Many business owners I talk at this time of year are intently focused on ways to close Q4 federal business. That's good! I'm worried for the ones whose plan is focused on pitching before they have a clue about how the whole game is played.
They are absolutely sure that every agency needs what they do, because every agency has the problem that they solve. They’ve found the person to call. Once she takes their call, they’ll just confirm the ol’ pain point, ask for a few minutes to show a demo, and pitch her on doing a six-month pilot. Price point, just $65,000, right out of the gate! Fast, easy, money in the bank.
A lot that can go wrong with that conversation. Here's how not to strike out when you jump in the game.
The buyer needs to have confidence in you and your company, and you need to know what the buyer has on their mind to buy. That’s a tall order for a first conversation with someone you’ve never met, who’s almost certainly doing business with somebody else. Do you know who that is, or how her organization’s unique twist on that problem actually lines up with what you have to offer?
Before you answer that question, imagine that instead of pitching in the federal government, you wanted to pitch in another complex enterprises with a big budget, multiple stakeholders and players at the national and regional levels, and even supplier diversity programs: Major League Baseball.
Would you walk into the middle of a championship Major League Baseball game, jump the fence, dash onto the mound, grab the ball out of the pitcher’s hand, and start throwing it? Of course not. You’d have no idea what pitch to throw, what’s happening on the field, or anything about each team’s strengths and weaknesses.
This time of year, federal fourth quarter, is like being in the championship finals of contracting.
You want to play in the pennant race? What team are you on, what position do you play best, who are your teammates? Everybody can throw, but we already know who the pitchers are. So, where are you in the batting order? Are you the designated hitter? Batting cleanup? A pinch-hitter? The all-rounder?
As a prospective vendor, how receptive would a team be if you were to jump in and pitch right away? When you don’t know the team or the players, on your team or the other side?
Here’s the twist. As a federal contract “pitcher,” your job isn’t to show off your fastball, strike out the batter, and shut out the other team. In the federal sales game, both teams – the government employees and the contractors – are on the same side. You’re working together to hit it out of the park. It’s your job to pitch so the end user does scores the home run. So how do you know what to pitch?
In baseball, the catcher runs the game. Here’s the secret: In the federal game, the catcher is the contracting officer. How well do you know your “catcher” in that agency? Every day she’s showing you the signs, the subtle nuances, to tell the pitchers, who are the bidders, what pitch to throw. They know the batter – your end user – better than you do. Your catcher, if she likes you, will guide you right to the batter’s sweet spot.
All right. What’s the smart play in the federal sales game?
Are you hoping to move up from subcontractor to prime? That’s like hoping to get called up from the minors, to get your first big shot in post season play. This late in the season, it’s realistic to show you’ve got game. Look for opportunities to show enough of your stuff to get a tryout, and see if you can get on the roster for next season. You need to play the long game.
Let’s say you’d really like to bring home that $65,000 pilot project, but we’re on the brink of fiscal year end. You could offer an outline or statement of work for a “wish-list” project. That way, if your prospect comes down to the last few weeks of the fiscal year, and has some use-or-lose money, you can help them out. That’s like offering to pinch-hit, or to bat clean-up.
To pitch yourself as the prime, you’ve got to work your way up from the minors, with small jobs in your own backyard. If you can show a solid batting average in the minor leagues (think “subcontracting” or “commercial contracts,” to establish a track record), that can influence the manager to give you a shot. Don’t expect to go in as the lead-off pitcher. Even when you make the team, you might practice hard but spend a lot of time on the bench watching. You might get a chance for a couple of innings, maybe do a little relief pitching. It takes most players years of training and practice to know what they’re doing, and how to play seamlessly with their teammates. When that day comes, when you know the game and have the trust of the players and, most importantly, can delight the fans, you’ll be on the team and pitching in the line-up!
Before you earn the right to pitch, you need to know the game.