Women leaders in business management gave presentations on marketing, federal business procedures, and leveraging women-owned and small-business statuses during a July 20 conference at the Silver Spring Civic Center.
By About 300 people turned out for the event, primarily women but a significant number of men as well. The Montgomery County Chamber of Commerce sponsored and marketed the meeting, along with American Express OPEN (the small business division of the financial services company), Women Impacting Public Policy, the U.S. Small Business Administration, and the Defense Department Office of Small Business Programs.
The forum, entitled “ChallengeHER,” also aimed to help women-owned small businesses obtain and market SBA’s WOSB certification. Amy Kim, who heads the SBA WOSB program, gave detailed pointers on how to benefit from the certification.
A panel discussion presented experience and advice from four women leaders in the federal contracting sector. Gloria Larkin, CEO of TargetGov, helps clients find and win federal opportunities. Courtney Fairchild, president of Global Services, assists contractors in writing proposals, and obtaining and keeping federal contracts. Lisa Firestone heads Managed Care Services, which helps agencies and employees make best use of their health coverage. Erica Courtney leads 2020Vet, which assists veterans entering the private job market. Larkin, Fairchild, and Firestone are all celebrating 20 years of being in business in 2017.
A core principle in selling to the government, Fairchild said, is that every agency is a separate market with different procedures and needs. Contractors should learn the agency’s unique situation before responding to opportunities offered in Requests for Proposals, she added. Because agencies differ so widely, she continued, new contractors should limit themselves to one agency and up to three subagencies.
Every government contract has two layers of people to deal with, Larkin said, those in contracting and acquisition, who may know nothing about what the contract actually entails, and the program people and technical experts, who may know very little about contract procedures. Both the contract and program people help to choose the winning bidder.
Larkin suggested that small business people also work with a third layer: the many organizations and specialists available to assist small business win a share of federal business. She particularly recommended meeting with SBA “procurement center representatives” located in SBA offices and federal buying centers around the country.
Selling to the government is like selling elsewhere in some important respects, Larkin added: It’s “relationship-oriented,” and contract decision-makers tend to do business with people “they know, trust, and hopefully, like.”
In other respects, selling to the government is very different than selling to private entities, she continued. Offering lunch and golf outings is illegal in the government, and using them as sales techniques will get a big “L” on your head for “loser,” she said.
A second core principle in federal contract marketing is to follow directions in the RFP “to a T,” Fairchild said. Every part of a contract proposal must stand on its own, so that a mistake in one part doesn’t bring the whole proposal down, she added. She knows of a proposal that wasn’t read because it wasn’t double-spaced per the instructions.
In a similar discussion focused specifically on selling to the Defense Department, Andrea Armstrong, director of small business programs at Aberdeen (MD) Proving Ground, made a similar point. RFP answers are full of irrelevancies, items that don’t specifically answer their questions, and discussions that run too long or short for the allotted page count, Armstrong said. Rosalyn Wiggins of the Defense Contract Management Agency said many proposals are sent in late, which often means they’re ignored. If you just can’t meet the deadline, she said it’s essential to ask for extra time as early as possible.
In preparing a proposal, you have questions about the RFP, you must ask questions at the official “Q&A” session or submit them in writing when all applicants will have access to all answers, Armstrong said. Otherwise, answering your question is considered favoritism by some agencies, and so is barred.
On the other hand, Courtney said, with other agencies, it’s possible to meet and talk with the program people who are the users of the services you’re offering. Such talks can help not only in drafting proposals, but anticipating the needs that agencies will have in the future.