Don't look at filling your pipeline as one big monumental task. Divide and conquer. Do this based on defining categories for your leads and setting targets. People often look for “a” source of leads, when they should be looking for all of the potential sources of leads.
But what percent of your leads should come from each? This varies a great deal, company by company. What you don’t want to do is chase them all with the results being random, because then your company will grow like a weed. Decide what a healthy mix of leads for your company will be and set targets accordingly in each of the categories. This will ensure your long term growth is balanced and strong.
It will also help keep you from getting overwhelmed because each problem you have to solve, like how many leads can you get from relationship marketing, becomes a smaller more solvable problem. It will also help provide focus, resource allocation, and time management. Finally, it brings some structure to how you track your progress toward filling your pipeline.
Here are some sources to consider:
- Recompetes of your competitors. These will most often be found in databases. But nearly every government opportunity you decide not to bid or lose will come back around. Private sector opportunities are not as likely to be recompeted periodically, so this may not be a viable market segment if you are not a government contractor. If you are, you can know of recompetes years in advance. These are often the easiest to get ahead of the RFP and practice relationship marketing on.
- Organic growth. Can your current contracts expand in scope or volume? It may require a contract modification, but if the customer agrees that there is a need and a budget, a contract modification is easier than a new procurement. Always be thinking about what else you could do for the customer and try to have the kind of discussions where they can discover that you have capabilities that are broader than what you are currently doing for them.
- Relationship marketing generated leads. For some portion of your leads, you should drop the databases and discover those leads by talking to and getting to know your customers. How do you know which customers will provide leads? Start with a database that can show you who buys what you sell. Then get to know them by becoming an asset to them instead of a narcissistic vendor. The more what you offer resembles a commodity, the less interested the customer will be in having a relationship with their vendor. However, the more what you offer resembles unique solutions to problems or complex services, the more that the customer will want to know enough about its vendor so it can decide whether to trust them. In between is a bell curve and your offering will likely lean to one side or the other. How much it leans determines how many of your leads should be generated through relationship marketing. Relationship marketing will pay off even on bids where the customer doesn’t tell you about the leads by giving you the kind of insight that provides an information advantage for your proposals.
- Marketing. Marketing is about reaching out to potential customers to bring them into your sales funnel. It comes in both inbound (waiting for them to contact you, such as through your website) and outbound (email, associations, tradeshows, etc.) variations. Marketing is crucial for companies that sell commodities. It is often ignored by companies that look for a relatively small number of large contracts for complex solutions. Small businesses tend to ignore marketing because it looks like a high risk expense. However, if you're planning for the long term and you don’t start marketing in the short term, you’ll never get there.
- Contract vehicle considerations. Customers have different ways of buying. This is especially true for government customers, who may purchase through specific contracts, indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (ID/IQ) contracts, catalogs, ordering agreements, sole source contracts, micropurchases, and simplified acquisition. You want to be able to sell through the contract vehicles that your customer prefers to use. If they like a certain ID/IQ, you need to be on it. If they like the GSA schedule, you need to be on that. If you are an 8(a), you want to find agencies that do a lot of sole source procurement. And if what you sell can be packaged under the threshold for simplified acquisition (currently $250,000 but it can vary so look it up), then ask because you might be able to make things easier for your customers. And if what you sell can be packaged under $10,000 it might be as easy as a credit card transaction through micropurchases. Having more contract vehicles means having more options, but don’t expect the vehicle to bring your customers to you. Expect to bring the vehicle that the customer prefers to them.
- Prime vs sub considerations. When contracts cover more than any one company can provide, they form teams that share the work and provide a stronger solution than any of them could provide individually. In some areas this is so routine that all business involves teaming. In others, it’s the opposite. While there are companies that prosper with all their business coming from subcontracting, they tend to be manufacturers of unique devices that aren’t easy for other companies to make, and services that are truly unique. This means that everyone else needs to be a prime. You can still do some subcontracting, and the mix will vary. It will largely depend on how well you trust your primes, and that will largely depend on how much they need you. Small, minority, and disadvantaged contracting requirements play into this. So set your targets strategically according to how much you want to play each role and begin networking with companies so that you can better find the prime or sub that you want instead of getting stuck with whatever you can find.
RFIs and Sources Sought. Requests for Information (RFIs) and sources sought notices are often announced ahead of a solicitation, usually around 30 days. If the customer plans to announce a draft RFP, sometimes longer. Occasionally much longer. If you start your pursuit at a public announcement it is not the same as getting ahead of the RFP. They are nearing the end of their acquisition process and are not at the beginning. Your chances of influencing it are small. But you can try. The first thing you should do is determine why they made the announcement. In some cases it will be an inconsequential routine. In others it will be strictly to determine whether two or more small businesses will respond by saying they can do the work to determine whether to make it a set-aside. In other cases it will be to head off any protests. And in a few rare and precious cases, it will be because they aren’t sure how to write the RFP and want to get some industry advice. The reason they are making the announcement will determine how or if you respond. Responding will almost never give you an advantage during the evaluation of proposals. But it does give you a chance to introduce your company and show that you can be an asset to them.