. And the best way to do this is to have a really juicy piece of irresistible content that you are giving out.

We give out something called the Government Contractor's Success Kit. The kit comes with some really cool templates, a graphics pack, and a bonus video. Go check it out here: http://www.rsmfederal.com/linkedin

When we go to conferences, we hand out cards with how to download the kit on the back and we offer it at the end of our talks. Our goal is to generate 100+ downloads of this kit at each conference.
So why is this the main CTA that we use? Because we have tested it against several other CTA's and it performs the best. It has the highest conversion rate from a blind subscriber to downloading the kit and it's an easy entry point into our system. When used in combination with other tripwires, it produces amazing results. I explain more about tripwires below.

2. Make it easy, but not effortless. The one CTA that I hate at events is the old drop your card in the bowl to win a TV or something. That CTA is effortless and it puts a lot of unqualified prospects in your database. Which clutters up your database. Quick bit of marketing trivia. Did you know that a single unqualified lead in your database is estimated to cost as much as $1,000 over the course of time? Think about if for a second. If you market to them just like they are qualified, you may spend $500 on postage, direct mail pieces, and phone calls alone. AND unqualified prospects suck precious minutes out of your day that you should be spending talking to qualified prospect.

So back to my point of making your event CTA's easy, but not effortless. There are a lot of ways to do this. We love using a handout like a business card or postcard with a link on it. This also allows you to setup custom url's so you can track where leads come from. You can also use QR codes, setup signup stations in your booth, use social media (got to our facebook page to get the download), or use other handouts / chotchkies to accomplish this.

Filling out an application or watching a demo is not easy. Don't do that. It's irritating.

3. Remove the risk. Before you can remove risk, you have to understand what is risky to a cold prospect. Being asked to fill out 15 fields of information (that are all mandatory) is risky. Most people are willing to give you their name and email. That's not nearly as risky as giving out a phone number and mailing address.

So when you are asking people to fill out a form, just ask for name and email. It's proven that this method converts the highest and it's also proven that qualified prospects won't typically give you their phone number and / or mailing address without having a stronger relationship with you or your company.

4. Qualify the prospect. The easiest way to do this is to create an offer for your CTA that matches the biggest needs of your ideal prospects AND lines up with a service that you want to provide them.
Back to our Government Contractor's Success Kit for the example here. Our headline on our CTA is: Win More Government Contracts. Download the Government Contractor's Success Kit Today. This headline talks about a need of our ideal prospects. To win more government contracts. AND it ties to our services, which helps our clients win more government contracts.

Now, this doesn't eliminate the people who can't afford our services, but it does focus in on people who have winning more contracts as a top priority and that gets us a step closer to qualified. Our tripwires help qualify people even further. But you get the idea. This CTA will only attract people who want to win more contracts and it will position us as a company who can help with this. How does winning a free TV qualify people? It doesn't. It just puts business cards in a bowl.

5. Make it scalable. Scalable equals automation and technology. I try to only use systems where people are putting their information in on their phone, tablet, or computer. It's just not feasible for me to do this any other way. That is why I love sending people to a form on our website. This allows the prospect to enter in their own information (saving me time and money) and it also increases the accuracy of the data. If you have your own people inputting data, you will almost always have errors and lost leads because of those errors.

Making the collection of information scalable also allows you to use the CTA in multiple places. For us, we get to use the same CTA at our booth, while walking around the event, and while we are speaking from the stage.

Another thing you will want to do is integrate your marketing system with your CTA. For example, have the signup form on your website add the lead to your Constant Contact, Infusionsoft, or whatever email system you are using. If you have an autoresponder, have the new lead assigned to the autoresponder so they get your drip marketing.

Another reason I like having people input their own data is that it requires a little bit of effort. I want someone to go through a few hoops to get to me. It shows they have interest. If you make it too easy to reach you, you will be bombarded with unqualified leads.

6. Add in some Tripwires. This is probably my favorite step in the process. Tripwires are a simple and great way to engage your prospects at multiple levels and to further qualify them. The concept is very simple. Think about what you have to offer your prospects for free or even low cost and gently sprinkle that into the process of signing up for the original CTA.

If you want to see this in action, go to check out our Government Contractor's Success Kit page at http://www.rsmfederal.com/linkedin. When you sign up for the kit, you will be redirected to a page where you can download the kit. Directly below the kit is an offer to sign up for one of our free webinars. If you sign up for the free webinar, you will see another CTA (tripwire) for our free trial of the Federal Access program. Once in the Federal Access program, there are other CTA's to attend webinars as well as to upgrade to the full system.

7. Measure it. Last but not least, you have to measure your CTA's to find out what works best. I try to test 6 to 10 at a time. Once I have a winner, I will often play with the headline, message body, and even the unsubscribe notice to see what converts best. Marketing is all about math and knowing your numbers. What performs the best and what generates sales. A high conversion rate of "subscribers" may not be the right CTA for your company if it doesn't generate sales. In fact, sometimes you will find that a CTA with a lower upfront conversion rate may generate more sales in the long run because of something simple like the subject.

For example, you will have a high conversion rate for giving out a free TV, but the odds are slim that it will generate sales for your company unless you sell TV accessories. That is why it's so important to measure everything at every step. In our business, I not only measure the initial conversion rate, I measure the conversion rate from step to step and the overall conversion rate from lead to sale. This helps me make marketing decisions based on data and facts instead of gut feelings.

Bonus Tip: Be Prepared to Be Patient.

I get asked a lot how I became so good at marketing. My answer is simple. I try a lot of stuff and make note of what works and what doesn't. I stop doing what doesn't work and I ramp up what does work. It's not a complicated formula, but the average person / business owner wants to craft the perfect CTA on the first round in a vacuum and have it work. That is NOT a good formula for success.
If you want long-term success, create a dozen CTA's. Create multiple headlines for them, and test the crap out of them. That's the formula for crafting the perfect CTA.

Need help crafting the perfect CTA for your company?

Send me an email at mlejeune@rsmfederal.com and I'll be happy to setup a call with you.

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Michael LeJeune is a Partner and Federal Access Program Manager at RSM Federal, a federal coaching and consulting business-acceleration strategy firm that helps companies accelerate the education, techniques, strategies, and processes necessary to winning government contracts. For more information, videos, and contact information, please visit www.rsmfederal.com

You Don't Win Government Contracts With Your Socio-Economic Status

on Friday, 11 December 2015. Posted in Techniques & Strategies

A socio-economic status is a powerful differentiator. That's it. It's a differentiator.

My team has worked with thousands of companies and this is a common challenge and misperception amongst small businesses.

Tell me if this sounds familiar?

  • Business cards where your socio-economic status logo is just as large as your corporate logo?
  • When you look at the homepage of your website, all of your socio-economic statuses have logos that are built into the top graphic of your homepage or they are elsewhere on the page... and they're at least an inch in diameter? 
  • Your capability statement (line card, project list, etc.) has your socio-economic logo(s) at the top where it's the first thing you see when you look down?
  • Your website and marketing materials start with, "We're a small woman-owned business that provides..." or "We're an 8a, woman-owned small business that provides..."
  • When you walk into a meeting with a prospect or potential teaming partner, you start your 45 second introduction with "We're an 8a or woman owned or service disabled veteran owned... etc."

In general, this is the norm for many small businesses. I'm going to explain why it's wrong, why it minimizes the value of what you provide, and how you should communicate your status. Don't take my word for it. Our Federal Access Members have won more than $1.5 Billion in small business contracts since 2011.

Yes, I know - this is what you've been told to do. Small business offices, your mentors, your colleagues, and the various non-profits funded by DoD and your local community all tell you to, "Put it front and center! There are federally mandated set-aside levels for your company! Larger companies and potential partners have sub-contracting plans that require that they team with companies just like yours! Use your status!"

This does NOT make smart business sense and I'll explain why.

Softly Communicate Your Status

For the last three years, I've supported the SBA's Emerging Leader's Program. As part of that support, I work alongside various state and federal contracting officers, associations, and organizations that focus on supporting the small business community. During a class, several months ago, I made the point that regardless of market (commercial or government), you need to "softly" utilize your socio-economic status(s). The Director of one of our local non-profits, that focuses on helping small businesses get into government, very forcefully told the class that I didn't know what I was talking about. I sat there and waited for someone to ask why? Eventually someone asked me to explain and when I did, every business owner in the class agreed. For the Director of our local non-profit - it's not her fault. It's how she was trained, how she trains her counselors, and it's why most small businesses start most introductions with their status and size.

Think about this:

A prospect (government or commercial) buys from you because of the value you provide. It's not because of your products or services. There are hundreds of companies that sell what you sell. It's not because of your socio-economic status. You can have two or three statuses but if you don't convince your prospect that you're competent, your status doesn't matter. Not to mention your status is not as strong a differentiator as you've been led to believe. Sure, it's a differentiator but you don't win contracts because of it.

It's not what you sell. It's the value of the products or services that you provide. It's not the statuses or certifications your company holds. Those are just regulatory buckets. Yes, the government can sole source 8a contracts. Yes, the government can sole source 8m (WOSB) contracts - but you can read an earlier post about how unlikely and difficult it is to actually win an 8m sole source contract. Your company will NOT win a set-aside contract if you don't convince the prospect that the value of what you provide is outstanding.

Now some of you are thinking, "These are just semantics." To some extent, you're correct. But from a business perspective, this is more than semantics. It's about how you approach the market, position your company with prospects and partners, and how you differentiate a level of maturity that is not commonly found in small business.

What Happens When You Focus On Value

One of our Members asked for help preparing for a meeting with a senior contracting official at Fort Leavenworth in Kansas. We discussed how to approach the meeting and how to follow-up. Most important, we told them not to mention their socio-economic statuses during their 45 second introduction. (They are 8a, WOSB, and Native American.) The meeting was going well, the business owner gave a short overview of the company, immediately took control of the discussion, and about 30 minutes into the meeting, it came out that she had multiple socio-economic statuses.

The contracting officer leaned forward and said, "We have contracting goals that require that we work with companies like yours. Why didn't you tell me you had all these statuses!"

She said, "Because that's now who we are. That's not the value we provide." The contracting officer leaned back and said, "That's the best answer I've ever heard."

