Identify your federal customers
February 1, 2005
So you're ready to go after the biggest customer in the world: the U.S. federal government. It's time to go to that "buyer" and "sell" your company and what it can do. But before you sell to anyone, first you need to realize whom you're dealing with. The federal government is not a single entity, but a collection of usually small buying activities that work separately to purchase or procure the items they are told to get.
When you sell to a commercial client, you know you're dealing with someone who is reasonably knowledgeable about what he's buying. But with the government, you're dealing with buyers who are told what to buy, when to buy it, and sometimes whom to buy it from. They usually have no idea what it is they're purchasing, so you should realize that you're talking to a contracting specialist who knows contracting (buying) inside and out but, in most cases, has little product knowledge. But don't think these people don't understand and can't decide what to do intelligently; they're good at finding out how to get the job done.
You also should think like the government. Most fabricators think in terms of a process, such as drilling, tapping, and boring. But the government has purchased a machine shop process only once that I know of—the rest of the time it is looking for products, such as nuts, bolts, and screws. When you think about the products that you make, think in terms of what you can fabricate, what you can make, what you produce.
When you are trying to sell to the federal government, you also need to realize that the government doesn't buy anything it doesn't need. For example, let's say I'm a sailor on a ship and I need a replacement engine part. I carry maybe two or three in stock, but now I am down to one and need more. That is a need, so I tell the buyer to go get it.
By thinking in terms of what item you can provide, you're halfway to finding your customer.
As a side note, if the item you make is commercial in type or is a general-purpose, off-the-shelf product or item, it may already be purchased by the General Services Administration (GSA). Think of the GSA as the Sears, Roebuck of the government, the general store. But it buys in indefinite quantities, which means you can get a GSA number and still never sell a thing because you need to market differently to GSA buyers. So let's talk about your real customers.
Most of the time the federal government makes it somewhat easy to find out what it's interested in buying. Some of you might remember the Commerce Business Daily, a publication that listed all potential purchases by the federal government over $25,000. It was printed every day and was interesting reading—if you were an accountant. Today you can go to www.fedbizopps.gov and get the same information online in a searchable format.
Once you're at www.fedbiz opps.gov, go to the left side of the main page to Find Business Opportunities and click on GO. The next page is the search page, where you can search by product name, product description, Federal Supply Code (FSC), National Stock Number (NSN), Standard Industrial Code (SIC), or North American Industrial Classification System (NAICS). You can look through all of the leads, or you can go in just by department; for example, the Department of Energy.
Remember: The two parts of the federal government in this case are the Department of Defense (the biggest buyer) and the federal civilian agencies. You might find that you don't have a fit with the Department of Defense, but you might have a good shot at some of the other agencies.
On the search page, if you type in "nuts," in most cases you will find lots of stuff that you really don't want, like metal nuts, plastic nuts, pecan nuts, and my personal favorite, beer nuts. When you're looking for good bids, it's a good idea to type in something a little more precise than "nuts." And remember, you know your business better than anyone else. You know what you can make profitably, so if you do your homework, you'll have lots of contracts to consider. If you're not sure what keywords to use, go down the list of items by Federal Supply Code, which can help you target where specific items are grouped and help you find where to look.
After you have spent a few weeks looking at some of these bids, you'll begin to see a pattern of what each agency is buying and who is active in buying. Finding the ones that match you and your capabilities means that those are the ones you should target and maybe give a personal touch: If the buying activity is close enough to you, you might want to pay them a visit and introduce yourself.
Here's a helpful hint for looking at the bids: the National Stock Number is a 13-digit number, 3410-123-04-1234; the first four numbers are the Federal Supply Code, a grouping of items that can help you define what and where to look.
Once you find a bid you're interested in, it will tell you who the buying agency is, how many parts it's looking for, when the parts are needed, and links to the technical information. This information is only a synopsis of the bid, not the actual Request for Quote; you need to download the package to see the Scope of Work and the contract. You might have to go to another site to download the specifications and drawings.
You'll also find several other sources of bid opportunities and information on the Internet. Almost all of the agencies and bases have their own Web sites that specify whom to see, what's being bought, future buys, and projections.
In addition to searching the Internet, you can locate government bids via another avenue.
The Department of Defense has a program called the Procurement Technical Assistance Program, which has offices located across the nation to help you find bid opportunities and work on government contracts. They usually have an automated bid service that scans bid opportunities for you by creating a company profile that includes keywords and product codes, National Stock Numbers, part numbers, and other additional information. The bid service scans www.fedbizopps.gov, more than 350 Web sites, Canadian bid opportunities, Department of Defense, and state and local bids that are on the Internet. These bid services usually look at more than 20 million bid opportunities per year.
You can visit www.wingovcon.com to find Federal Supply Codes, purchasing information, and to help you find your local Procurement Technical Assistance Center. You also can visit www.sellingtothegovernment.net/ptac_map.asp.
Next time we'll talk about what to do when you find the right opportunity and are ready to bid.
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.