Congratulations on your contract award (But hold your celebration)

As a GovCon strategist I work with companies not only helping them win work – but advising them on the best tactic to resolve issues that arise during performance. No doubt, capture and business development (sales) is important to every company’s leadership team. And contract start ups are equally deserving of the attention of the leadership team.

Congratulations on your contract award

(But hold your celebration)

You did the research, made the connections, formed a team of individuals and perhaps other firms. Then you wrote your proposal. And the Gods smiled on you and you won the contract. Your company is growing. But the real work has just begun.

Focus on how you are going to perform

In my 30 plus years in this business, too few companies go into the proposal phase with a clear plan detailing how they will perform successfully if they win. Instead they hire proposal consultants, like me, to write a proposal that is compelling and lays out a clear plan on how they will perform. Much of the time what we write is just short of fiction.

How does this happen? We proposal writers are not operating in bad faith – and neither are the companies that hire us. Much of what proposal writers do is interview the technical experts at our clients to uncover how they will do what it is that they do. We take what the experts tell us and turn it into performance plans, timelines, and descriptions of the qualifications that are required of the team that will be performing the contract, if they win. Winning is where the problem can begin.

Watch out for two situations at contract start up.

  • Transitioning after winning a re-compete. Most companies that target winning a re-compete of an existing contract plan to use the current staff during the transition and throughout contract performance to implement their approach. This makes sense because these employees presumably know the work, the culture and the agency team. This can be good – but it must be handled carefully. The hardest part of any job, including managing a government contract, is managing complex relationships. Incumbent staff may be very likely to resist any changes to the “business as usual” that they have known. Therefore they are less than enthusiastic to the way you want to run your contract. Further incumbent staff are often loyal to the agency team, not their prior employer, and certainly not you – the new employer.
  • Change Management. The agency team knows that they can’t tell you who to hire to manage and perform the contract, but they – like most humans – don’t like change. Even if the were not completely in synch with the outgoing contract management team, they were familiar with them and knew what to expect. So while I advise my clients to consider putting their own manager in place as soon as they can, this is not always possible or easy to do. Installing your own contract leadership team is one of the most effective ways to take control of the contract and make sure your team is complying with the contract requirements. This team, your team, is much more likely to look out for your company’s interest at least as much as they are looking out for themselves and the agency.
  • The contract does not reflect reality. Most contracts contain irregularities. Many times the requirements in the contract do not reflect the true expectations of the agency team. There may be errors or there may be requirements that don’t reflect what the agency wants you to do. And there may be performance expectations that are NOT in the contract, but that have become the operational norm. You could also encounter a situation where the contract contains actions that the agency team will take, but that the agency team is unaware of and therefore they have never performed them. The solution? Go over the contract in detail at any kick off meeting. And then follow up on action items. Document everything of substance that was discussed in the meeting and provide a copy of your documentation to the government team, including the contracting officer. And then continue to document, document, and document again. Learn the delicate art of asking for clarifications, guidance. And pursue contract modifications to make the contract reflect reality. And remember that you goal is to do all of this without making your client look like they are wrong. The goal here is to work together as a team and to keep your contract and build your past performance. In this business the need to manage complex relationships cannot be understated.

Every contract has issues

Your best offense is reading and understanding your contract. Including all those FAR clauses that many people, often in small businesses, never read until it is too late. The purpose of a contract is to define the roles and responsibilities of all parties to the contract. This includes the FAR clauses that are incorporated by reference. It’s important to know what the government can demand of you, what you can demand of the government, what your rights are when issues arise, and what the government rights are when issues arise. And they will arise. Be prepared!

Here’s a question I received last month from a Business Incubator Program participant

Past Performance

Hi Karla,

I was looking at the past performance template that you gave us for a guide. My problem is that my commercial clients are reluctant to provide a reference much less, fill out a form, because they are afraid of being sued. The most I can get them to do is to confirm that we worked with them, the time frame, a description of the services and that’s about it. Some will say we are in good standing – others will not.

Considering this, how do I gather the type of past performance that I need to compete for a government contract?

Frustrated in Fresno


Here’s how I approach this

Past performance is the challenge.

But first let me say, it’s great that they will verify the work you have done. Sometimes that will be enough. But other times the government wants more details and information submitted to them directly from your past and current clients.

How do you prove you did a good job when everyone in the commercial sector is reluctant to talk due to fear of retribution? Let alone fill out a Past Performance Questionnaire and send it to the CO directly.

This has worked for me and many of my clients.

Fill out the form in my template pack yourself. Be factual and objective. Include the contact information for your clients
Show the completed form to your client. Explain the purpose of the form and give them an opportunity to comment on its contents. Explain to them WHY you completed this form and the importance that the government places on past performance.

In my experience, the only way to overcome this challenge is through honest, transparent conversation. Not everyone will care about your challenges or will respond well to this conversation and you efforts to explain why you need their help. But some will. That’s why relationships matter. In every aspect of your business.