Until that point, the owner focused on collecting intelligence and communicating the value of her products and services. There are so many other techniques and strategies that had a role during this meeting but that's for another time.

Just remember this - it's not what you sell. It's not your socio-economic status. It's the qualifiable and quantifiable value that you communicate to your prospects and partners. Don't worry, you're socio-economic status will eventually come into every discussion. But you should never lead with it! Do the capture managers for Northrup Grumman or Lockheed Martin introduce themselves as, "Hi, I'm John with Lockheed and we're a large business that provides..."? Of course not. They rely on their past performance and the perceived value of their company. Yes, we all know they're a large company but why do only small businesses introduce themselves with their size?

Yes - this is commonly accepted and taught to most small companies. But from a business perspective, it makes little sense.

This is why you don't put your status on the front of your business card; why you don't put it front and center on your homepage, and why you should stop introducing your company as a status.

You're not a status. You're a company that provides value.

 

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Joshua P. Frank is Managing Partner for RSM Federal, founded in 2008, a federal coaching and business-acceleration strategy firm that helps businesses in accelerating the education, techniques, strategies, and processes necessary to winning government contracts.

This article referenced the Federal Access Program.

For more information, visit http://www.rsmfederal.com

How to Market to the Government: Step 1 - Getting to Know Your Customer

on Friday, 11 December 2015. Posted in Instructional, Techniques & Strategies

The Tools

One of the great things about selling to the government is that it is fairly easy to research who buys what you sell.  My favorite tool for researching this is the Federal Procurement Data System or FPDS.  You can search the tool by NAICS code/s, Agency, Department, Place of Performance, Keyword, and just over 320 other fields if you create a free account and use the Adhoc reports.  Just visit www.fpds.gov for more information on FPDS.  You can also check out this free FPDS Tutorial video we shot on how to use pivot tables and conduct basic FPDS searches.

Once you have the data from FPDS, I suggest searching FedBizOpps / FBO.  Search specifically on the agencies / organizations that you found in FPDS that are the top buyers of your services and look at all opportunities.  You are not necessarily looking to bid on an opportunity at this stage.  You are looking for intelligence on the organizations you want to sell to.  What types of solicitations are they putting out?  What is the average value of their solicitations?  How many solicitations do they have open at any given time?  What else can you learn from reviewing the opportunities in FBO?  Hint:  Multiple solicitations for products / services you sell means they are serious about buying those.  So pay close attention to that organization.

Calls You Should Make

Once you zero in on an organization you want to work with, I suggest calling the Small Business Office (OSBP /OSDBU).  Every organization has a person like this whose whole job is to help YOU learn how to sell to that particular organization.  In some cases, this person heavily influences acquisitions for that organization.  For example, if they are aware of a SDVOSB that can do the work they will tell that organization that the solicitation should be SDVOSB instead of full and open.  But this only happens if they know about your company.  Here is a list of the Federal OSDBU Directors and their contact information.

The Procurement Center Representatives and Area Directors for your geographic region can be a source of great information.  PCR's can answer specific contracting questions in their area and help you make connections to other PCR's.

You will also want to call the contracting officers specific to the organization you want to do business with.  One of the easiest ways to get this contact information is to ask the OSDBU (Office of Small Business) or to do a quick search on FBO for that organization.  Solicitations on FBO usually have at least one if not multiple contracting officers listed at the bottom of the solicitation.

Questions You Should Ask

This list of questions applies to discussions with the OSDBU, PCR's, and Contracting Officers CO's.  While this list isn't exhaustive, it should give you a good start and help guide your discussions.  NOTE:  Don't expect for everyone you call to be willing to answer all these questions.  It may help to just ask a few, thank the person, and then call back with additional questions.  But, here is a little trick that I've found to getting help from just about any government employee.  When you call, say the following:  "Hi there, I'm [your name] with [your company] I was wondering if you could help me with something?  [Pause - they will say yes]  I'm new government contracting.  We've done a bit of research and it looks like your organization buys what we sell, but I have no clue where to start.  Can you help me get started?"  They will yes and probably give you a little information and then you can start asking questions.

  • How does your agency procure the products / services I sell?
  • Can you help me understand your procurement process?
  • How should I market / sell to this organization?
  • Do you have an Approved Vendor list?  If so, how do I get on it?
  • Do you utilize simplified acquisitions?
  • How important are small business goals?
  • Are there any important conferences or industry days that we should plan on attending?
  • Can you introduce me to the conference coordinators?
  • What big projects do you have on your radar for the next 6-12 months?
  • What contract vehicles do you use the most?
  • If you were me, who else would you be talking to?
  • Can you make an email introduction for me?

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Michael LeJeune is a Partner and Federal Access Program Manager at RSM Federal, a federal consulting and business-acceleration strategy firm that helps businesses in accelerating the education and processes necessary to winning government contracts. For more information, videos, and contact information, please visit www.rsmfederal.com

The Cycle of Successful Planning

on Tuesday, 10 November 2015. Posted in Techniques & Strategies

Business planning is one of the most undervalued keys to running a successful company. The challenge for most companies is that they don't have a formal process for planning. The objective of this article is to help you understand what that cycle should look like as well as what you should be doing during your planning sessions.

One of the biggest advantages of proper planning is that it transforms your company from being mostly reactive to proactive. In military terms, it converts you from a tactical force returning fire, to a strategic force calling the shots.

First, let me address what the cycle of planning looks like. You should be taking time out of your business each year to conduct an extensive planning session. I actually suggest 2 to 3 days of off-site planning with your core team. Think about it this way, is it worth 2 or 3 days and the investment of hotels, meals, etc. in order plan for the next 362 days? Of course it is. It's a small investment in the scheme of things.

CycleOfPlanning

This off-site meeting should include a formal agenda, work sessions, breaks, team activities, any training you want to conduct, and a celebration activity for the last year.

Your planning session should start off with a Review of last year and your previous plan. What were your biggest successes? What are your biggest lessons learned? How can you improve on your plan for next year? Take time to also review your financials, marketing strategies, sales figures, statuses of ongoing projects, employees, customers, KPI's, and any additional metrics that are important to your business. Include all of this in your opening discussions and then move into goal setting.

Goal Setting is a very strange process. The average person will underestimate what they can accomplish over the course of a year, but overestimate what they can accomplish in a month. You need to find a balance between the two. What I have found to be the best way to approach goal setting is to start by looking 5 years out and then work backwards. Let's use a revenue goal as an example. Let's say that in 5 years you want to have a $10 million dollar company. Your 5 year goal should be $10 million in annual revenues. Working backwards from 5 years, you would then set a 3 year goal for say $5 million in revenues, and a 1 year goal for $1 million in revenues. Now you have a 1 year goal that is probably achievable.

The next step is taking your 1 year goals and breaking them down to quarterly goals using the same method as above. You will start with a 12 month goal of $1 million in revenues, a 9 month goal of 750K, a 6 month goal of 500K, and a 3 month goal of 250K. These numbers are not exact, but they give you an idea of how to break down your 5 year goals into quarterly goals that you can focus on.

My suggestion is to list all of our goals then work through this method to create quarterly milestone goals. So what about goals that aren't number or metric related? Break down the components of your goal and figure out how much time it will take to achieve them. For example, if you want to implement a new website by the end of Q3, what steps need to happen each month to make this possible? Once you know this, figure out how much time it takes per step, build in some contingency time, and then roll that into your plan.

Once your goal setting is done, you enter the phase of Brainstorming. Brainstorming is the process of looking at your goals and looking for the best solutions to help you achieve your goals. The heart of brainstorming involves creating a safe place for ideas and innovation. All ideas are welcome - even if they sound like bad ideas. The point is to get your creative juices flowing by spitting out everything on your mind. I've often found that even a "bad idea" can lead to a brilliant solution simply by putting it on the table as a possibility. So encourage your team to think and share freely.

The other key concept in true brainstorming is not to tear apart every idea as you come up with them. Save that for the very end of this session. Initially you just want to encourage every possible idea. Once you are sure you have all the ideas on the table, rank them and create a top 5 or 10. Save the other ideas for the future and then debate the last 5 or 10 until you whittle your list down to the ideas you will stick with.

The next step in the cycle of planning is the actual Planning. This is where you will conduct your work sessions, produce documentation, and create department / project plans, and calendars. The bulk of the work happens here. Just take notice of what it took to get to this stage. A lot of "planning" and discussion needs to take place before you are truly ready to produce the heart of your plans.

Depending on the size of your team, I often suggest breaking the planning down by departments and letting the heads of those departments work on their plans with their key folks. Does this mean that you have 20 people at your planning session for 3 days? Not necessarily. You could have key department personnel arrive on day 2 to work with their department heads. Use your judgement, but don't skimp on this process. Bring in everyone who needs to be there.

Your ultimate goal of this step in the planning process is for every department to walk away with a one or two page plan for the next 90 days. The plan should outline their key objectives / goals, a list of activities they need to DO in order to accomplish their goals, and any supporting documentation they need such as calendars, charts, etc.

Lastly, I recommend a Final Review. Review your goals, brainstorming, and planning and make sure that it all makes sense and that you haven't forgotten anything or skipped over a brilliant idea. I suggest saving this for the morning of the last day after you have had a good night's sleep. That gives your brain time to think about your plans and evaluate them. Go around the room and get input from everyone before putting the plan to bed.

Once your planning is complete, I suggest finding a way to celebrate your wins with your team. It could be a really nice dinner out, a concert, a sporting event, or some sightseeing. The point here is that it's very easy to get focused on the hamster wheel of work, work, work and that is a sure fire way to burnout your people. Everyone on your team (including the owners) deserve a break to kick back and celebrate all you have accomplished. It also gives you and your team something to look forward to at the next planning session.

BreakdownOfPlanningDays

For more information on this topic, please check out the Federal Access Webinar: What to focus on and prioritize during the holidays. This session will help you maximize what others consider "down time" in their business and give you a competitive edge over your competition. To register for the webinar just Click Here.

