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Beyond Proposals: Winning Requires Deep Customer Connection

Winning Government Business Requires more than just a Compliant Proposal.

Government contracting(GovCon) presents a rewarding landscape brimming with potential. But is your team fully equipped to make the most of your investments in this potentially lucrative market?

However, in the GovCon space, competition can be fierce, and those who consistently win usually have a deep understanding of their government customer’s needs, acquisition regulations, and procurement processes. Most importantly, they know how to build winning relationships and gather customer intelligence from the right stakeholders at the right time.

Does all of your team understand the key elements needed to consistently win?

Below are the Building Blocks of Success

Those that consistently win have a very good understanding of the 5 W’s and 1 H of GovCon success:

  • Where are the gaps and opportunities that exist for your solutions?
  • When will opportunities be (re)competed, and when you should engage?
  • Who are the key stakeholders to engage?
  • How will you engage those stakeholders?
  • What intelligence must you gather to understand the customer’s needs?
  • Why should they select you?

Where: Choose Your Arena Carefully

The Government market spans countless departments and agencies, each with unique needs, processes, and cultures. This makes it easy to waste time and resources chasing opportunities you probably shouldn’t. Choosing where to focus your business development efforts gives you a strategic advantage when you apply them where you already have relationships.

Start where you already have good relationships and “solid” past performance. Use this as the foundation to expand into adjacent departments, but also don’t neglect to identify opportunities to grow your current contracts.

Look also for emerging requirements aligned with your strengths and expertise. Needs often arise around new regulations, technologies, or administration priorities. Keep an ear to the ground to capitalize quickly.

Finally, understand each organization’s procurement processes and cycles. Every agency has distinct rhythms and expectations. Align your approach to fit their timeline, requirements, and contracting preferences.

When: Timing and Acquisition Cycles

Winning government contracts usually starts with identifying and shaping winnable opportunities for your organization early in the acquisition cycle.  

Established relationships make things easier, but if you don’t have them, being proactive and using a customer-focused engagement method, like Hi-Q’s, is critical. Remember, developing winning relationships takes time. Those with good relationships usually find it easier to get meetings, and the customer will generally be more open to sharing intelligence and considering your shaping idea pre-RFP release.

Early engagement allows time to develop relationships and “shape” the Government’s needs or preferred solution long before the requirements are defined. This may provide a significant competitive advantage over those who wait passively for the RFP to drop.

Early engagement is critical, but when is the optimal time? This depends! It might be months, years, or maybe days for task orders! You should know what is best for your team based on strategic importance, contract value, contract type, and even the contract vehicle that will be used.

Who: Connecting with the Right Stakeholders at the Right Time

Government agencies are comprised of diverse stakeholders and influencers. You must categorize stakeholders based on their roles and influence, allowing you to understand each stakeholder’s unique needs and concerns. Developing and executing a contact plan that includes all stakeholders is time-consuming, but the benefit come proposal time is significant.

Failing to segment stakeholders and relying on a one-size-fits-all questioning strategy will decrease your perceived value to the stakeholder. Understanding the responsibilities, priorities, and focus of the stakeholders is critical. For example, the questions for an end-user about how they interact or use your potential solution will vary significantly from the questions you ask the Contracting Officer.

Many of your competitors don’t take the time to ask the right stakeholders and the right questions at the right time during the acquisition process. They simply ask everyone the same 10-15 questions. These are usually driven by the questions that will be asked in the next gate review. Most organizations in the GovCon space use a tailored version of the Shipley process, where the intelligence needed to drive the process is based on the customer acquisition phase. Given this, most people will ask similar questions to ensure they have what’s required for an upcoming gate review. So, they are usually self-focused on getting what they need rather than the customer’s needs.

If you want to stand out, make sure you understand the customer and their role and tailor your questions accordingly. Focus on them and their needs and dig deeper by moving beyond superficial questions to understand the context of their answers.

How:  Customer Engagement, The Key to Winning Relationships

Surprisingly, many organizations rely on generic RFP responses full of assumptions rather than customer intelligence. Their reactive growth strategy of bidding on everything turned up in a keyword search rather than engaging with government customers, which usually spells disaster for win rates and long-term company success.

Engagement is central to winning government business. The Hi-Q Engagement Method is customer-focused and grounded in behavioral psychology and emotional intelligence. It provides the People Skills needed for success and fosters a common language and understanding within teams, enabling them to communicate effectively and build authentic internal and external relationships.

The 4 Pillars of Business Development outline the accountabilities of anyone executing BD tasks, whether in the role 100 or 1% of the time. Here are the 4 pillars:

  1. Relationship Quality –Customer Affinity or Intimacy. A primary function for anyone doing BD is to improve relationship quality. Composite relationship quality is often a better leading indicator than the Probability of Win. Relationship quality can be quantified to understand how well-positioned your team is for an upcoming opportunity.
  2. Customer Intelligence – Gathering actionable, game-changing intelligence is critical. Most people ask the same questions and, therefore, get the same intel as everyone else. There are no discriminators there! Customer Intel must be seen as the weapon that blows away your competition.
  3. Increasing the Pwin – Requires understanding the real needs and shaping customer thinking about requirements, solutions, solution providers, contract type, and contract vehicles to ensure they get the best solution.
  4. Internal/ Team Engagement – Collaboration makes winning easier. Often, how well the internal team works together and their understanding of the customer needs is the precursor to success. But silos, intelligence hoarding, poor communication, and lack of trust exist in most organizations. BD is responsible for developing internal relationships and enhancing internal communication channels.

