Weathering the rough contracting market
Doña Storey knows about executing government contracts under extreme pressure. She once put her small project management firm on the map by coordinating the delivery of thousands of workstations for a new IRS office — all during the infamous 1994 nor’easter.
After 32 years at her firm Quality Technical Services, Storey started a consultancy in 2010 and now helps 10 to 15 small companies each year navigate the intricacies of selling to the government.
In recent years, competition among contractors has only gotten stiffer. Not only has government spending slowed over the past two years, with cuts in some areas, large prime contractors are now more likely to go after lower-value contracts — traditionally the domain of small companies.
“Today, if you’re a small contractor, you’re going to be up against larger companies,” Storey said. “Small companies are having to compete a little differently.”
Here are some of Storey’s tips to help you adapt to the changing contracting scene:
Spiff up your Web site — in the right way. Storey suggests companies stop shelling out for fancy Web design at the expense of copy that clearly spells out why the firm deserves agencies’ business.
“Companies are putting all their money into these Web sites that have bells and whistles, but those are not the sites that sell. If you have a site that tells a narrative about your capacity, instead of just hype, you have a tremendous chance of capturing a customer through a phone call and a walk through your Web site.”
Avoid protests by doing a “soft challenge.” Contracting has seen an increase in protests — essentially accusations by competing bidders who argue that the winning company did not meet certain standards.
“In their eagerness to sell, companies will say they’re compliant with certification standards when they’re not. Many times, when two companies form a joint venture, they’re breaking the affiliation rule which could cause them to be non- compliant as a small-business team,” Storey said.
“We teach people to do a soft challenge — don’t wait until it gets to the point of protest. If it looks like the specifications don’t look quite right, or you feel that an award could be open to protest, ask the government questions for clarification,” she said.
Look at RFIs as much as you look at RFPs. Agencies issue Requests for Information and Sources Sought in order to see if any small businesses may be qualified for a small business set-aside. Storey said these documents present golden opportunities for small contractors to put the ball in their court and limit the competition.
“If the government can prove there are at least two viable companies that can compete for that work, they can justify setting that work aside. Be prepared to answer that Sources Sought within two to four hours of seeing it. That will help the agency set the work aside for small companies to compete among themselves.”
Get on a schedule — then keep going after new business. A recent American Express OPEN survey showed that getting on a General Services Administration schedule — the Sears Catalog of government purchasing — was one of the most advantageous things a small contractor could do. But Storey said business owners shouldn’t stop at simply getting on a contractor list.
“Sometimes they get on the GSA schedule, but then they don’t bother to chase the business. If they think people will find them just because they’re listed, they’re wrong.”
She recommends a highly targeted networking strategy in order to reach key agencies.
“Sometimes contractors go from business fair to business fair and they don’t develop the relationship, but they need to decide which business fairs will get them the best return on investment. Where are the opportunities that align with where can they best deliver?
“Some people practice shotgun marketing, but today it’s all about being a sniper.”