Just because COVID-19 is forcing us indoors doesn’t mean that we can’t get together and learn from one another. Lohfeld Principal Consultant and capture expert Dr. Doug Himberger interviewed Jacob Bertram, former GSA Contracts Director. In this first installment, Doug and Jacob discuss building customer relationships as part of developing a strategy for winning business at an agency.
[Doug] Thank you to Jacob Bertram for joining me. For our readers, Jacob is a former government contracts director and acquisition professional now with industry. When he was with the government, he supported DOE, DCMA, DCAA, and GSA. We have some questions that we’ve been dying to ask the government, and we’re really looking forward to hearing how Jacob reflects on them.
[Jacob] Thank you, Doug.
[Doug] Our first overall topic is developing customer relationships. My first question has to do with the way industry interacts with customers in general. Doesn’t the FAR encourage interactions between industry and acquisition officials? It seems to me that the recent changes in the FAR support open communication. Is that true even prior to final RFP release?
[Jacob] Yes, the FAR encourages conversations all the time. Market research is ongoing, so there should always be some sort of continuous dialogue about new emergent technologies, latest trends in industry, and what are the effective commercial solutions. The government is getting away from government specification type acquisitions and into more commercial off-the-shelf or modified commercial type procurements.
There is really no veil in the FAR where the curtain comes down and there should be no general discussion between industry and government. There are several ways to do that. Reaching out to small business program managers is a great way to get insight and information, even if you are not a small business—especially for your subcontracting plans and bringing the right small business subcontractors to the table. Industry often doesn’t think to engage small business program managers, who really love to go out and talk to industry or have industry come visit.
If you’re pursuing specific opportunities, consider attending industry days or chatting with the incumbent contractor or other people that you might know in your network. To get the information you need, try to have an ongoing conversation all the time, because you never know when any emerging technology is going to come up—a disruptor—or there’s going to become a need for something right away. We’ve seen that with COVID. It popped up out of the blue in around January/February timeframe. We saw all the ongoing market research that the government was doing and how industry was prepared with data analytics and able to support various needs, which really helped. Having conversations early on and ongoing about what your company is doing is really going to help out both you and the government.
[Doug] I think that’s wonderful that, as you said, there is no veil that suddenly drops, but we don’t always have that experience in industry. What would you suggest for dealing with contracting officers or other acquisition officials who are not willing to be open with industry?
[Jacob] I think it is unfortunate when they do that, and it really makes it harder for them to develop a quality RFQ or RFP. So, building the relationships with other government officials besides the contracting office is extremely important. As I just mentioned, visit the small business advocate or visit finance or the program offices. Meet with the technical representatives. Really, working around the contracting office is important, too. Bringing the contracting officer along is okay, but until they get a funded requisition or a procurement package or something like that in their workload, your opportunity is not going to become a priority for them. I know a lot of companies try to reach out to contracting officers and say, “Hey, keep us in mind for your next opportunity.” Those emails get deleted or put into a file somewhere. Contracting officers are working on the funded stuff that they have. So, getting in touch with program managers, small business people—anywhere along that line is going to really help you out.
[Doug] So just to be clear, when dealing with reluctant acquisition officials, you would not suggest going in and holding up the FAR and saying its guidance is what they should be doing, right?
[Jacob] No, no. I don’t recommend that approach at all. I think that might backfire. So, going in through the technical people or through the small business office is the right way. Find out who is the small business program manager, a lot of them are on the internet, or go to the Procurement Technical Assistance Centers (PTACs). Just be honest, “Hey, I want to build a quality subcontract plan. I want to bring small businesses along. I want to meet 8(a) goals,” etc. Ask them what opportunities are coming out? What can we plan for? And then really drive the conversation that way, and then later bring in contracting or let those organizations bring in the contracting themselves.
Look for the next discussion on our Lohfeld Insights blog—Up close and personal, Part 2: How to have better meetings with government officials.
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