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Build Better Government-Small Business Relationships

handshakeRelationships matter. It’s a simple but powerful statement that is true in most areas of life, particularly in business. Trusting and lasting business relationships fuel the creation and completion of projects that serve organizational missions. Relationships lead to new opportunities. In the federal sector, it is critical to build solid relationships between government, prime, and subcontractors through open lines of communication.

But how do you approach relationship-building? When is the right time to work on them, and with whom? We tackled these questions for the 2015 NCMA Small Business Virtual Conference, looking at relationships from both the Government perspective and the Small Business perspective.

Government Perspective – Patricia Miller

Patricia Miller PhotoBecause government agencies rely on businesses for the goods and services that will help them meet their missions, they are routinely establishing new relationships. So WHO are the key people to know in government? Contracting Officers (COs), Contracting Officer Representatives (CORs), and Small Business Advocates top the list. As the agent of the government, the CO has authority to take actions on RFPs, proposals, contracts and modifications. COs may delegate contract management responsibilities such as performance monitoring, invoice review and approval to CORs. Small business advocates help identify businesses that could potentially meet the government’s needs.

WHEN from the government’s perspective, are they most available to build or enhance relationships? There are key times within the acquisition and planning strategy cycle.

Market Research Phase: COs are looking for contractors to fulfill their requirement so it’s an important time to be visible and available.

  • It’s the job of government small business advisors to meet with you, so be persistent in contacting them. The squeaky wheel gets the oil
  • Government looks for companies on gov. You should be registered
  • Government will choose the most appropriate contract vehicle. (NITAAC, NASA Sewp, GSA Schedules)
  • Check daily for upcoming acquisitions, and check with individual agencies for their enterprise-wide contract vehicles
  • Government hosted networking opportunities
  • Conferences
  • Small Business Outreach Events
  • Acquisition Association’s training events

Contract Management Phase: Once a contract is awarded, it’s a benefit to both the government and the contractor to maintain and enhance that relationship. Just like in any good marriage, communication is vital.

  • A kick-off meeting provides a detailed review of the contract requirements, payment terms and conditions
  • The government expects monthly status reports and quarterly status meetings
  • Performance should be documented and reviewed with CORs and COs verbally, by email, and through reports
  • The prime contractor is responsible for the performance of the subcontractor and is being paid to manage the program. In other words, the government’s relationship is with the prime and not the sub. While there will be no direct contact with a sub, their performance will be noted

Small Business Perspective – Kevin Schmitt

Kevin Schmitt photoIndividual events such as industry days or conferences are important, but relationship building is really about not just one event, but the next one and the one after, and so on. The adage, “It’s a marathon, not a sprint” applies because relationships take time and effort to nurture and build.

Begin building relationships before you really need them. Start by looking internally and asking:

  • Why your company (Differentiation)
  • Does your company understand the client? (Intimacy)
  • What’s the perception of the company? (Reflection)
  • Do they trust us?  (Partnership)
  • Does our product meet the need? (Capability)
  • Can our product/service influence the need? (Shaping)
  • Can we win a competition? (Credibility)

Once you’ve answered these questions, begin reaching out using the avenues of communication Pat described above. In my experience, it can take 40 to 50 touch-points to establish a solid relationship. The likelihood and quality of the relationship will be greatly affected by what a small business brings to the table – ideas, solutions, information, etc… that are not all about them.

  • Government market research (RFIs, Sources Sought) – This is just a starting point. To stand out, have something to say that is relevant to the challenge at hand
  • Networking opportunities (industry days, conferences, etc…) – We all dream of making a brilliant connection at an event that leads to a contract. But it’s likely that attendance is more of a long-term investment. Be strategic. If you’re targeting a certain agency or department, attend smaller, more focused events. Use larger events to reach out to potential teaming partners
  • Existing contracts – This is one of the best places to develop long-term relationships because you already have permission to stay in close contact with decision-makers such as COs and CORs. Nurture that valuable resource by ensuring regular contact not just through the program manager, but also through your executive team
  • Current and past relationships – The best COs and CORs are in high demand and often move to different agencies. Follow them and stay in touch to remain top of mind when they need to find small business solutions for their new mission
  • Potential teaming partners – As with government relationships, long-term partnerships are most beneficial. To find good partners ask if they share your core values, are they reliable, do they complement not copy your capabilities? Strong partnerships allow you to respond quickly to new opportunities
  • Prime/Subcontractors – the Prime has ultimate responsibility for a contract but you’re all being judged as one team. Respect the prime/sub relationship by treating each other as if they are the client with on time, accurate work; clearly communicated expectations and responsibilities; and integrity in all aspects of the relationship

Relationships do Matter

Patricia – Good relationships can lead to continued collaboration, mission success for government agencies, and new opportunities for business. While there are certain restrictions on when and how government can talk to business, it is always looking to establish new relationships that meet its needs. Be visible and available to COs, CORs and small business advocates. Remember, the squeaky wheel gets the oil!

Kevin – There’s another saying, “the best time to plant a tree is 15 years ago.” Start now because relationships take time. Expect to have 40-50 interactions to build a strong, reliable relationship. Make sure you give back, not just take. Making the effort to provide relevant, timely solutions and share opportunities is an investment in the long-term health of your business.

How do you approach relationship building? Comment or reach out to us with your thoughts.

About the Authors: Patricia Miller had a lengthy career in the Federal government, including more than 20 years at the General Services Administration (GSA) and the Federal Acquisition Service (FAS).  She now supports government clients as a Senior Acquisition Analyst with Integrity. Kevin has over 17 years of experience in Department of Defense and commercial related operations, acquisition, technology, and strategic planning projects. He now leads multi-year, multi-million dollar programs in support of the Department of Defense as a Program Director at Integrity.

Related Article: Market Research for Small Business in a Time of Limited Interaction