Why B2B Best Intentions Struggle in the Federal Sector

We see a high concentration of business to business (B2B) and commercial companies struggling to expand into the federal and government sector (FedGov). Why? They’re applying their sales process and acquisition tactics to the FedGov space. Unfortunately, navigating the FedGov’s procurement process isn’t that simple.

To help our B2B friends better understand the world of FedGov proposal development, we’re sharing a few tips gained from responding to thousands of federal proposals. Not a B2B company? A refresher is still helpful! In fact, we recently conducted proposal writing training at successful government contractor, Longview Technology, to help boost their expertise responding to FedGov RFPs.

The federal market is…how shall we say…“unique.”

From a sales perspective, federal and B2B markets are similar in the sense that you need to persuade a buyer to see value in your offerings and give them information to make a purchasing decision. But, the process by which that happens is markedly different and requires a different mindset and set of tools to secure a win. In the FedGov space; procurement laws, compliance regulations and requirements, and schedules and contract vehicles drive how products and services are purchased.

Their hearts are in the right place.

While complying with the slew of strict policy guidelines and directives may feel like a burden or unnecessary, the impetus for the red tape has an honorable foundation: to better ensure purchasing decisions are transparent, fair, and reasonable. Government entities aren’t trying to ruin your day with their RFP—they are required to follow applicable Federal Acquisition Regulations (FAR) procurement laws and can face legal challenges, scope modifications, and risk getting the procurement cancelled completely if they don’t. These rules are designed to ensure all companies have equal access to government business, and acquisitions are fair and open. So, no closed-door deals and no favoritism.

Why? Because the government said so.

The government must be explicit and even-handed in purchasing decisions and how bidders are evaluated. But the public and structured nature of its bidding process can also mean our B2B friends have less access to personal interactions with decision makers than they are used to. In the B2B world, you may be able to seal a commercial deal over lunch, but in government acquisitions, those interactions are prohibited after the RFP goes live (sometimes before). Plus, any communication with one vendor must be shared publicly with the rest of the potential vendors, so it may not benefit you to plant seeds that must be shared with your competition.

But don’t despair if these rules of engagement leave you feeling in the dark. We’re going to let you in on a little secret…the RFP you’re reviewing and about to create a response for? It’s one massive cheat sheet. All the answers to the what, when, how, where, and why of a winning response are contained within those pages. And while many know how important it is to read and understand the RFP from a SOW standpoint, we realized that some still don’t see how vital the RFP is in driving the outline and content of your response.

Example: we’ve seen many companies not advance to the next round or get disqualified solely due to non-compliance with the stated criteria and requirements set forth in the RFP. And the top two reasons used to rationalize ignoring the government’s specific and clear requests?

The government doesn’t know what they need—we do.

In the B2B world, some procurements can kick off with a “send us a proposal and tell us what you can do for us” kind of request—giving maximum flexibility to show off your capabilities and sell value and price. B2B specs are often driven by desired outcomes (“we want to improve our IT security”) and less by prescriptive requirements (“we want to improve our IT security by implementing XXX specific tool”). This difference is key. The government is much more specific in what they want done and how they want it done. Your job is to make sure your response addresses each and every specified requirement.

This means that sometimes your company may have other innovative products or services you want to tell the government about…but they are outside the scope of the work. Or, you may think the government’s requirements are missing a vital component and you’re tempted to give them something different than what they asked for because you know it’s a better solution for them.

But STOP! Don’t second-guess their motivations. They may be limited by legacy technology, other programs, budget constraints, security needs, or even political pressures driving the requirements. To advance to the next stage, you need to simply respond to the stated requirements explicitly and in detail. Then, if you have any space leftover to weave in other value-add products or services…go for it.

The requirements aren’t clear.

We get it. Government solicitations are complex. They are full of jargon and acronyms. Requirements sometimes contradict themselves. And what do all those sections mean? It’s tempting to ignore the instructions without realizing that each element is a very specific instruction requirement and many of which are required by law.

Moral of the story? Always follow the instructions precisely—even when they seem illogical.

Focus on RFP Requirements to create solution

Let the RFP drive your response, not your own vision.

Every (ok…most) federal proposals are going to include the following sections. Also, even if the RFP doesn’t use these exact terms, these components will be in there…somewhere.

  • Section A. Standard Form 18, 33, 30, 1449, etc.
  • Section B. Supplies or Services and Prices/Costs
  • Section C. Statement of Work (SOW) or Performance Work Statement (PWS)
  • Sections D, E, F, G, H and I. Contain technical requirements of contract award
  • Section J. List of Attachments
  • Section K. Representation and Certifications and Other Statements of Offerors
  • Section L. Instructions to Offeror
  • Section M. Evaluation Criteria for Contract Award

Knowing what each of these sections contains helps you focus and maximize your attention, but we also suggest prioritizing how you read and analyze the RFP by skipping ahead and reading in this order:

  • Section C features the SOW/PWS and the services, products, and deliverables in the contract. This is the place to confirm that your company has the expertise required, if you need to bring on subcontractors to meet some of the requirements, or if you have a competitive advantage in any of the requirements. Now you know if you can do the work when you win and how to mitigate any gaps in your service delivery.
  • Section M contains the evaluation criteria. This section is going to tell you how the government will score you, how the criteria is ranked and weighted, and what the evaluation process will be. If the management approach is the highest ranked criteria, you know that they are looking for a bulletproof process to manage quality and personnel. If they are looking for innovation and your company is more focused on proven solutions, you may what to think twice about moving forward.
  • Section L gives you the exact flow for your proposal response and details on the page count, page layout (margins, fonts, page sizes), and submission requirements. This section gives you an idea of how much writing is involved and how long you have to do it. That alone may cause you to make a NO BID decision if you don’t have the time or people to physically pull the proposal together. Or, you can give us a call to support your team, free up that missing bandwidth, and make sure you never pass on a winning opportunity.

While these sections cover the bulk of the requirements that enable you to make a BID/NO BID decision, you still have to go back and read the entire RFP for all requirements—including contractual, security, and pricing.

Increase your success by embracing change.

This approach may feel like an abrupt departure from your typical relationship-building sales model (and you may find yourself throwing your hands up in frustration from time to time). But the purchasing practices of B2B businesses and the FedGov couldn’t be more different. FedGov is a world where following guidelines closely can make or break your ability to win. Modifying your B2B sales processes can help you meet their strict parameters and gain access to the lucrative government market.

Make your processes easier. Create stronger proposal responses. And win more. That’s our mantra, so if you want to pick our brain on more FedGov-specific RFP best practices, reach out! We’d love to connect.