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Michael LeJeune is a Partner and Federal Access Program Manager at RSM Federal, a federal consulting and business-acceleration strategy firm that helps businesses in accelerating the education and processes necessary to winning government contracts. For more information, videos, and contact information, please visit www.rsmfederal.com

5 Ways You Should Be Following Up With Every Prospect

on Friday, 16 October 2015. Posted in Techniques & Strategies

Have you ever had an "awesome" meeting with a prospect only to never hear from them again? If you are anything like most companies, this is a fairly common occurrence. What I've found is that this is mainly due to follow up or should I say a lack of proper follow up. The good news is that a little planning and a little follow up will go a LONG way for you.

Now before I get into my tips for follow up, I want to point out the obvious. You've most likely heard of these and you might even be using some of these. So this shouldn't come as a shock to you, but... And this is a big BUT... Most people reading this aren't executing these tips properly. And if I may say so, execution of an idea is more important than the idea itself. So please pay attention to the execution of these ideas.

1. Set a follow up meeting - One of the last things I always ask before I end a meeting is to set a follow up meeting. Regardless of whether that meeting is in a couple of days or six months out, you want to get on the calendar of your prospect before you end a meeting. This means you need to be prepared with your calendar. I personally find it very frustrating in this day and age when someone tells me they will check their calendar when they get back to the office. Get a smart phone or carry a printed copy of your calendar. I also suggest sending out a meeting invite via your calendar. It's just another way to follow up and it puts the meeting on their calendar as well.

One way to ensure you book a follow up is to say something like, 'If it's ok with you, I'd like to set a follow up with you. How does next Tuesday at 1 or Thursday at 3 look for you?" It's that simple.

2. Thank you email - This is one of the first things I do after I finish a meeting. I do this for three reasons. 1. It's professional - This let's your prospect know that you are a professional at what you do and it's a nice courtesy. 2. Communicate action items - I will often recap any action items on both sides and reinforce the delivery date of what I agreed to in the meeting. 3. Sets a tone - This shows the prospect how I plan to conduct myself and the moment I follow up on my word and deliver action items, I immediately start gaining credibility with the prospect. This is a great way to set a baseline of expectations and I've found that prospects love clear communication and companies that do what they say they are going to do. Below is a simple example email.

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To: Joe Prospect
Subject: Thank you <- Notice the simple subject line
Hi Joe,
It was great speaking with you today. I really appreciated your insight and thoughts on how we can better work with you and the 82nd Airborne Division.

My action items from the meeting are:

  • Send you my capabilities statement
  • Provide you with a complete list of relevant past performance
  • Review the 5 FBO opportunities you told me about and provide feedback

I will get this to you no later than Friday.

You also mentioned connecting me with Stephanie Prospect at your previous command. I look forward to that intro email.

Thank you again for the meeting. I look forward to working with you and your team.
-----

3. Thank you letter or post card - I know this is a little "old school", but old school works. And it helps you stand out from everyone else that your prospect is talking to. Your letter or post card should be very simple, it should NOT talk about or sell your company, and it should genuinely say "Thank You"! Point out something about the way you were treated, greeted, the office, their assistant, or any other compliment that you genuinely liked about the experience and give you kudos. That's it. Keep it simple.

4. Follow up packet - Prospect meetings often result in the need to send some sort of packet of information. This could be a quote, proposal, or even something simple like your capabilities statement. Take the time to develop a formal response packet with standard information and information customized for this particular prospect. I like to write a letter to insert on the top of the packet that outlines what's included and what to expect from the packet. This just helps the prospect skim your outline for exactly what they want to read first and it gives them a heads up about pieces that they may not have considered reading prior to reading about it in your outline.

5. Follow up call - This step is probably one of the more tricky ones on this list. Here is how I like to use this. I will call up a prospect after a meeting and say something like, "Hi Joe, this is Mike over at RSM Federal. I'm working on that information I promised you and have a couple of questions for you. Do you have a minute?" Why would I do this? The obvious answer is to ask some clarifying questions. And that's part of it. The other reason I do this is to build rapport with the prospect. Rapport is a funny thing because you can have situational rapport in a meeting and then you can have long-term rapport that transcends the meeting and builds a relationship. We are shooting for long-term rapport and that only happens over TIME and CONTACT with the prospect.

There are a lot of other ways you can follow up with prospects, but the reason I love these is because they are so easy to implement, take very little time, and they just flat out work.

For more information on this topic, please check out the Federal Access Webinar: How to Engage and Position During Government Prospect Meetings. This session will realign your expectations on what to actually focus on during an initial prospect meeting. To register for the webinar just Click Here.

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Michael LeJeune is a Partner and Federal Access Program Manager at RSM Federal, a federal consulting and business-acceleration strategy firm that helps businesses in accelerating the education and processes necessary to winning government contracts. For more information, videos, and contact information, please visit www.rsmfederal.com

3 Things GSA Schedule Holders Can Do to Improve Sales

on Wednesday, 09 September 2015. Posted in Techniques & Strategies

Would it surprise you that our most common answer to "Do I need a GSA Schedule?" is NO? Because that is the answer that we give to more than 90% of our clients. Why you ask? The most common answer I give is that their top buyers don't spend enough on GSA Schedule to justify the time and expense it takes to get a schedule. We always do our research before advising a client to get a GSA Schedule and more times than not, the answer is NO... But the answer is always based on research and concrete data.

Does that mean that GSA is a bad contract vehicle? Absolutely not! In fact, a GSA contract vehicle can be an amazing tool for companies that fully understand their target market and understand how to leverage their schedule. What we are saying is that you shouldn't go into this blindly.

Below are 3 suggestions we have that will help you improve your GSA sales.

1. Have a strong capture / sales / business development plan: The most common phrase you will hear me say to government contractors is that there are no shortcuts in government contracting. No silver bullets, no golden tickets, and no way to cheat the system. You have to follow the system if you want to be successful. Sure, you can do it faster than other companies, but you still have to follow the system.

Following the system starts with having a strong capture / sales / business development plan. This means you need to do your market research and form a strategy to get in front of your top buyers. Once you have a GSA contract vehicle, your priority is letting your top buyers know you have a schedule and that your company is an easy option to purchase from.  If you have a schedule and all you do is look at FBO and GSA eBuy, you're going to be one of the thousands of companies that has a schedule and few or zero sales.

This is just the beginning. So what else is part of a strong capture process? You need a CRM to track opportunities and schedule follow-ups. A large part of doing business is simply staying in front on your prospects and a CRM will help you do this. Our team uses Zoho CRM. It's a great solutions that exceeds all of our needs and is extremely affordable. Many companies use SalesForce.com as their system. I've used this system before and really like it as well.

One of the main suggestions I make to companies is to STICK TO YOUR PLAN! You shouldn't change your plan just because you have a GSA Schedule. You should add the GSA Schedule as one of the tools you now have, but it shouldn't change your core business plan for how you approach the market. Believe it or not, I run into companies all the time that have completely disregarded their plan in favor of waiting and watching GSA eBuy. This is not recommended. If anything, this gives you a great reason to go back to your prospects and reengage them in your process.

2. Update your marketing materials. One of the most common mistakes companies make is not updating key marketing materials with their GSA information. I suggest you update everything you use in your marketing and sales process. The key pieces you MUST update are your website, capabilities statements, brochures, and business cards. These are the most utilized marketing materials a company has and you can bet that prospects, contracting officers, and partners will be looking at these.

3. Keep your contract up to date. Have you ever made an online purchase only to get an email a few days later saying, "I'm sorry, we no longer carry that"? Has this ever happened to you? What do you think that does to your brand or your credibility? It's not good for business. And the government is not going to tolerate this. If you update your products and services, take the time to put in a change modification with GSA. It will save you a ton of time and possible embarrassment down the road. This includes your pricing. If something changes and you can no longer provide the pricing you agreed to, you need to contact GSA ASAP and work through the issue. It may mean pulling your product / service or it may mean submitting a change to the pricing. My point is to stay on top of it so it doesn't bite you in the rear if someone tries to buy from you.

Getting a GSA Schedule can be extremely lucrative if you prepare your company properly with pre-GSA research and a strong business development plan. Like most things in life, GSA is all about the preparation and effort you put into it. This also means that there's a high probability of failure for those that don't prepare properly and don't have a plan.

Last but not least, please check out the Federal Access Webinar: GSA Schedules - How to Decide if You Really Need One. This webinar will walk through the complete process for evaluating whether or not you need a GSA Schedule as well as the most common reasons companies fail to successfully use their schedule to sell to the government. To register for the webinar just Click Here to Register.

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Michael LeJeune is a Partner and Federal Access Program Manager at RSM Federal, a federal consulting and business-acceleration strategy firm that helps businesses in accelerating the education and processes necessary to winning government contracts. For more information, videos, and contact information, please visit www.rsmfederal.com

5 Things You Need to Understand Before Pursuing a GSA Schedule

on Tuesday, 08 September 2015. Posted in Techniques & Strategies

Would you be surprised to hear that less than 50% of GSA Schedule holders successfully sell to the government? I was surprised when I heard that. In fact, when I first got into government contracting over 15 years ago, I thought a GSA Schedule was our golden ticket to success. I quickly found out that it wasn't.

I still remember the day our GSA Schedule went live. We had practically braced our team for all the orders that would roll in. Guess what happened... Nothing. Literally nothing! I believe it took us 6 months to get our first order via GSA.

I wish I could tell you it was all GSA's fault or something like that. But the truth is that we weren't prepared to have a GSA Schedule. We didn't understand what we were getting into.

The 5 items below are the top lessons we learned about GSA that I wish I had known before getting our GSA Schedule.

1. The eligibility requirements. One of the main requirements is being in business for 2 years. Think about this for a minute. The government wants to do business with an established company. GSA Schedules require a lot of time and effort and it's only fair to both parties that you take the time to establish your company as a legitimate business. Which leads to my next point, being financially sound. A lot of companies can survive 2 years in business, but many of those are not financially sound. The government will want to see your P&L's and Balance sheet and possibly income statements. You also need good credit. So pay your bills on time and keep your rating high. If you are product based, are your products made in the USA or compliant with the Trade Agreements Act? These are all factors you need to think about before approaching GSA.

