Think like the government
October 14, 2004
Editor's Note: This is the first in a 10-part series intended to help fabricators develop a plan to obtain a government contract. This series is a follow-up to John DiGiacomo's article "Fact, fiction, and the feds: Dispelling myths about selling to the government."
Several steps are necessary to obtain a government contract, but before you begin, the first thing you need to remember is that federal and state contracts are different. State contracts, although they have huge budgets, are nothing compared to federal contracts. With federal contracts, you deal with buying agencies from all over the country, as well as different military branches and federal civilian agencies. This accounts for more than 2,500 buying activities that result in purchases for hundreds of other bases, organizations, and programs. As a reminder from my last article, most of the stories you hear about the federal government not paying aren't true; by law, it must pay you in less than 30 days.
The first thing you should know about getting a government contract is how to talk to the government, which requires knowing how to think like the government.
Many metal fabricators and machine shops visit www.fedbizopps.gov, the source for government contracts over $25,000 (it replaced the Commerce Business Daily) and enter keywords such as machine shop, drilling, tapping, and boring.
The problem with this strategy is that the government has never, up until recently, purchased a machine process. The government buys nuts, bolts, and screws. So you need to think of what product or products you can manufacture.
This may be the hardest part of learning about doing business with the federal government, but you'll find that this will pay off once you learn who's looking for what.
Ask yourself: What can I manufacture? What types of parts, assemblies, or products can I make or fabricate? You don't have to make a specific product to do business with the government. On the contrary, you can do well simply by making replacement parts for items. One contractor, for example, had a contract to make wooden stretcher handles, and another had a contract to make parts for the 155-millimeter howitzers. This owner didn't make the whole cannon, just a piece of it.
Let's look at one agency and find out where to go. To find procurement forecasts for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), for example, you can visit dhs.gov. You'll find active bid opportunities and information on what DHS is forecasting to purchase in the next year.
As another example, go to the Defense Supply Center Columbus (DSCC) and click on its Internet Bid Board System (DIBBS), a Web site-based resource that allows you to search for, view, and submit secure quotes. Here you can find information on how to do business with DSCC. Look for the DSCC Acquisition Forecast, which will link you to the annual projected buys for the next three years. You can get all the information in a Microsoft® Excel spreadsheet or by Federal Stock Class (FSC). Then you can work with the data to find out if your products or services have a market there and see how the DSCC describes what it buys. Doing your homework in this way will help save you time and energy.
Almost all federal buying agencies list forecasts for what they plan to buy, with the exception of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the Central Intelligence Agency.
Remember that being a small business isn't necessarily a bad thing for working with the government. Any business has the potential to win a contract with the federal government, but you have to be responsible, competitive, and patient in dealing with the process. You must commit to invest and apply the resources necessary to market to the government and give it a chance. This isn't a 30-, 60-, or even 90-day project, and you have to know your customer to get a contract.
Now that you've looked at, worked with, and sweated over the information you've found, you have a fair idea of what area you should target. Does this mean you should try to cover all 10.5 million bids the federal government publishes? No. But by looking at specific buying agencies, you can narrow them down to three or four and then target them.
Look closely at what the government buys, how and when it buys it, and how much the government pays if you can get the price history—which you usually can from your local Procurement Technical Assistance Center (PTAC). All of this information will lead you to bid with more confidence than the buyer from the automotive industry that keeps telling you to slash your prices.
If you need help finding information or would like more assistance, find your local PTAC at www.sellingtothegovernment.net. Click on your state, and it will give you your local PTAC contact.
Jim Kleckner is a retired acquisition specialist from the Department of Defense and owner of Government Contracting Assistance, 2168 Spaulding Ave., West Dundee, IL 60118-3521, 847-426-7003, firstname.lastname@example.org.