GSA has recently done some soul searching to determine why so many of its vendor partners (a.k.a. GSA contractors) are failing to thrive under its GSA Schedules program and what can be done to help firms better succeed. It could not come at a more opportune time as a perfect storm of numerous firms entering the federal market are encountering outdated business assistance programs.
In recent years, a significant number of companies have entered the market because:
The economy went bad – in light of worsening economic conditions in 2008, many firms lost the core of their private sector business and desperately flocked to the Federal market in search of stimulus funds and government contracts. The GSA Schedules program was an obvious and vital tool to add to a firm’s marketing toolbox, even if the firm did not know what to do with it after it was awarded.
Desperate times bred shysters – numerous so-called “GSA experts” came out of the woodwork in recent years, telemarketing to businesses and promising the moon if the firm only hired them to obtain a GSA contract. Granted, these telemarketers were good at convincing unwitting firms to pursue a schedule contract, but couldn’t care less if the firm was capable of truly marketing to the government. Many of these firms, in actuality, were unaware of what they were getting into and ill-prepared to compete effectively for contracts.
Upon entering the federal market, however, these firms were unable to find many programs that provide current information about what is really needed to succeed. GSA, SBA, and DoD small business programs, while well intentioned, are simply too basic or outdated to be helpful. If one carefully scrutinizes what these agencies promote during small business seminars, one would find that an inordinate amount of time is spent discussing:
required registrations (ORCA, CCR, etc.)
e-tools (eBuy, GSA Advantage FedBizOpps gov, etc)
reasons to partner with larger firms
While tools like eBuy and fbo.gov are essential, many prospective federal vendors falsely inferred that if they only had a GSA contract and used these tools, they would receive loads of RFQ’s,RFPs as well as a steady flow of contracts. And while mentor programs can be great, many small businesses report that they are too tedious to get into. Furthermore, a limited number of Prime contractors can serve only a small percentage of small businesses.
With due respect – all of these programs are necessary and good, but they are insufficient to promote success in the market. That is where the problem lies.
Law of Unintended Consequences
While not intended by these agencies, small businesses often come away from these sessions mistakenly feeling that just registering in various databases and proactively searching for opportunities would be the keys to their success. This idea is further reinforced by many private sector firms. They offer their own bid-searching databases that are bigger and better than fedbizopps. Numerous buyers guides are promoted – “just place your listing with us and you will win loads of contracts!”
Relationship Building is King
But the reality is that relationship building has been and always will be the key to success in federal marketing. Many gurus have been saying this for years and many prime contractors have been employing this practice with great success. And to their credit, SBA, GSA, DoD and PTAC’s advocate relationship building by promoting matchmaking sessions and offering the services of small business liaison officers to foster relationship building activities.
So what’s the problem? I believe that all of these agencies need to step back and assess how much effort they are putting into fostering a bidding strategy versus a relationship building strategy. Some ideas that agencies have or should consider include:
- Revamp training programs to emphasize the importance of relationship building aspects of federal marketing and consider developing tools to foster relationships.
- Deemphasize the use of outdated and ineffective marketing techniques that haven’t worked all that well. They should encourage the use of Federal inbound marketing techniques and related social media that enable businesses to attract federal clients rather than disrupting them through ineffective, outdated marketing techniques.
- Build a platform using social media and related technologies to help small contractors connect with agency personnel in a meaningful way to share ideas on solving the nation’s problems.
- Build a platform for a virtual mentor-protégé program to allow greater participation in these valuable programs.
- Revamp the small business liaison programs so that they provide more useful information to vendors and better connect vendors to pertinent program staff. Some small business reps do a great job at this but too often this is a hit or miss proposition.
- Improve the quality and specificity of information contained in the annual forecast of agency procurements, so that firms can better understand agency needs.
- Consider changes to the small business subcontracting program that provide real tools and platforms so that large business can more readily find various small businesses. The current tools such as the small businesses dynamic database don’t foster relationship building.
To their great credit, GSA and other agencies have shown a willingness to critically review their own programs and are attempting to come up with positive changes. Hopefully many of these ideas and others from those who have achieved success in the federal market will foster small business growth in the federal market.