Even with good relationships, many people lack the engagement and skills needed for success. They struggle to get meetings and don’t know the questions to ask to uncover root cause issues. Often, success is measured by their ability to get through the entire capability briefing uninterrupted, or they spend the whole time chatting about everything other than the upcoming opportunity. They commonly misinterpret customer politeness for interest and wonder why the customer ghosts them when trying to reengage.

In assessing organizations, we often found missed or poorly qualified opportunities because those executing in the BD role hadn’t been trained. To discover new opportunities and enhance engagement strategies, consider training your entire team on BD Essentials. The days of BD being the sole conduit of customer intel are long gone. Everyone who engages the customer, BD, PMs, SME, Contracts, Purchasing, and Executives can contribute to growth by knowing what to ask and listen for.

Elite performers consistently use a set of best practices when engaging others. Is your team consistently applying these best practices? Most use some of them sometimes – the best use most of them most of the time. If you are unsure, have your team take this Quiz to assess their use of these best practices and discover areas for improvement.

Poor engagement skills often lead to decreased customer responsiveness and a decline in trust. Are you equipping your team with the necessary soft skills to avoid common bad habits such as leading with capability briefings, over-talking, not listening, premature solutioning, and a raft of others you can read about in our article titled, “The 7 Deadly Sins Destroying your Win Rates

What: Solving the Customer’s Problems

You can’t win if you can’t address the customer’s problems and have past performance to prove it. However, many fall into the trap of over-educating, inundating customers with information and solutions that may not be aligned with their needs. This “Push” driven approach is often counterproductive, and rather than the customer excitedly telling you what they need, they usually tune out altogether. If you’re presenting and persuading during most customer meetings, you probably lose a lot more than you win.

To effectively meet the customer needs, you first need to understand what they are up against from their perspective and then work to understand the root cause. A common mistake is to jump to solve the first problem you hear – however, often, this isn’t the problem at all – it’s simply a symptom that they have observed. Think about your last trip to your GP. Most likely, you discussed the symptoms you were experiencing and left it up to the doctor to diagnose the real problem. The same is true in BD; the customer provides the symptoms, so ensure you get them all, and only then should you diagnose and recommend a solution.  

Acceptance of the solution is equally as crucial as the solution itself. It’s intertwined with the level of trust established with the customer. Without trust, even the most impeccable solutions can be overlooked or rejected. After all, it’s common that the best solution does not always win. Are you delving deep into understanding your customer’s challenges or goals, presenting tailored solutions, and building the necessary trust to ensure the acceptance of your solutions?

Why: Articulating and Conveying True Value

One of the biggest challenges to winning is clearly articulating why the Government should pick your solution. Those participating in Gold Team Reviews will undoubtedly be familiar with reading the executive summary and seeing a good correlation between the requirements and the solution, demonstrating that the customer needs are somewhat understood. However, what is usually lacking is the compelling “why” the customer should pick you. Instead, you find vague value propositions. This “red flag” is symptomatic of poor engagement during the BD and capture phases.   

Articulating value compellingly is the final piece of the puzzle. A customer-centric approach, focused on addressing the customer’s unique challenges with tailored solutions (that they aren’t seeing for the first time in a proposal), positions you as a preferred partner and trusted advisor. 

Will AI replace Customer Engagement?

The advent of Artificial Intelligence (AI) has brought about transformative changes in the realm of proposal generation. AI’s capability to draft proposals, scan resumes, and streamline numerous processes has significantly accelerated the speed of proposal generation. In the years ahead, the proliferation of AI may lead to a deluge of ‘spray and pray’ reactionary bidding. However, the essence of winning government contracts will still hinge on relationships, critical customer intel, and the ability to articulate clear discriminators. The ability to convey “why” your solution is more beneficial than your competitors using the customer’s words will continue to win deals more than generic proposals ever will. Smart organizations are learning to leverage AI’s efficiencies with the high-quality customer intelligence gathered by their team and documented in their CRM or detailed engagement reports!

Conclusion: Navigating the Journey with Insight and Adaptation

Winning government business starts with winning relationships and continual engagement to gather and continually validate the intelligence you have. Nothing is static, so continual validation is necessary. Many companies do an adequate job of understanding the 5 W’s, but without the 1 H – they leave themselves open to disappointment on Award Day! Understanding stakeholder dynamics, building authentic relationships, and conveying actual value are the cornerstones of success in the GovCon market. The team with the best intel and customer buy-in on the solution wins almost every time. The inclusion of AI now makes it easy to generate proposals faster, reducing the competitive barrier to entry; however, generic proposals based on assumptions and high hopes won’t improve your win rates. It’s BD, customer engagement and validated customer intelligence that will! 






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