Ray Richards is founder of Mindspan Consultants and a technology journalist hailing from Ottawa, Canada

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How To Win Government Contracts

Virtually daily, articles are published regarding the award of enormous government contracts to companies no bigger than yours, and yet; the prospect of selling to this public sector vertical is daunting to say the least. The sweetheart deals and backroom wrangling which outraged you as a taxpayer, now intrigue as you probe the market for opportunity.

Where do you start?

The primary difficulty inherent in selling to the Canadian Government is scale. There are so many personalities to deal with in a department that it often proves an onerous task to discover who the real decision maker is and what their agenda might be - and yet, it is imperative that you do so. Many Canadian civil servants have developed the unfortunate habit of  stringing hapless account executives along with feigned interest in that person's wares, when they have either no desire to purchase or power to do so. I suppose it's the Canadian way - a collective aspiration to remain inoffensive - but it can certainly waste a lot of time and effort! The first thing to remember: qualify early and often. Don't be afraid to ask the tough questions:

  • "So Ms. X, are there other people on your team who will be involved in making this decision, or will you be signing the purchase order yourself?"

This question is not only inclusive of the individual to whom it is addressed by way of the "team" comment (should she turn out not to be the primary decision maker) but additionally utilises a trial close to draw out any early objections and plant the psychological buying seed. It of course also identifies ancillary players should she be a decision maker who manages by consensus, or requires input from others skilled in areas she is not.

  • "Is this project already included in this year's budget Mr. X, or were you planning on implementing next year?"

The purpose of this question is twofold: it determines the level of commitment an organisation has to your proposed solution and also provides the prospect an escape route if he is merely on a fishing expedition.

  • "What other vendors have you been speaking to in reference to this project?"

This question is an excellent means by which to explore several aspects of the prospect's intent. Notice how it is phrased - I didn't query "Have you been...." but assumed that the client was serious, and thus, had already engaged in conversations with other vendors. This doesn't allow the prospect to mislead you as easily about your competitors, and grants you insight into your position relative to them. Additionally, it will allow you to discover at what stage the project is at and whether you have a chance at becoming column 'A' in the proposal selection process or not. If you have come to the party too late, you will undoubtedly be relegated to column 'B', or worse 'C', as part of the selection committee's good, bad and ugly "due diligence" exercise.

Know who you're talking to.

A thorough understanding of the government's inner machinations as pertain to hierarchy is vital to commercial success in this market. You aren't, for example, going to sell an enterprise financial system to a LAN manager, who though important from a technical evaluation perspective, isn't generally going to figure large in the overall decision which will be made by a Director or D.G.. Typically the more people your solution will affect or the more expensive it is, the higher up the ladder you will have to go. While you must certainly be cognisant of departmental pecking order, you must additionally tailor your sales pitch to suit your prospect. If you are selling a box to the LAN manager, you can usually get away with the typical feature / benefit sales delivery, however individuals employed in the upper echelons are far more interested in return on investment and solutions to systemic problems.

What about MERX?

Finally, four words about the Government's  electronic tendering system you should heed: don't waste your time. The system was designed to facilitate access to governmental tenders and open up the market to smaller entrepreneurs, but has become more of a notice board proclaiming your tardiness in identifying and seizing opportunity. If the first time you hear about a tender is on MERX, forget it... you're too late.

Originally published in Computer Dealer News, October, 1999 by technology columnist Ray Richards

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