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Is Selling to Government Really that Different from Selling to Business?
At local, state, and federal levels throughout the country, lawmakers are fighting it out over spending but that doesn’t change an obvious fact for business: this year, and every year, trillions of dollars of government contracts will still be awarded. The government buys almost every type of good or service imaginable, representing real opportunity for business.
What’s not so obvious is how to win those contracts. Businesses that are successful selling to the private sector may not be successful selling to government, even though their goods or services may be perfect for government. This can be very frustrating. Even businesses with a track record selling to government sometimes want to throw in the towel and forego significant opportunities.
One of the most common mistakes by people both novice and experienced in government sales is failing to understand what really makes a government sale possible. Government procurement rules are strict and complicated. Requests for proposals, pre-bid meetings, contract vehicles, etc. all are designed to water down ability to influence government buyers – even when intentions are honorable. Accountability is high, and buying decisions are made by groups of risk-adverse people. No one, not even the President or the Mayor, can write a check to a vendor without visibility and accountability.
Even with the frustrating maze of rules and process to work through, the bottom line is that people are still making buying decisions, even in the government. They want the same things we want when we buy. They just go through the process of buying differently. The daunting process makes it easy to understand how mistakes (and frustrations) can develop when pursuing the rewards of selling to government.
The first mistake: Assume that RFPs drive government business. At first glance, the path to government work seems obvious – wait for a government agency to issue a Request for Proposal or bid, then respond with your most convincing proposal. The government asks, you give the best answer, you get the work. Right? Not so fast.
The fact of the matter is that, by the time an RFP has been issued, buying preferences have been established. If you’re hearing about the opportunity for the first time when the bid becomes public, chances are good that you’re too late to the game. Those who’ll be favored are the ones who have established relationships well before the RFP has been issued.
These are not golf club or BFF-type relationships. These are business relationships that help them understand the real pain buyers are trying to relieve. Despite genuine, best efforts of RFP writers, the documents often don’t clearly communicate the real issues at hand. Those with pre-established relationships will be in a better position to know what the real issues and hot buttons are, and their proposal will be much stronger. And, no, lowest price doesn’t always win.
Developing these relationships is not happenstance. In fact, we teach to our clients specific tactics for building these relationships (that don’t involve playing golf). At their core, these tactics are all based on establishing a foundation of trust, and building reliance. One that works particularly well is becoming a source for solid and meaningful knowledge and expertise. While cold calling may be king in some selling situations, content is king when selling to government. Providing strong content is at the core of your personal branding strategy.
Another mistake? Assume that you should focus on going to the top. Salespeople in the world of private business aim to get in front of the chief decision-makers, the people who can say yes or no to their proposals. Much of their effort is centered around making their way to the big boss.
Government sales is a different story. It is always a nice to get in front of a high-level government official, but if you don’t have buy-in up and down the ladder, you’ll have a very tough sell. While senior leadership may be responsible for following the course laid out by their bosses (politicians), they seldom make buying decisions. We were in a one-on-one meeting with a Presidential cabinet secretary once who really liked what we were proposing. We thought, with his clout, the sale would close. It never did.
Instead of the top, you should always go to where it hurts the most – find the officials most affected by the problem you can solve and gain their support. Tactics for gaining support are based upon developing an understanding of their pains, fears, and motivations, then relating your product or solution to pain relief (we call this the Pain Mapping process).
Yet another erroneous belief when it comes to government: sales presentations seal the deal. Yes, you may be asked to make a presentation, but like responding to RFPs, clear preferences are often formed prior to the presentation. (By the way, note that we’re using the word “preferences”, not decisions.)
Most people structure their presentations wrong anyway. They generally include lots of slides with facts and figures about how good their products and services are. Then, they end with a thud by discussing pricing. We like a rock concert-type of approach. Put the “really good stuff” first and finish with the “best stuff” (the encore with your smash “hit”).
And, of course, the presentation must relate to the audience and what they really want to hear, not what the salesperson thinks they should hear about how cool his/her products and services are. (Ever been to a concert where you watched as the band entertained themselves? We bet you didn’t buy any expensive T-shirts on the way out.)
Meantime, salespeople are often taught to close deals by effectively overcoming objections. This is another myth. When it comes to government, closing and objection handling methods are way overrated, if not useless.
In the first place, this is a “directing” tactic designed to craftily replace negative perceptions with positive ones. The government procurement system is built to minimize manipulation. You may never find yourself in a position to play this game.
Relying on ability to overcome objections often leaves government salespeople frustrated wondering “what went wrong”. A better approach is to have in place the key relationships that will allow you to learn how the government organizationis truly defining “value” for this particular purchase (we refer to this as Value Portfolio Selling).
Then, once you’re in the hunt, you’ll need to make sure you truly understand the process involved for buying. RFPs and other publically available information will provide a good starting point, but only a starting point. There are almost always kinks in the system and unseen obstacles and challenges…even after you’ve been told you’re being awarded the contract. Those key relationships will help you understand what’s really happening.
Finally, yes, government selling has unique differences and frustrations. But, while the process is different, the fundamentals are the same – you sell best when you’re helping others overcome their problems. Don’t let the frustration scare you off, if you have products and services the government needs. Properly done, you can get a lot of satisfaction, financially and otherwise, selling to the government.
Many more articles in Performance Improvement in The CEO Refresher Archives