2. Do your research. This might be the biggest blunder that companies make. There's a wealth of information freely available to you on past government contracts. If I can get you to take one piece of advice, it's to look up past sales on FPDS and GSA Sales Query tool to see if there is a market for your services via GSA AND to find out who the top buyers of your services are. This one tip will help you craft your business strategy and focus your efforts right where they need to be. If you know one of your competitors has a GSA Schedule, do some research on them via GSA eLibrary to learn more about their products / services and pricing.

3. Understand the terms. Did you know that GSA gets a .75% of your sales via GSA? Most companies are shocked when they learn that GSA gets a fee. And depending on what you sell, that percent can damage your margins if you aren’t prepared for it. In fact, you need to understand going into the schedule process that GSA is going to try and negotiate favorable pricing (for the government - not you) for the next 5 years. Another shocker for product based companies is on shipping. This is often overlooked as most companies are used to their customers paying for shipping. That's not necessarily the case with GSA. So you need to be prepared for shipping and how your company will handle this. Labor rates are another tricky area for service based companies. In the commercial world most companies either use Incremental Labor Rates or Fully Loaded Labor Rates. However, the government wants to see the details. So you will need to be prepared to break this down and make your rates clear regardless of how you are used to doing this.

4. Understand this is not a golden ticket or guarantee of sales. The bottom line is that a GSA Schedule doesn't equal sales. You need a strong marketing plan, capture / business development strategy, and patience. Doing business in the government is initially a marathon where you figure out who buys what you sell, how often they buy, and then you start putting your products and services in front of your top buyers. That's the process. Once you build momentum you can switch to an annual sprint mentality where you are targeting your top buyers and selling to them during their cycles.

5. Determine if you need a consultant to help you prepare your packet. Let me say upfront that you don’t have to hire a consultant to help you with this. You can do this on your own. In fact, we did ours on our own years ago. Let me also say that we would never do this again. We wasted a lot of time asking basic questions that we didn't understand because of our ignorance of the process. Additionally, it's the hidden requirements that cause 30% of the issues.  There are quite a few requirements that the government does not include in the packet that they ASSUME you understand and will submit feedback on.  My suggestion is to hire a consultant to put the packet together for you IF:

a) You have never done this before;

b) You don't have a clue about the process;

c) You are extremely busy and don't have time to dedicate to research and filling out the forms; and

d) You have $5-7K to invest in a resource to help you get this done.

The GSA Schedule process is detailed for a reason - to ensure qualified companies are submitting packets. In fact, it's our goal to make this process as easy as possible for our clients and to guide you at whatever level you need help. From helping you understand the basics to hitting home runs with your schedule. Don't let this process overwhelm or intimidate you. The first step is understanding if a schedule is right for you. Start there and just take baby steps. And of course, please let us know if you have any questions.

Last but not least, please check out the Federal Access Webinar: GSA Schedules - How to Decide if You Really Need One. This webinar will walk through the complete process for evaluating whether or not you need a GSA Schedule as well as the most common reasons companies fail to successfully use their schedule to sell to the government. To register for the webinar just Click Here to Register.

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Michael LeJeune is a Partner and Federal Access Program Manager at RSM Federal, a federal consulting and business-acceleration strategy firm that helps businesses in accelerating the education and processes necessary to winning government contracts. For more information, videos, and contact information, please visit www.rsmfederal.com

5 Goals You Should Have During a Government Debriefing

on Friday, 10 July 2015. Posted in Techniques & Strategies

Government debriefings after a proposal loss can be very valuable to a company if you approach them from the right perspective. Most companies ask for a debriefing with two things in mind. First they hope to somehow magically persuade the contracting officer through a face-to-face meeting that they chose the wrong company and second; they want to fish for information to determine if they should protest. I'm here to tell you that BOTH of those, in most situations, are a bad idea. In fact, requesting a formal debriefing and then using that debriefing as ammunition to protest, can often times hurt your chances of doing business with an organization simply because you can be viewed as a pest. Instead, I suggest you focus on the following five goals:

1. Discover the significant weaknesses and deficiencies in your proposal. Companies often lose an opportunity because of their failure to clearly communicate the value of what they sell and more importantly, they don't map their capabilities directly to what was asked for in the RFP. But that is just one aspect of what you should be looking for. A contracting officer can also discuss how you rank/rate against the other companies, where you appeared strong in the proposal and where they felt you were lacking clarity, past performance, and/or addressed their specific requirements properly.

2. Gather competitive information. One of the most important aspects of a debriefing and also often overlooked is that a debriefing gives you a great opportunity to discover competitive information such as price, product information, past performance, etc. of the winning company. The value of this information is being able to adjust your price and margins to be competitive NEXT time. This will give you valuable insights that will allow you to determine if you can truly be competitive the next time around or if it doesn't make sense for you to pursue this type of work and thus stop wasting valuable time pursuing contracts you can't win. For example, you may learn through the debriefing that your overhead costs are too high and that you have to resolve these issues in order to deliver competitive pricing.

3. Build a stronger relationship with the contracting officer. How you ask for a debrief is very important. Remember that contracting officers are over worked and don't have time for their daily duties, much less handling your debrief. More importantly, whether it's informal or formal, you are ALWAYS being evaluated. How you handle a win is one thing and you will be rated on that, but how you handle a loss is also important. A bad attitude and quoting the FAR will ultimately get the debriefing you asked for, but it may cost you in the long run. Instead, use this time to build a friendly and respectable relationship with the contracting officer. Specific techniques on how to do just that will be discussed in more detail during the webinar this month. To register, Click Here

4. Ask questions. You want to ask reasonable and relevant questions. It's ok to play dumb a bit and fish around like Colombo, but be courteous and respectful and keep it related to this specific opportunity. One simple technique is to start out by saying something along the lines of: "Pardon me if this is dumb question, but......" or "I'm sorry if this question seems obvious, but I'm doing my best to learn from every loss and could use a better understanding about....." Using simple opening phrases like that will give you the opportunity to ask additional questions and build rapport with the contracting officer. Also be sure to use my personal favorite keywords, "Please", "Thank You", and "Could You Help Me?" Those words will get you a lot more information than quoting the FAR ever could.

5. Learn from this loss. How do you capture lessons learned and how do you ensure you're taking these lessons into account in the next proposal? You put a process in place, that's how. Because after all, gathering the intelligence you need is only the first part of the battle. If you really want to win the next battle and ultimately the war, you MUST put concrete processes in place that allow you to roll these lessons learned into every future proposal process. Systems are repeatable and once you establish the right system, wins become repeatable.

A lot goes into understanding the debriefing process, when you can and can't ask for one, how to prep for the debriefing, how to conduct yourself during the debriefing, how to gather lessons learned, and more importantly; how to implement lessons learned into a repeatable win system. The monthly webinar this month will help you answer these questions through specific techniques and strategies. So attend this month's webinar to learn about all of this and much more. To register, Click Here

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Michael LeJeune is a Senior Consultant and the Federal Access Program Manager at RSM Federal, a federal consulting and business-acceleration strategy firm that helps businesses in accelerating the education and processes necessary to winning government contracts. For more information, videos, and contact information, please visit www.rsmfederal.com

The Name of the Game is Differentiation

on Monday, 09 March 2015. Posted in Techniques & Strategies

Times haves changed in government contracting. 

Once upon a time, in the land of Washington D.C., the Federal government actually preferred the use of sole source contracting and that was a key focus of every contractor. Contractors would jockey for position in the hopes of positioning themselves for and winning a sole source contract. Today, the days of hoping for and utilizing sole-sourcing as a core corporate strategy are pretty much over.

The government has slowly and purposefully increased competition requirements. Today, you may be up against 50 other companies responding to the same RFP. This example isn't an exaggeration. In fact, RSM Federal recently threw their hat in the ring on a contract and the interested vendor list totaled just over 50 companies.

The government is continually coming under fire to not only acquire the best products and services they can, but also at the lowest price - even to the detriment of quality and value. That's why you are seeing Low Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA) more and more often in government RFPs. But, this doesn't necessarily imply procuring the cheapest products. It means evaluating price and other factors, not limited to, quality, benefits, delivery speed, guarantees, and a whole host of other factors to get the very best deal. The problem for many companies today is that they don't communicate enough value, benefit, and other differentiating factors to minimize their competition's competitiveness.

Like you, we often hear stories of companies who lost a bid, but felt they were the most qualified or had the best products. It's marketing and branding 101 and it's as simple and as complex as that.

So how do you solve this problem? During a strategy session with Microgrid-Energy in St. Louis, Missouri, the question was raised, "What are the best practices for differentiation and how do successful companies do it? Just as important, as the leader in solar energy for the St. Louis region and much of the Midwest, our differentiation is critical to providing our general contractors with competitive advantage. So, what differentiation factors will help make our general contractors more competitive on single award (SATOC) and multiple award task order contracts (MATOC)?

How do you not only get noticed, but stand out from the crowd and SCREAM, "MY COMPANY IS THE BEST CHOICE"! There are two primary ways to solve this problem. The first is by implementing a process where you understand and know how to communicate your differentiation and the second is strengthening your capture strategy so that you ultimately produce more qualified opportunities to bid on. Just understand that adding more opportunities to your pipeline without clearly communicating your differentiation is akin to trying to fill a bucket with water when the bucket is riddled with holes. You will ultimately waste a lot of opportunities and precious time fighting a losing battle. That is why we recommend strengthening your differentiation first and then working on your capture strategy and why the remainder of this article will focus on differentiation.

Companies are constantly looking for and coming up with new ways to differentiate. Today I want to focus on just five of these strategies. These five strategies are in our opinion, the core pieces of differentiation that every company needs to understand and constantly refine.

1. Capability Statement: Your capability statement is one of your primary tools because, when developed correctly, is a key document that communicates the benefit and value of your products and services with the prospect and communicates the ability for your company to make a partner / prime contractor more competitive with you on the team. It includes who you are - an overview of the company, your approach to clients and / or partners, past performance, your products and / or areas of expertise, certifications, company data, and contact information. But most important, your focus is communicating value and benefit - not simply what you sell or the services you provide. These are the basics that MUST be in your capability statement. In addition to this, you want to approach this as a marketing piece and have it carefully designed to focus on value. This is not a place to skimp on graphics or the look and feel. RSM's capability statement also lists our areas of expertise and breaks out our services into categories using keywords and phrases that would often be used by a contractor looking for our services. We also suggest listing any government or commercial contracts that you have in order to build credibility and making buying easier for those already authorized to use those contract vehicles. We have several different examples. If you're interested, let us know and we'll send you a copy which you can review and use as a template.