Be persistent. I know this is yet another challenge and can seem exhausting. But the payoff can be great.


Readers: What has worked for you?

Not so fast – things aren’t rosy for all small businesses looking for government contracts.

The SBA regularly takes victory laps about how well the government is doing in meeting its goals to award contracts to small businesses.

Just because the government “met” their small business goals, it doesn’t mean that the field is open for small businesses at large. Yes I know that they failed to meet their HUBZone goals and their WOSB goals, yet their scorecards look rosy to the naked eye. And while the dollar value of awards made to small businesses has increased, the number of small businesses in the market continues to fall year after year. There are three primary reasons for this.

Many in government won’t acknowledge the reality of today’s environment.

Visit with your average small business rep and they will tell you the same thing they’ve always told you.

  • You need a capability statement
  • Watch for opportunities that you can bid on
  • Register for a bid match service with your PTAC
  • Review agency forecasts
  • Attend matchmaker events so you can start out as subcontractor

None of these tips are technically wrong. But they only scratch the surface of what a company has to do to win contracts today.

And while it is NOT the job of the OSDBU to train companies to win government contracts, I can’t help but think that giving them the full picture could improve results.

Below I examine two reasons why.


Category Management changed the game – maybe forever.

I was speaking with a company this week that remembers the good old days of GovCon. When was that you may ask? Well there was a time when a small business really could grow without strategically teaming to win Best In Class multiple award contracts in order to even have a chance to compete. Believe it or not – not that long ago a small business simply had to review forecasts and FBO to locate things that they could bid on. The numbers game worked for companies who knew how to win. And the companies who knew how to perform after the win grew. Not anymore. These days you have to have a vehicle – even when you have self-marketed yourself and the client wants you.

The company I mentioned above nearly lost an opportunity to benefit from their good and innovative work. You see, the government liked what they were doing and wanted to buy MORE of their services. The deal almost got away though because they didn’t have a “vehicle” that made it EASY for the government to make the purchase. It seems that agencies only go through to find vendors as a last resort in many cases.

Over reliance on Past Performance

A good performance record has always led to a good reputation which gave businesses an edge in competing in multiple agencies. But once past performance became required, many agencies forgot how to use their good common sense and look at things other than CPARS to determine if a company can do what they say they can do. Many of these same agencies complain that they can’t find new suppliers. Do the math. If you require past performance and limit the definition of past performance to mean past performance with the government or past performance with a specific agency you’ll get the same pool of companies competing.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We have a workshop coming up in October focusing on how to win without past performance. In this workshop we’ll talk about what the government CAN consider and ways to help them realize they have more flexibility in assessing past performance than they may realize.


Saving an opportunity that has gone awry

Is it possible to save an opportunity that has not gone the way you thought it would? Maybe. Let’s talk about a couple of strategies to try and how you can use this disappointment to position yourself more favorably in the future.

Last time I shared a story about a client who lost the opportunity to compete for a requirement they had been tracking for years because the agency chose to use a contract vehicle that they did not have.

Once this becomes obvious is there anything you can do?

  1. Examine the acquisition approach carefully to find reasons to challenge the solicitation. In our instance the agency planned to use a GSA schedule for a non-related category. After we discovered this, we contacted the agency small business office and asked them why this requirement was being competed this way. We also provided them with information documenting that this strategy was likely to limit competition. Other reasons to challenge the solicitation can be harder to spot and difficult to substantiate. If you are challenging something in the solicitation always be certain that you have objective facts to support the challenge. No one likes a sore loser that gums up the works just because they can.
  2. Find a team partner. Teaming on GSA schedule contracts can be challenging because both parties must have the schedule that is being used. A good strategy these days is to consider what NOT having a GSA schedule is costing you in potential revenue.
  3. Flag the agency and the contacts that you made. An opportunity that is out of reach today maybe will be within your reach next time around.
  4. Keep in touch with the contacts that you made. Stay top of mind so that they remember you the next time they have a similar requirement.

Don’t Let This Happen to You

Imagine that you are a small business that has been tracking an opportunity since you were on a losing team five years ago. In the interim you have worked hard building a team of the best professionals to perform the contract to close the gaps revealed to you in your debriefing. Your new approach for completing this work is based on a true understanding of the agency culture and their needs based on what your agency contacts have shared with you over the years.

Finally, it’s time for the recompete. The agency forecast tells you that the solicitation should be out by now. You’ve been talking monthly to the CO who says “it’s coming”. So now it’s August. Still no solicitation on SAM. You make your monthly call to the CO and find out that the solicitation was posted last week. To eBuy.

What? Not to SAM? You don’t have a federal supply schedule. You can’t bid. All that time and effort and resources are lost.

How could you have avoided this situation?

  • Ask more questions. This company was doing all the right things. And calling to stay top of mind is essential. But perhaps even more important is to gather the right kind of data.
  • Look for trends in the data. Very few things are the same as they were five years ago. Constantly scan purchasing data to see how your target agency tends to buy what you sell. In the case I described above, an objective look at the spending data for the last year showed the agency was increasingly purchasing services using GSA schedules.

