In the federal contracting arena, it pays to be a PEST, Firestone says. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)

When my business entered into government contracting in 2005, it did not take long for me to realize that we had entered a whole new world after years in the private sector. Certifications and set-asides were unfamiliar concepts; ones that frankly made me a bit uncomfortable, as I wondered whether I wanted my company to get “special” consideration because of my gender or the size of our operation.

What I have learned is that there really is no “special consideration” but just an opportunity to level the playing field. While certifications can get your business noticed by government agencies, being a woman-owned, veteran-owned, small business, HUB Zone and/or 8(a) organization guarantees you nothing.

This may seem intuitive to some, but it is a barrier to success for many more.

So how can a small business best leverage the power of the set-aside? By becoming a PEST — that is, by being persistent, educated, specific and transparent. To clarify, a PEST would:

1. Identify the products and services that are marketable to the federal government. Evaluate your organizations strengths in terms of products and services. Be critical, focus on what makes your organization different and how that will benefit the government. For instance, demonstrating savings for the government is especially persuasive in this time of fiscal constraints (be educated).

2. Use agency small business representatives as allies. Small business representatives, once they are aware of your business, can help open the door to their agency by making key introductions to the end users and helping to shape the procurement opportunity as a small business contract.

3. Listen to program representatives to identify their “pain points”. When you have the opportunity to meet with agency program representatives or end users, talk less and listen more so you can identify their real or perceived pain points. Then discuss how your products and services could address their needs (be specific).

Focus not on your organization but on solutions you can deliver. These relationships develop over time. If you can get a customer to trust your expertise and intent, you will have an opportunity to impact a scope of work or specifications related to a procurement – and that is the best you can hope for.

4. Respond to “Requests for Information or Sources Sought Notices.” These are the basis for determining whether or a solicitation should and can be set-aside for small business. Share the sources sought with competitors. No, I am not crazy or masochistic. Remember the “rule of two,” which states that contracting officers shall set-aside certain contracts for small business participation when there is a reasonable expectation that offers will be obtained from at least two responsible small business concerns.

Competition between two or more small businesses is much better than a small business competing against a large government contractor (be transparent).

5. Advocate for a set-aside. Once you’ve identified a procurement opportunity, let your small business representative know and provide them with information in support of a set-aside – such as evidence that other small businesses are available and capable of doing the work. You don’t need to do all the research, but do offer what you know. Plus, you should already know who your competitors are – large or small.

6. Follow up, follow up, and follow up some more. The road does not end with the submission of a capabilities document, response to a sources sought notice, or a program office identifying the need for your products and/or services. All of your points of contact are busy people, with competing priorities. No matter how good you are, and how much the buyer needs or wants what you have to offer, there is always someone else that can fill that demand. Above all else, remember this: Out of Sight, Out of Mind (be persistent).

Lisa Firestone is president and owner of Managed Care Advisors (MCA), Inc., an employee-benefits and disability-management consulting and workers’ compensation case management company based in Bethesda, Md.

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