2. Leveraging Past Performance: Whether it's your capability statement or your response to an RFP, you must clearly convey your past performance. Most companies don't do this very well. Part of this strategy includes an ongoing process of collecting past performance. In order to do this, you have to constantly engage your employees and find out what they are accomplishing for your clients. You should also do a debrief or after action review (AAR) after every project is complete. In one debrief, for one of our clients, we found that an on-site employee had been working on the next generation accounting system for a fortune 500 company and our client had no idea their employee had been doing this as a side project. So have a system in place for discovering past performance and then determine how and where you will communicate it. One recommendation is to create a past performance folder. You can use a word document or another tool like Evernote to track these. Just make sure the tool you are using has a simple search function. I like using Evernote for the simple reason that it will show me notes that are related to each other. So if I create each past performance piece under a separate note, the system will automatically find and relate other notes. This then becomes extremely helpful when you are looking for all past performance related to a specific topic. Finally, most companies in both commercial and government markets have a folder either on a computer or shared drive with past performance write-ups that they've used in proposals.

3. Positioning your Competencies: This is a process that you will follow each time you approach a new client or contract. The first step to positioning your competencies is something called Competency-Mapping. "Competency-Mapping is a method that forces you to evaluate and map the value and benefits of your products or services and differentiate them based on a specific prospect, that prospect's unique problems or challenges, and/or a specific opportunity." (Excerpt from RSM Federal's; The Government Sales Manual.) For RSM Federal, this process often starts with the simple question, "How is this competency important to the client and why do they care"? Starting with this shapes your process and forces you to answer the prospects most important questions. This approach allows you to take your competencies and map them directly to a prospect's problem or need which will result in a custom approach to solving your prospect's requirements and help you stand out from the competition.

When approaching a new client or contract, you have to take a step back and clearly understand what the client's greatest challenges / needs are, how you can solve their problems, and how best to communicate this information. The days of boilerplate answers and boilerplate capability statements are over. Sure, you can reuse marketing copy in your pieces and we are not discounting that. You just have to understand that the customization of your materials will go a long way toward differentiating you from your competition and thus winning more business. For example, if you serve multiple industries or niches, you may want to tailor your capability statement for each one. When you respond to an RFP, you will want to tailor the language in your RFP response so that those on source selection feel that you are responding directly to their requirements. Key point - whenever possible, tailor for each prospect or partner. It takes time but exponentially increases your chances for success.

4. By Product or Service: One of the most common ways to differentiate is by product or service. This one is a little more self-explanatory, but companies still miss out on a huge opportunity we find most can improve how they do it. When you are looking at your products or services, there are several factors to consider. When thinking about product differentiators, consider the following: quality, pricing, functional features, design, availability, and the knowledge / education level of the buyer on the product. When thinking of service differentiators consider these: Speed, lower risk, stronger processes, differences in project / program management methodology, past performance, level of understanding of the customer's processes and systems, geographic location, and reputation. These are just some of the factors that you need to consider when thinking about product and service differentiation. Even more important, none of the differentiator types we just listed are any good without using quantifiable and qualifiable metrics. You need percentages, dollar amounts, savings, opportunity cost, etc.

If you are responding to an RFP, you should be able to determine which of these factors are most important to the customer and then customize your response to highlight the areas that you are most qualified in. If you've attended one of our sessions at an SBA, Department of Veterans Affairs, or other National conference, you know the importance of collecting intelligence on an opportunity before the RFP or RFQ is released. It's a good idea to ask the contracting officer questions (better yet, talk to the program manager) about these factors in order to get a more clear picture of what their priorities are. Depending on the uniqueness of your product or service you may even be able to ghost your unique capabilities into an RFP. This only happens when you are communicating with potential clients well before and RFP or RFQ hits the street, and can only be done with proper communication, planning, and capture management. Engaging opportunities in pre-acquisition, before the RFP is released, is a key training focus with most of our clients. 

5. Through Teaming: It's our personal belief that teaming, when done correctly, can be one of your largest weapons in government contracting. Teaming has many different layers, but the most common is teaming for the purposes of winning a contract. We often work with companies on positioning with prime contractors and general contractors. Getting on a team is not the important piece. What's critical is how you position to get on the team and subsequently position during source selection and after the contract or task order is awarded. What good is it if you get on a winning team but you don't make any money? This happens often, especially with smaller companies. Your objective is to find the prime that is the best fit for your capabilities and has the best chance of winning the contract. This requires a little research on your part and there are many government tools you can use to find out who is interested in the contracts you are interested in and the past performance of the primes so that you can determine the best fit.

Here are just a few questions you will want to ask before approaching a company you want to team with. Do we already have a relationship with one of the interested companies? Do the interested companies already have a partner that does what we do? Do we have actionable intelligence on this opportunity that no one else has? Why would a prime want to work with us over another company? Does our company do something so unique that we would be an asset to any of the primes? Are any of the primes in our geographic location and for the purposes of this contract and does that matter? All of these questions revolve around one simple question you must answer for every company you attempt to team with:"How do we make the prime more competitive?" Because that's why they will put you on the team.

One huge benefit to teaming is that teaming with another company gives you third party credibility. This is especially true when the prime is a big defense contractor or a company that is well known in the market. Once you engage a prime and get on their team, it's to your benefit to work as hard as you can and devote all necessary resources to the RFP process. This not only wins the favor of the prime, it gives you leverage to talk to them about other opportunities they may have in their pipeline. One thing we always tell clients is that strong teaming relationships will increase your pipeline drastically over time as you continue to contribute and add value to the team. In the beginning, it may be you brining opportunities to the prime, but as you prove yourself, they will start to bring opportunities to you.

Summary: Learning how to differentiate and making it a core component of everything you do is absolutely critical to your success in government contracting (and commercial sales). The government faces thousands upon thousands of inquiries every year from companies wanting their business. Your job is to do everything you can to stand out as not only the right, but best choice for the government every time. One way you do this is by being very selective of the prospects you approach, how you approach them, and customizing your message to best fit their needs. Follow these five steps and you will improve the quality of your communication, differentiate yourself in the market, and accelerate revenue.  

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Michael LeJeune is a Senior Consultant and Program Manager at RSM Federal, a federal consulting and business-acceleration strategy firm that helps businesses in accelerating the education and processes necessary to winning government contracts. For more information, videos, and contact information, please visit www.rsmfederal.com

8 Strategies Small Businesses Should Consider to Make the Most of the Holidays

on Monday, 15 December 2014. Posted in Techniques & Strategies

The holidays are an exciting time of year for most people. After all, there is a lot to look forward to. Families are coming together to spend quality time. Many will do a lot of shopping and inevitably some Christmas decorating will get done. Some will even attempt their very best Clark Griswold impression when they wrap their house with 250 strands of lights. Drum-roll please . . .

If you are football fan, this is your time of year. The temperatures are dropping and the playoff picture is heating up. My house is buzzing on Sunday with a fire, the big game, and some of my favorite Cajun dishes as our divided house cheers on the Packers, Saints, and anyone playing the Bears.

If you are a business owner, this can also be your favorite time of year. The National Retail Federation estimates that the average American will spend around $700 on holiday gifts, goodies, and treats this year. That adds up to an estimated $465 billion and you should be getting your piece of that. The challenge for most business owners is that they just don't know how to capitalize on this opportunity. If you are looking for inspiration to help capitalize on this holiday season, you are in luck. I've assembled 8 of my favorite strategies for quick wins during the holidays.

These strategies are market agnostic and meant to be fairly easy to implement. If you have questions or need clarification, please reach out to me via email at michael@michaellejeune.com.

1. Invest in marketing - Most companies don't realize how important marketing is at this time of year. In fact, a lot of companies try to dial back their marketing at this time of year because they think it will get lost in a sea of mail. While there is some truth to that, you also have to understand that your competition is marketing to your potential clients during this season and you are risking losing them to the competition if they are the only voice that your clients / prospects hear. My advice is to think more along the lines of multi-touch campaigns or even multi-media campaigns. A multi-media campaign targets various forms of marketing such as direct mail, social, online ads, email, radio, etc. Hit your prospects from multiple sources for the best impact. But for heaven's sake, don't fall into the trap of shutting down your marketing during the holidays. It's a massive mistake that can cost you dearly.

2. Capturing leads - This is actually a year-round strategy, but especially important during the holidays when your in-store, online, and call traffic should be higher. I review hundreds of small business websites, marketing pieces, ads, and strategies each year and my number one complaint for 99% of them is that they are solely focused on a sale. This is a bad strategy. I relate it to proposing the first time you meet someone. Imagine Lloyd Christmas style from Dumber and Dumber when he first meets Mary and goes for the long hug at the airport. Awkward . . . Don't get me wrong. It totally makes sense going for the sale, but what's your fallback to that? The answer is usually nothing. That's why it's so important to build in a lead contact capture strategy into whatever you are doing. Think of it this way. If you capture their contact information, you can market to them later. If you don't, you just wasted your marketing dollars on people who aren't ready to buy yet. So make sure your websites have a lead capture strategy right on the front page or on any of your landing pages for ads and make sure all of your marketing gives an incentive for prospects to at least register for something online. A lot of people use bonuses, free downloads, a free copy of their book, a buying guide, a case study, or some other form of goodie to get people to share their contact information with them.

3. Quick wins through promotions to your current customers - One of the most valuable assets to any company is your database of current customers / clients. However, it's only valuable if you use the database. The holidays are a perfect time to reach out to your current customers with a special promotion. In fact, I often suggest creating a VIP / Membership program during the holidays if you don't already have one and launching it at this time. You can do a great promotion for this via direct mail and email and offer your current customers exclusive access to your new program along with special discounts, bonuses, bundles, etc.