This company was doing the right things. They were proactive. They had found a prospect who needed what they offered. Yet – when it came time to compete to win the work – they were locked out, unable to bid.

You can’t control what the government does. You can be proactive in gathering the RIGHT data and in offering your ideal customer an alternative contract vehicle. This is why we recommend most companies give serious consideration to getting their own Federal Supply Schedule.

Virtual Acquisition – Inception Through Award

Technology is playing a larger role in GovCon. To compete you need to figure out your approach to operating amongst a growing array of new virtual tools that may stick around long after the pandemic is over.

Get ready to win by improving these skills

Videos. It is not a matter of if – but when – your government prospect will include video as part of the qualification or evaluation process. While the government is not expecting videos produced by film school graduates, you know that the best videos – with relevant and compelling content – are bound to receive higher scores. Get ready for this now.

Presentations. Oral presentations are not new, but they are becoming more common again. And they often include a show and tell aspect where the project team – not sales and marketing – is required to talk about their con-ops or demonstrate a technology. Sales people are used to this. Project personnel – not so much. Invest in processes and training that will improve their presentation and demo skills in front of an audience of prospective clients.

Hybrid communications. Agencies are working with a variety of technologies that are based on virtual communication, virtual data sharing via secure cloud solutions and virtual submission. This has expanded their reach and their efficiency – so many agencies are expanding this capability. Make sure that your entire team, from BD to contracts, is comfortable working virtually and in adapting to new and evolving means of data sharing in a fully virtual acquisition environment.

Can you win without past performance?

The answer? It depends…

The government is extremely risk averse. For that reason they rely heavily on past performance in making award decisions.

What can a company without past performance do to win a contract? Is it even possible?

Maybe. Like everything else it depends on getting all the dominos lined up just right to win.

Here are a few things to thinks about.

What do you sell? Is it a commoditized product or service where there
is very little difference between you and everyone else who sells the same thing.

In this instance, you may be able to win on price because there shouldn’t be a basis to pay a price premium. If that’s you – ok use it to your advantage. But beware that you’re only a winner until the next newcomer with no past performance undercuts your prices.

Who knows you? Do you have relationships with government decision makers or those close to decision makers? What about relationships with other government contractors?

The more people you know – and who are willing to advocate for your competency – the easier it will be to overcome the government’s skepticism about awarding contracts to companies without past performance.

What have you done – in past careers, businesses or jobs – that might make the government sit up and take notice? The regulations allow agencies to consider similar success in a past performance evaluation.

However, they are NOT required to do so. This means that you will likely need an insider advocating for you – or a very compelling story.

Can you partner with a subcontractor and use their past performance to alleviate concerns about the risks of awarding to you?

Again, the answer is it depends. There is a new SBA regulation at 13 C.F.R. 125.2 says:
Capabilities, past performance, and experience. When an offer of a small business prime contractor includes a proposed team of small business subcontractors and specifically identifies the first-tier subcontractor(s) in the proposal, the head of the agency must consider the capabilities, past performance, and experience of each first tier subcontractor that is part of the team as the capabilities, past performance, and experience of the small business prime contractor if the capabilities, past performance, and experience of the small business prime does not independently demonstrate capabilities and past performance necessary for award.

As you can see, this regulation is rather limited. It applies only when four factors are met: (1) the prospective prime contractor is a small business; (2) the prospective prime does not independently demonstrate the past performance “necessary for award; (3) the subcontractor is a first-tier sub; and (4) the subcontractor is itself a small business.
Limited as it is, this regulation can be very helpful to small businesses in appropriate cases. Like the joint venture regulations we discussed in #2, Contracting Officers aren’t always aware of 13 C.F.R. 125.2(g), so small businesses should be prepared to raise the matter if necessary.
Source: Small GovCon

How can I use this information?

Engage in the “so what” test. It goes like this.

Ask: “If I were the government decision make that had to justify that I was confident that this company would succeed by delivering on time in a compliant way, would facts would I present?”

Your job is to make sure they can confidently give answer much like these.

1. Cost is the only factor that matters because this is not a complex contract.
2. I’ve met with this company and so has my technical team. We grilled them and they answered every question factually and convincingly. They haven’t performed to this magnitude – yet. But here’s why I know they can do it based on facts and figures. They also work with XYZ company/agency as a subcontractor and they were able to prove in our meetings that we could trust them.
3. The project team lead had work at these impressive places. We have to consider this fact because iit really does distinguish them from the other competitors.
4. Look who they have on their team. Do you really think that top ACE contractor number 1 would risk their reputation with an incompetent partner?

Use the rules and the risk averse culture to make it easy for them to make a good by giving them the facts they need to have the confidence that YOU are the best choice !

Leverage the CPARS process

Are you taking full advantage of the CPARS process? You can rate yourself and submit your rating to the contracting officer as part of your past performance evaluation. It’s true. […]