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Winning Relationships: The Cornerstone of GovCon Success

How many times in stage/gate reviews have you heard “the customer loves us” from your team members who assume they are “in the know?” Later, usually, once it’s too late to change anything, you find they had overestimated their relationship and had spun the unvalidated intel you had relied on!

As a Leader of a government contracting (GovCon) organization, you know that building high-quality “winning relationships” with Government stakeholders is the foundation for sustained success. But do you have an objective way to measure relationship quality?

Over decades of working with GovCon firms, I’ve observed a common goal of enhancing customer relationship quality (affinity, intimacy, trust). Yet despite acknowledging the need for better customer relationships, many lack investment in the training, culture, and accountability to truly elevate customer relationships beyond superficial transactional status, resulting in missed opportunities or outright setbacks.

Winning is a Team Sport, as is relationship development. In the complex world of government contracting with multiple stakeholders that change depending on the acquisition stage, you can rarely rely on one relationship to win your pursuit. Capture, BD, and Account Management teams must embrace relationship development as a long-term strategy. This involves engaging clients in meaningful dialogue beyond the sales pitch, seeking to understand their specific goals, and committing to their success—benefits to oneself aside. This approach builds trust and sets the stage for long-term GovCon success.

Unlike transactional sales, mutually beneficial “Winning Relationships” grant easier customer access, encourage the exchange of higher quality intelligence, and drive program and accounts growth— fundamental elements for enduring GovCon success.

Can Winning relationships increase Contract Wins?

Absolutely. Studies, including one from the Harvard Business Review, show that customer relationship-focused companies see greater profitability—over 20% more.

Transactional sales might offer a short-term uplift, but high-quality, trusting customer relationships form the bedrock for long-term success. When reviewing contract wins for a customer, we found that when their team had good relationships and was actively engaged more than one year before the RFP release, their win rates were 65-70% for new business. Compared with 30-35% when they weren’t.

Benefits of Winning Relationships

While relationship quality sets the foundation, knowing how to leverage those relationships correctly is just as critical. Most people have business friendships but assume they are trusted partners, which is often NOT the case. A significant difference exists in the intel quality gathered from pleasant social conversations, and the intel needed to extend current programs or create discriminators for new proposals.

Knowing customers’ needs and priorities allows for more strategic decisions in the BD and Capture process, increasing your probability of securing contracts. This deep understanding enables BD and Capture professionals to disqualify unwinnable opportunities, select the best teaming partners, tailor and vet solutions, and submit proposals that align perfectly with specific agency requirements. Additional benefits of Winning Relationships include:

  1. Direct access to stakeholders and influencers
  2. Decision-makers who are receptive to your “shaping” efforts
  3. Customers who call you early when new needs arise
  4. Higher probability of selection when competing options exist
  5. Openness to listen during the “hard” conversations

Assessing Relationship Quality: Moving Beyond Assumptions

Measuring relationship quality or trust is critical as it remains a pivotal differentiator, impacts the believability of the customer intel, and is a leading indicator of future success. When you have good relationships, it’s more likely that your customers will honestly tell you where you stand, provided you ask the right questions and validate this intel with other stakeholders.

This was evident with an incumbent contractor confident of a recompete win with a customer who apparently “loved” them. By failing to examine the relationship beyond their PM’s biased lens, they overlooked the customer’s quiet dissatisfaction with the PM, leading to a significant contract loss.

The lesson is clear: overvalue your relationship quality at your peril. Recognize that your team’s perspective can be assumptions based on their biased perspective. The path to success requires assessing relationships through the client’s eyes. This, in turn, allows you to objectively evaluate the quality of intelligence they share and their receptiveness to your “shaping” efforts.

Measuring Relationship Quality

Relationship quality is a critical indicator, but can it be measured?

Absolutely, but it is a complex concept that encompasses a variety of factors, such as satisfaction, intimacy, trust, commitment, and communication. Additionally, using self-assessment tools to measure relationship quality is subjective, and participants may be biased in their responses.

Despite these challenges, Hi-Q has developed an objective way to measure individual relationship quality using a relationship quality scorecard. These individual scores become highly valuable and actionable for contact plans, strategy development, and assessing intel quality when input into the Hi-Q Relationship Evaluation Matrix that evaluates composite account or opportunity scores.

Measuring relationship quality accurately and reliably is essential for both research and practice.

How to foster winning relationships

As sales expert Jill Konrath notes, “The most important thing in selling is building relationships. People buy from people they like and trust.” Therefore, building trust with new Government customers is one of the highest return-on-time investment actions you can take.

But often, this is easier said than done. Today, everyone is busier than ever, assuming you will only have limited customer interactions. This pressure makes BD personnel more likely to selfishly push their agenda rather than focus on the customer’s agenda.

Building trust and elevating “friendly” relationships into Winning Relationships requires a different mindset and skills, new intention, body language, and words that shift the conversation from “push to pull.” Want to assess your teams engagement skills quickly, answer the following:

  • Does your team successfully “pull” customer intel about other stakeholders and assist the customer in gaining internal agreement or support?
  • Do they “pull” customer insights about their needs, drivers, and thoughts on potential solutions before “pushing” solutions or misaligned capability briefings?
  • Do they “push” the customer toward their solution or “pull” the customer towards the best solution using a consultative dialogue?

Trust is built around three factors—character, competence, and connection.

Character

To a buyer, a new BD person is a complete unknown. They can promise the world, but without a track record, the buyer can’t gauge their reliability. This is where the concept of ethical trust comes into play. Ethical trust is built on the foundation of character—it grows when there’s a consistent alignment between one’s words and actions. It is reinforced through consistent behavior, where they prove dependable.

Competence

Most in BD tend to overrate their technical skills; customers quickly sense when competence is lacking, and they lose trust in a BD person’s ability to meet their needs. This kind of trust is termed technical trust. This isn’t about the product or service but rather their trust in the BD person to provide new insights, problem-solving strategies, and reliable counsel. Absent trust, buyers are likely to dismiss their suggestions.

Connection (Relationship Quality)

This is personal trust. It is established when people feel you are personally engaged and believe you will act in their best interest. People trust you personally and feel connected when they have repeated experiences of you listening, understanding, caring, and working in their best interest.

Conclusion

“Winning Relationships” are a strategic GovCon imperative that lays the foundation for long-term growth and performance. Research also proves that increasing your relationship quality can also increase your contract wins, enhance customer satisfaction, strengthen your brand reputation, and serve as a meaningful discriminator for your organization.

Are you at risk because of your team confusing a good social relationship, that take you nowhere, with a winning relationship, that bolsters your win rates with insights and intelligence your competitors can’t get?


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