4. Irresistible offers to reel in new customers - One of the things I'm constantly harping on with clients is for them to create irresistible offers for their marketing. You want a prospect to look at your offer and think to themselves, "I can't pass this up." This strategy will increase your response rate and conversion rate by several hundred percent. The other great thing about this is that it gets you a new client, gets their contact information, and it lets you continue marketing to them. Focus on something simple that's easy to understand. A great example is one of the irresistible offers I use. When I speak, I offer a 1-hour consultation, review of your website and marketing materials, and a copy of both of my books for $20. The value of this package is around $600. I also sweeten the deal by not taking a credit card upfront and offer a 100% satisfaction guarantee. If the client doesn't feel they got their $20 worth, I don't charge them a dime. Pretty irresistible if you ask me.

5. Direct mail - I keep hearing clients say that direct mail is dead, but that's simply not true. Would you believe that direct mail actually has a higher conversion rate than any other marketing strategy we use? We have tested this in many markets and industries and direct mail done correctly, still outshines most other marketing strategies. As with everything, there are exceptions, but I'm here to vouch for direct mail. The key is standing out from the rest of the mail. You can do this many ways. One of which is using oversized postcards, oversized envelopes, or something we call shock and awe kits which is actually a box of marketing materials. The other factor is to make it simple. If the offer is too complicated, prospects won't bite. There's a reason great copywriters like Dan Kennedy make six figures just to write one direct mail letter. And that reason is because direct mail still works extremely well.

6. Social media - You would ideally build up your presence on social media before starting a marketing campaign for the holidays, but it's not completely necessary. In fact, you could run social promotions with the intention of building your followers. What you have to understand is which social platform your prospects are using. For example, an under 20 demographic is more likely to look at Twitter, Snapchat, or Instagram, while an older demographic is more likely to only use Facebook. Once you nail down which social platform is best for your demographic, you need to focus on what your social media strategy should be and how you want to deliver your messages.

One of our clients is a non-profit organization that runs a thrift store. They found that their target customer was on Facebook. We started testing different messages and concepts and found that text only posts were typically only seen by 50 to 100 people, photos were seen by 500 to 1,000 people, but videos were seen by as many 8,000 people. So we started building a video heavy strategy. The videos feature yours truly talking about upcoming sales and activities and asking people to share the video for a chance to win a $25 gift card. This strategy has increased sales by more than 30%. You can watch what we are doing for this group by following them on Facebook atwww.facebook.com/willowtreemissions

7. Differentiation - For some companies, the holidays are a slow time of year. In fact, it's a slower time of year for my business. In addition to being a founder member of my own coaching practice, I'm also a Senior Consultant and Program Manager for RSM Federal where most of our clients are government contractors. So this is traditionally a slow time for government work. With that in mind, I've always suggested that clients use slow times of the year to look at new markets such as government contracting and to use this downtime to brainstorm ways they can differentiate from their competition.

What can you do during the holidays to separate your business from your competition? An even better question is; what can you do to separate your business from the big companies in your industry? I highly encourage my clients to look at their customer service and client communication as a point of difference. How do you treat people and how do you talk to people? Can you hire a great copywriter to recreate your messages, spruce up your marketing pieces, and come up with better hold messages? Do you need to create some new policies and procedures for how your employees interact with customers? If so, you probably need to script this and do some training on it.

The objective with differentiation is to get people to say, "Wow, those folks are different". You want them to love your company and spend money with you because of who you are and not just because of what products and services you provide. More importantly, you want them to choose you because of how your company makes them feel.

If you are considering getting into government contracting, please check out this article I did on differentiation for government contracting. It will give you some great ideas on how to separate yourself from the pack. www.rsmfederal.com/blog/the-name-of-the-game-is-differentiation

8. Hiring a coach - Last but not least, I suggest you hire a coach. I know, it's not only obvious, but brilliant right. It's that or makes me look like a schmuck. Either way, it's the truth. . . A great business coach (cough, cough) like myself, really understands the fundamentals of business and can give you a massive advantage to growing your company. It's our job to understand the techniques, strategies, and short-cuts that your business needs and more importantly, how to implement them.

A great coach will typically cost you about as much as a great admin assistant (around 25 to 40K per year depending on the coach and what they are doing for you). However, they should be the highest ROI person on your team. For example, one of my clients recently more than doubled their revenue from $350K to $765K in our first year. They also decreased cost and increased profitability by more than 20%.

The bottom line is that a great coach can help you leap frog over obstacles, solve some of your biggest challenges, and do it all at a price that not only makes sense, but makes you a fortune in the process.

So what happens if you don't have the extra cash to implement these ideas? A couple of thoughts on this. The first is that you have to be willing to wisely invest some money in order to grow your business. All too often, I run into companies who aren't willing to invest in their business. And inevitably, those companies either fail or fail to achieve the results they desire. So first and foremost, be willing to invest some cash in the growth and health of your company.

There are a lot of ways to get the extra cash you need. You can lower your costs, sell some personal items or old equipment, or get a loan. For most companies, I suggest having a line of credit. Even a small line of credit can go a long way toward implementing these strategies. You can check with your local bank or one of many online sources.

I really like Kabbage. They approve funding for businesses based on real life data, not just a credit report. They link your bank, PayPal, or other accounts and review payment transactions to qualify you on the spot. This unique credit line method gives people with a lower credit score a better chance of getting approved as long as they have a transaction history to support the credit line.

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Michael LeJeune is a Senior Consultant and Program Manager at RSM Federal, a federal consulting and business-acceleration strategy firm that helps businesses in accelerating the education and processes necessary to winning government contracts. For more information, videos, and contact information, please visit www.rsmfederal.com

Success at Trade Shows

on Wednesday, 26 November 2014. Posted in Techniques & Strategies

One of the top questions we get asked at RSM is how to make attending trade shows more effective and valuable. By the way, this applies to both commercial and federal trade shows and we'll outline several the differences in this article. Over the years, we have found that most companies want the flair and excitement that comes with trade shows, but often fail to achieve the results they desire. And to be completely upfront with you, RSM wasn't always as successful as we wanted to be at trade shows. Trade shows and conferences have a reputation for being the holy grail of business success, but many companies suffer abysmal results because they lack one thing. That one thing is a proven system that you use over and over again.

This article is going to lay out for you the exact system that we use at RSM that is PROVEN time and time again to produce amazing results. In fact, this system works so well for us now that it is our number one system for growing our company. Our system is built on four steps.

Step One, Validate that the Trade Show, Conference, or Event is for You. The reason to do this is because you need to quantify upfront that this event has a high value for you and possibly disqualify other events in order to find the most important ones to attend. The reason for this is twofold. First, you can't be everywhere at once and second, events cost time and money away from your business so you need to make sure they count.

At RSM, we validate an event by asking these questions. 1. Who is the target audience? If the audience is your ideal client, it's almost always worth it for you to go. 2. How many attendees are they expecting? Many events will have a past attendee count on their website. If not, you can always email or call the event coordinators and find this out. You want to make sure there are enough people attending to justify the time and effort you are going to be putting into the event. 3. Are there speaking opportunities? While this question is 3rd on my list, it may be the most important. Speaking opportunities have the ability to skyrocket your brand and give you third party credibility with the audience. In order to position yourself for a speaking spot, you will need a powerful bio and abstract of your session. You can email us for more details on this. 4. What other vendors / speakers are attending? If your competition is speaking to your ideal client base, you should consider attending the event. Another great reason to look at the vendors and speakers is potential alliances. There's no better way to gain credibility with someone you want to team with than to speak at an event they are at. 5. Do you have access to the attendee list prior to or after the event? This can sometimes be a deal MAKER for you. If you can put your marketing piece in the welcome kits for the event or have an email list after the event, you can really do some great marketing. 6. Last but not least, What is the cost and does it make sense for you? This should be the last question you ask. Part of this is budget and part of this is a gamble. We can take away the gamble by implementing the next step properly.

Step Two, Building Your Plan. Some simple things to consider for the plan are: How are you going to capture leads? Are you going to bring a fish bowl, do a giveaway, use QR codes, or some other fancy way. We suggest using surveys after your speaking session (assuming you get a speaking spot) and giving away some free product in exchange for attendees filling out your survey.

If you have a booth at the event, you need to know who is going to be manning your booth and everyone needs to be on the same page. For the sake of this article, I won't get into the specifics of what needs to be in your booth or the messaging of the booth pieces. Those are all very important topics that deserve their own article, but if you have questions about that, please email us and we can talk more about that with you. We do recommend that you have your capabilities statement and a custom brochure for any specials you may be running at the event.

If you are speaking at the event, you need to make sure your slides are customized for the event. Use the event's logo's if you can and customize a few of your slides so that the information is not generic. The more your information can cater to your audience, the more you will bond with them. If you are speaking, do a survey. Make it simple and be sure and ask for their name, contact information, and company information. We even ask them to sign it if it's OK for us to use their comments as testimonial. This allows us to rack up a large number of testimonials very quickly.

When building your plan for your event, you will need to ask this simple question. What do we need to do before, during, and after the event? This allows you to create a checklist of tasks such as: coordinate travel, pack and ship booth, design and print brochures, order new company shirts, finish and email presentation to the event coordinators, and much more. Having a detailed list of these things and who is responsible for each one will allow you to have a stress free event.

Step Three, Closing Business at the Event. For many companies, this step is as mythical as a unicorn prancing around in a field of four leaf clovers. Every company talks about this, but no one can show you the money. What we are about to share with you is how we have personally closed over $35,000 in sales PER event over the last couple of years.

In order to close business at an event you HAVE to be prepared for people to want to buy at your event. In many cases, people come to events knowing upfront that they are going to invest in products and services. It's your objective to be one of the few companies that wins some of that business. We love to run some sort of special at the event. Make it event only pricing and irresistible. One of the reasons for this is that once you make someone a customer, they are infinitely more likely to buy from you again. This is true even if their first purchase is something small. Your objective here is just to turn them into a customer. In the case of government clients, this may not be possible at an event, but you can build massive amounts of rapport with them at an event and move much closer to the sale.

Be ready with agreements, order forms, credit card machines, and how you are going to deliver their product or service. The worst thing you can do is get someone ready to buy at an event and then you don't have a way to sign them up or take their money. Depending on what you are selling at the event, you may want to offer free shipping for people from out of town as an added incentive to close the sale.

