14 key steps for how to win government contracts

If it was easy, anyone could do it

Winning government contracts requires knowing how to succeed at every step throughout a ridiculously long sales cycle. Winning government contracts requires attention and doing your homework. The good news is that most companies really aren’t that good at it. Most companies who are registered to do business with the government end up doing little or none. And most established companies merely do well enough. Most government contractors lose more contract bids than they win. They are vulnerable and can be beat by anyone who puts more focus and effort into accomplishing the things on this list. 

Government contractors with experience should already know every one of the steps below. And yet on any given pursuit they’ll fail to accomplish nearly half of them. If you have experience with winning government contracts, you should read this list with two goals:

  • Be honest with yourself. Your first reaction may be denial. But knowing about something and achieving it are two different things. Trying and accomplishing are also two different things. Be honest with yourself about what you actually accomplish. 
  • Figure out how to accomplish all of them. It will involve working through other people. It will likely involve systematizing or institutionalizing how you accomplish them. That in turn involves pushing against organizational inertia. Being a big company only makes this harder.

If you are new to government contracts:

  • This is a list of what to accomplish. It is not enough to know how to accomplish each step. This is where you start understanding how to win government contracts, but not where you should stop. There is plenty more information on PropLIBRARY for each one and of course other sources of information about them. Your growth and competitiveness will depend on whether you can accomplish all of them better than your competitors.
  • Quit telling yourself that you don’t have enough people to do what you should. What must be done has nothing to do with your head count. How much time you spend on each might. Put at least some attention into all of them. Don’t just pick the easy ones.

Whether you are experienced or not, accomplishing these 14 steps will make you more competitive:

  1. Discover who buys what you sell. There is a ton of historical data about what government agencies buy, and it’s available from many sources. Some are even free. Essentially all government contract actions are recorded. This can help you understand where in the government they have the most interest in what you sell. It will help you realize who to reach out to, build relationships with, and learn more about. 
  2. Understand the procurement process. Government procurement can be a very long process. It is governed by lots of complex rules. And yet, once you learn them, those rules can help you navigate the system. At any moment, you should know what the next step the customer must take, what their decisions will be based on, and be prepared to provide information that can help them. To do that, you need to know their procurement process. Since it’s all publicly available, there’s really no excuse not to.
  3. Understand the roles government staff play in a procurement. When you reach out to contact government staff, be aware that different people play different roles and bring different perspectives to the procurement. Contract officers, contracting officer's technical representatives, agency executives, and program staff all have different interests and involvement in the procurement process. If you understand their roles it will help you figure out who is capable, or at least interested, in answering your questions. Pro tip: Make contact with the people playing each of these roles, but do it in ways that are relevant to their roles to gain the full picture of a procurement.
  4. Understand the realities of teaming. There are companies that do a lot of business through subcontracting instead of prime contracting. There are many more companies that only get a small portion of what they thought had been agreed to as a subcontractor. There are many other issues. Learn everything you can about the realities of teaming if you want to be successful.
  5. Network and build relationships. Networking is important for finding teaming partners who are trustworthy. It’s also important for gaining customer, opportunity, and competitive insight. You can also network to meet customer staff. The larger you network, the more opportunities you'll have to practice relationship marketing.
  6. Be seen as a helpful, credible asset. When you land customer meetings, don’t be the vendor that nobody wants to spend time with. Be the vendor with useful information that helps them do their job even before they start working with you. Be the vendor that helps them understand and inspires them about future possibilities. And above all, be credible. Nobody wants to work with a vendor who is not credible. Most vendors wouldn't even accept their own proposals. If you want follow-up meetings, be seen as an asset and not a needy salesperson.
  7. Show up qualified. You think you’re qualified. But are you? Do you have the past performance, registrations, certifications, insurance, size standards, locations, and anything else that will be required to bid? It makes no sense to bid if they can’t award to you. So learn what qualifications will be required and show up with them all covered. 
  8. Show up on the right contract vehicles. Government customers have different ways to buy things. They call them contract vehicles. Sometimes you respond to RFPs. Sometimes you respond to task orders. And sometimes they can put it on the equivalent of a government credit card. Each way they buy things has very specific rules and limits. Each agency will have preferences regarding how they buy things. Learn what their preferences are and make sure you are registered with or accepted on their preferred contract vehicles before you start selling to them, or else you may not be able to close any sales.
  9. Initiate, inspire, and define. Instead of waiting for public solicitation announcements, try initiating procurements. Get ahead of the RFP. Help potential government customers recognize and define their needs. Along the way, develop deep insight into their needs. Think in terms of initiating procurements instead of finding them. Help potential customers recognize their needs and what to do about them. Gain some influence over the RFP. Establish your credibility and insight before they even see your proposal.
  10. Understand how the customer will score your proposal. If your sales close with a proposal, then understand your customer's evaluation process. Learn to read your proposals like they do. If the highest scoring proposal will win, then discover how their scoring process works so instead of writing a proposal that you think sounds good, you can write a proposal that gets the highest score. Reading the evaluation criteria in the RFP is often not enough to be able to interpret how their scoring process will be applied.
  11. Anticipate the questions that proposal writers will have. If your sales close with a proposal, learn to anticipate the questions your proposal writers will have. Show up with the answers. When the RFP comes out and proposal writers start asking whether the customer would prefer this or that, or they should position something this way or that way, it’s too late to get the answers. 
  12. Develop an information advantage. In services proposals, the best competitive advantage is often an information advantage. If you know more about what matters about the customer, opportunity, and competitive advantage, you can write a proposal that matters more than your competitors. 
  13. Build your proposals around what it will take to win. Simple to say. Hard to do. It’s not the proposal writing that’s hard. It’s discovering what it will take to win. Hint: You need more than the RFP to puzzle it out. 
  14. Perform. Hooray! You won a contract. Now what? There’s this thing call “past performance.” Look it up. If you blow it in performance, this could also be your last contract. Going forward, having exceptional performance can also be a huge advantage for winning more contracts. It's worth the investment. I have seen bad performance cause contractors to crash and burn. Even a slip to a neutral rating is the kiss of death because you can’t be competitive. Do whatever it takes to have exceptional performance.

Plus a bonus tip:

Getting ahead of the RFP is not easy, but here’s a hint: target recompetes. You can be aware of them five years in advance. If you are not ahead of the RFP and don’t go into the recompetes you target with a customer relationship that produces real insight, then you’re just not trying. What you do to capture recompete contracts is good way to catch what you’ve given up on and stopped trying to achieve.


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Carl Dickson

Carl is the Founder and President of CapturePlanning.com and PropLIBRARY

Carl is an expert at winning in writing. The materials he has published have helped millions of people develop business and write better proposals. Carl is also a prolific author, frequent speaker, trainer, and consultant and can be reached at carl.dickson@captureplanning.com. To find out more about him, you can also connect with Carl on LinkedIn.

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