If you are speaking at the event, be sure that your speaking topic ties in with your event special. Even if you are not technically allowed to sell from the stage, your expertise on your topic will sell YOU and selling YOU is the most important thing you can do. Once people are sold on you, they will want to buy something from you. If your event special matches your speaking topic, it makes a sale very easy. If your event special doesn't match your speaking topic, you will have a lot of selling to do at your booth and that will take up precious time and limit the amount of people you can talk to.

Another great strategy that we have used is to pre-set appointments before the event. You can do this multiple ways. One way is by doing a mailing to the event list prior to the event. Not all events will let you do this and even fewer will actually give you a copy of the list, but many will allow you to submit a marketing piece to them and they will mail it on your behalf. Some larger events have welcome letters when you arrive at your hotel or welcome bags when you register at the event. These are also great opportunities to put a marketing piece in front of your prospects. Our personal preference is a mailer before the event or just the welcome letter. Event bags can be very bulky and your message can easily be lost in there. So if you are going to use event bags, please think through your strategy and how you are going to stand out from the crowd.

If pre-marketing is NOT an option, you can always have a sign up in your booth for consultation or meeting times and schedule them this way. It's not as effective as the other strategies, but it's a simple fall back plan that works.

If someone wants to meet, but just can't commit to something at the event, have your calendar ready to book a meeting for a couple of days after the event. DO NOT let them leave your booth without a tentative date. Your odds of scheduling a meeting after someone leaves your booth is about 10% or less.

One last tip on this. Don't keep anyone talking at your booth instead of attending sessions. If sessions are getting ready to start, ask them to meet over lunch, dinner, or a break and move the sales conversation to that front. Disrespecting your prospects time will not win you any business.

Step Four, Follow Up After the Event. Priority number one for me is having an email introduction ready to go on my phone. In fact, I use break times, lunch, and evenings to get intro emails sent on the day of the event so that I don't have a pile of emails waiting for me afterward. We also get a lot of comments of how fast we responded and how prepared we were for the event by setting this up beforehand.

Understand that people meet a lot of people at events. You will be judged on how you stand out from the crowd, how professional you are, how you engage your prospects and partners, and ultimately how much value they feel you can bring to their business. You will also be judged on how you follow up and how you follow through with anything you promised them at the event. So if you promised to email them something, DO IT!

Another great strategy for event follow up is to send a simple post card. It's another touch in the sales process and it makes you stand out from the crowd. It could simply ready, "Hi [NAME}, it was great meeting you in Atlanta. I look forward to working with you". Keep this simple, personal, and handwritten.

Something you may need to do is extend the event pricing a couple of days. It's very common that people will want to talk and want to buy from you, but just not have the time. So feel free to extend your offer a couple of days. This also gives you another reason to reach out to everyone who didn't buy and make another offer to them.

Last but not least, put any prospects that don’t close at the event into your normal sales cycle and follow your sales process with them. Make your follow-ups and check-ins with them powerful and you will get more sales. And understand that some people just take time. Remember, you just met this individual or company at a trade show. It may take a while before they buy from you. This is all part of the relationship and rapport building that needs to happen for some prospects. What we have found is that the prospect that takes a long time to buy also stays with you a really long time. So it's worth it to pursue that company or organization knowing that if you land them, you will most likely retain them much longer than your average client.

Following our advice on these four steps will not only win you more business, it will accelerate your maturity as a company. Many of the techniques and strategies listed here directly apply to other marketing activities that you are already doing. In fact, the best companies on the planet take advice like this and weave it into their everyday activities so that it becomes part of their normal business procedures. But don't take our word for it. Try this process and send us your feedback. If you have questions, please call us or send us an email. We want to hear how we can help you be more successful at trade shows, conferences, and events.

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Michael LeJeune is a Senior Consultant and Program Manager at RSM Federal, a federal consulting and business-acceleration strategy firm that helps businesses in accelerating the education and processes necessary to winning government contracts. For more information, videos, and contact information, please visit www.rsmfederal.com

14 Questions You Should Ask Yourself Before Teaming on Government Contracts

on Tuesday, 24 June 2014. Posted in Techniques & Strategies, Teaming

One of the first lessons you will learn in government contracting is that most companies win their first contract as a subcontractor to a larger "Prime" contractor. The initial reasoning behind this is that the larger Prime has a track record of past performance, more resources than you, and occasionally has a foot in the door of the client you want to work with. That said, at some point, you will want to be the Prime and you will need to research teaming partners. While this article focuses mainly on you as the Prime, all of these questions are relevant to ask anytime you are approached about teaming in any capacity.

Companies "team" and subcontract with other companies for several reasons. They team to be more competitive. They team to gain access to a specific market, agency, or armed service that they don't have the bandwidth to engage on their own or the business intelligence necessary to be competitive. When looking for a teaming partner, the larger Prime is looking for a company(s) that brings a competitive edge that is not organic to their company. The ideal programmatic teaming strategy helps both companies increase the number of pipeline opportunities and on occasion, enlists their teaming partners to do the lion's-share of the work on a given proposal.

The simple fact is that teaming is a great way to boost your companies opportunities and competitive edge in the marketplace. However, in its simplest form, you're building a relationship. And every relationship deserves some research and due diligence to make sure you are getting as much value from the relationship as possible as well as providing value to your partner.

The following are questions you should ask yourself before teaming on a government contract with a potential partner. Not asking these questions can lead to choosing the wrong partner, wasting valuable time, energy, and resources, as well as ultimately not winning contracts. So take our advice and ask these questions upfront to make sure you have the best teaming strategy possible.

1. Is their website professional? (if not. . . or no website. . . I wouldn't subcontract with them) Their website doesn't have to be the best one you've ever seen. It just needs to be professionally put together and something that you are going to be comfortable sharing with your potential clients. After all, this company is going to be your partner and your clients are going to Google them and look for a website. If their website is not up to your specifications, ask them if they are willing to make some changes. If they say yes and they are willing to make the changes quickly, you may still want to consider them as a partner.

2. Do they have a professional email? (no Hotmail, Yahoo, Gmail, etc.) One of the quickest ways to discover that someone is not serious about their business is to exchange email addresses with them. In this day and age, a domain and email support will cost the average company less than $100 per year, per employee. This is a minor investment that any worthy partner should be making.

3. Size of company? Judgment call - but ensure they have the necessary resources. The last thing you want is to win a contract and not be able to perform the work due to your partner's lack of resources. So make sure they have the staff to do the job you are asking them to do in order to win the contract. This applies to small and large companies. If you are dealing with a small division of a large company, they may not have the resources you need to do the work, but should be able to get the proper resources. In any case, ensure that your partner is able to meet the demand of your contract or easily scale up to meet the requirements.

4. Better Business Bureau? The first thing you do is check to see if they have a rating. If they have a rating, what is it? If they have complaints, were they resolved to the satisfaction of the complainant? They may have several complaints, but this could be normal for their industry. For example, construction companies and auto mechanics often have several complaints. It's the nature of their business. You want to know if the issues are being resolved and if they are in good standing with the BBB. Go to www.bbb.org for more information.

5. Google the company for legal and other financial actions. When you search, use the company's name and the name of the CEO or top leader in conjunction with keywords including "rip-off report" "scams" and "complaints." The reason you search by CEO or the name of the top leader is because scam artists and unethical business folks will often spin-up new companies to create a company with no complaints.

6. LinkedIn Profile? Does the company owner or your point of contact have a profile? Review it. When reviewing a profile, look at their job history, any attachments, publications, and recommendations. This information will not only give you some insights into the company and individual you are speaking with, it will also allow you to get to know them and build your relationship. Last but not least, send a custom invite to connect.

7. Are they responsive? One example, you've contacted them to discuss an opportunity that you've qualified and you've communicated strong differentiation providing competitive advantage. Do they respond to your email and calls the same day or does it take them 48 to 72 hours to respond? Is their response professional? There's an old saying that I like to think of here, "How it begins, is how it ends". If your potential teaming partner isn't responsive in the beginning, you can count on them acting this way at some point during the proposal phase and on award, during contract execution. A lack of responsiveness is a recipe for disaster.

8. Have they provided this service before? (i.e. do they have past performance and expertise?) Specifically ask them for details on similar contracts they've supported during the last three years. When looking at past performance, you want to review case studies or information that relates directly to the potential contract you are looking to bid on. It's not good enough if they did something similar that "should" translate to the work on this new contract. You are looking for relevant and specific information that is a match to your opportunity.

9. Professionalism, Licenses, and Certifications? If the level of support you need them to provide is commonly performed by individuals with specific certifications, how many of their employees that will be subcontracting to you have those certifications or licenses? If just one. . . you'll want to be very detailed when you ask about self-performing in question 10. Make sure that your potential partner can produce the necessary documentation for their licenses or certifications. You typically don't need these upfront, but simply need to ask if they are able to produce documentation upon request for your client.

10. Do they have the personnel and will they self-perform? This is an important question! Many companies don't keep employees "on the bench" where they are non-billable, waiting for the next contract to come in. Are you okay with them signing your subcontracting agreement and then going to Monster or a recruiter to find the labor they need to fulfill the contract? Depending on your products, services, and the market, this may not be something you're willing to risk. So, if you subcontract work to another company because of they have the expertise, then you are assuming they will be using in-house employees to fulfill the contract. If not, you're running a serious risk. No right answer but you want to take this into account.

11. Business insurance and do they need to be bonded? They should have basic business insurance and if you need them to be bonded, double-check and ask them. You don't want a claim from the client and since your subcontractor isn't bonded, your insurance ends up having to pay for it. In this case, your subcontractor is not "sharing the risk" and you will be paying for their mistake or accident when your company has to pay higher rates. In many cases, a simple umbrella policy can cover all the insurance needs on your contract. If your teaming partner does not have this, ask them to purchase it and provide you with the documentation.

12. Would you trust this company to abide by your subcontractor agreement? (e.g. if you told them not to speak with the client other than to perform what you've asked them to. . . can you trust them not to attempt to steal future business?) This is often a gut feeling and will be based on your first few conversations with your partner. You've probably heard the old saying, "Loose lips sink ships". Be aware of the type of information that your partner shares with you in those first few meetings. If they only share relevant information or ask for an NDA to disclose business practices, the odds are that they are trustworthy. However, if they are very open to sharing "confidential" information with you or share too much information (TMI) about projects, you had better beware.

13. Is this Company the best fit for you? When you team with another company, one of the worst things you can do is change your teaming partners after an agreement is signed – so make sure this is the company you want to work with. For subcontracting, once they're onsite, you're stuck with them absent changing your subcontractor(s) in the middle of a project. So when you are evaluating potential teaming partners, it's best to do your research and interview multiple companies. Your mindset should be a long-term relationship and not just your next project. This leads into question 14.

14. What does your gut tell you? Really. I can ask all of these questions, receive solid and positive responses to all of them, and still sense something is wrong. This comes with experience. If you hear alarm bells - don't discount them. At the end of the day, this potential partner has the ability to add to or subtract from your income based on their performance. They also have the ability to help you sleep at night or cause many sleepless nights worrying about them. Take your time and weigh their answers appropriately. And last but not least, if there's something bothering you about the company that you can't put your finger on, why take the risk? Walk away.

If you like this article or have additional feedback or strategies that you would like to share with us and our network, we invite you to leave a comment below. Also check out our Digital Library where you will find additional information on teaming, teaming agreements, and other valuable templates that you can customize and use right away for your business.

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Joshua Frank is a Principal of RSM Federal, a federal consulting and business-acceleration strategy firm that helps businesses in accelerating the education and processes necessary to winning government contracts. For more information, videos, and contact information on RSM Federal, please visit www.rsmfederal.com   

Small Business Scams and Pitfalls

on Friday, 07 March 2014. Posted in Techniques & Strategies

As I tell our clients, everything you do comes down to two and only two outcomes. You are either increasing revenue or you are decreasing costs. Every business function supports one or the other. I'm going to take a different approach this month. Instead of providing techniques and strategies to increase revenue, we're going to discuss a couple of ways to protect the money you're making today - or decreasing your costs.

Over the last five years, we've worked with hundreds of companies and presented sessions to thousands more. One of the advantages of working with other companies is that we get dozens of emails every week asking if this email or that email is legitimate or what I call an "unethical money grab" that you should run away from.

While there are many more, the following 8 scams or pitfalls have reared their ugly heads more often over the the last six months:

1. Paying another company to do your 8a, WOSB, SDVOSB, or GSA Schedule. On average, most companies take approximately twelve months to complete their own GSA Schedule application and this is before the current nine month certification timeline once submitted to GSA. I should note that this average is based on discussions I have personally had with several hundred companies over the last several years. There are companies, which I call "GSA Application Sweatshops" whose sole service is facilitating, consolidating, submitting, and negotiating your GSA Schedule. There is a reason these companies exist. From personal experience, half are legitimate. Half are con-artists. For full transparency, RSM Federal does perform these services but as a boutique offering when combined with other services and we outsource this to who we consider one of the most knowledgeable application firms in the country.

I've also seen an increase in companies that provide application "consulting" services where you get training and you're responsible for submitting and negotiating the application. These companies require you to fill out the application but provide you with subject matter experts who will "answer your questions and keep you on track." If you can find a reputable firm who has the necessary expertise to make your life easier, you're good to go. This is no different from companies that do the entire application for you.  Neither is better than the other. The training companies came about because they recognized that a section of their target market, small companies, didn't have the cash flow. So they train you to do it yourself and are available when you have questions. Whether you pay $2,000 for training or $6,500 to have it done for you, neither is better than the other.  It comes down to what you can afford, your current level of understanding the GSA process, and the strength of the organization supporting your schedule effort.

And that brings us to GSA Schedule application pricing. Companies charge between $1,500 and $28,000 to complete your schedule. Those that promise or guarantee expedited GSA processing will charge more. The problem is that most of these companies are lying through their teeth. There are three ways to expedite a schedule and all of them are almost impossible to attain. In my opinion, if you're going to pay for GSA Schedule application services, it should be between $4,500 and $7,500. Are there companies that can do it for less and do it well? Of course there are. But I know how extensive the application process can be and the amount of time it takes. Companies that do these applications for less than $4,500, if they spend the right amount of time and ask you the right questions, can't stay in business if they don't make any money. Then you have companies that charge more than $7,500. I know of one company in Washington DC that charges $28,000. That's just plain ridiculous. The owner told me that all he has to do is "convince four companies to pay that amount and he can vacation most of the year." Now here's the strange part - his clients get their schedules but he also tells them that he will help market their services. In other words, you're putting him on retainer for 12 months. Is he strong enough to help your company? I'm not sure - he understands the federal space but the question is whether or not he understands small business and how to help you position in the market?

Bottom line. There is no right answer and there are thousands of companies that are offereing these services. But before you decide, you have to figure out if you and your company is capable of doing it on your own with some help here and there. Final point - for a number of our clients, we don't even recommend that they get a GSA Schedule. . . really. If you have any questions on this, contact myself or a member of the team and we'll help you make the right decision.

2. Dun and Bradstreet Credibility Corporation (DBCC). Dun and Bradstreet provides a very important service. They provide you with a free DUNS number in order to register with the Government's System for Award Management and every government contract (not counting micro-threshold purchases) requires your DUNS number. But they don't harass you. But Dun and Bradstreet Credibility Corporation harasses tons of small businesses with some very unethical scare tactics. They call to tell you that several companies have accessed your profile and due to an incomplete profile you are losing business. Don't fall for it. Ever heard of rippoffreport.com? Look them up. Don't waste hundreds or thousands of dollars.

3. Small Business Teaming Services. It's funny, but I've found this is a fairly standard service offering for new startup consulting folks that target companies like yours. On the outside, it's a phenomenally strong concept that every company should be doing. For example, one of RSM Federal's core strengths is Programmatic Teaming Strategies. However, what is the value of some guy or gal connecting with you with other companies? Better question - why aren't you doing this yourself? Companies that offer you teaming services almost always offer you consulting services as the primary service. So when you get pitched this service, don't focus on "being connected to other companies" - focus on whether or not the consultant or firm is an expert in government acquisition. It's really that simple - don't pay for teaming services. Pay for expert consultation and teaming services should be a no-cost value-add service.

4. Marketing Catalogues or Books. This one is legal but highly unethical. There is a fairly large industry for these services but the market does not exist . Most companies are used to paying $500 to $3,000 for a quarter or full page advertisement in their local paper or an industry magazine. In fact, RSM Federal just spent $1,000 on such an advertisement. But there are at least a dozen companies I'm aware of that create two to three inch thick catalogues, separated by industry, with quarter and half-page ads for hundreds of companies. They distribute these to approximately 25,000 contracting officers in the Federal government. The only problem is that if contracting officers need to find a company, they do it online via existing government vendor systems. Never pay for this. Money down the drain.

5. Outsourcing Proposal Writing. I recently met a gentleman by the name of Steve Krause who is a Principal with Catalyst Partners in Washington DC. Where we both help businesses grow, we focus on different segments within the market. But we both agreed that there are two terrible decisions a business can make. One is outsourcing your sales and the other is outsourcing proposal development. First it's expensive. Second, it's learning how to think and position which provides a company with the most value. Having a copy of another company's proposal provides you with a template - but it does not help you understand how to strategically plan and design a proposal response. RSM Federal will not write another company's proposal. We've been offered a lot of money to do it and because we know it's absolutely not in the Client's best interests, we have an ethical and professional responsibility to decline. There are techniques and strategies to increase your maturity in this area but outsourcing it is not one of them.

6. Speed Dating Events. Okay, that's what I call them. DoD and various federal agencies call them by other names. It's when you sign-up for an event and you get five minutes with someone and then move to the next table for another five minutes, and you do this for an hour. If you go in with the objective to sell - don't go. If you've never been to one of these and you decide to attend without understanding how to approach these events - don't go. The majority of the folks you meet are not decision makers. The majority of companies attending are in the same boat as you so plans on meeting other companies in order to team with them is not a strong strategy. Most companies waste their time at these events - not because they can't be valuable, but because they don't understand how to approach the event. For small and large business alike, cash flow is king. Don't waste it.

7. Cold Calls. Because RSM Federal is a registered government vendor, even we get two to three calls per week. Drives us nuts. Makes me want to staple the CAN SPAM anti-spam act on their foreheads. We're all in business to make money. Some companies are very good at what they do and others are one or two folks who couldn't find a job, put up a sign on the outside of a vacant building, and told the world they're experts who can get you a $1 million contract in ninety days. When you get a cold call, you really can't tell the difference. Well. . . I can because I know the four or five questions that will immediately tell me if they are competent. But this is also what I do for a living. I'll give you the first question - "What is the URL for your website?" and you ask them to wait while you pull it up. Half the time, you'll quickly be able to identify if they know what they're doing or if they just need some quick cash (your hard-earned cash) until they can find another job. Unfortunately, these are the folks that everyone refers to when they say, "Oh, I've used consultants. . . oh yes I have. .. and I can tell you I spent money and didn't get anything for it." Ask yourself this question: "How many times have you actually paid for services from a cold-call?" Not many. If you're looking for a quality consultant, advisor, whatever term you pick to help your business grow - talk to your colleagues and friends. Get a referral. Yes, exceptions always exist but are you really willing to take that chance?

8. Gmail, Hotmail, and Yahoo Email Accounts. This primarily applies to entrepreneurs, start-ups, and young small businesses. If you're doing business under one of these email accounts, you are severely impacting your brand, your credibility, and the opportunity to make money. If you don't have a an email address where the domain is the name of your company, e.g. @rsmfederal.com, then you're not serious about your business. This is not meant to hurt anyone's feelings. Starting a company is hard and you have to prioritize all of the activities it takes to be successful. But your email domain should be a key priority. Most business owners delete these emails without reading them. Now here's the good news. If you need a professional MS Exchange email account, there are dozens of options online (including Go Daddy) where you can have email for $100 - $200 a year. While RSM Federal's website is managed by another firm, our email is through GoDaddy. Something to think about.

 

Which key ones did we miss? Let us know examples you've had to deal with. 


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Joshua P. Frank is Principal and owner of RSM Federal, a federal consulting and business-acceleration strategy firm that represents small and large businesses in accelerating the education and processes necessary to win government contracts. For more information and videos about RSM Federal, please visit www.rsmfederal.com   

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