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Selling To The Government: The Art Of The Approach

Learn how to approach federal IT purchasing officials and how to craft your marketing message for the federal market.

Steve Charles

In the first installment of this series, we outlined how procurement is structured in the federal government. Now, let's take a closer look at how to reach federal IT purchasing decision-makers.

Getting Started

For new opportunities in selling to the government, the most obvious starting place is Federal Business Opportunities (FedBizOpps, or FBO), the website where the federal government publishes standalone business opportunities worth more than $25,000. Note that orders under multiple-award, indefinite-delivery contracts aren't posted on FBO.

Of course, anybody can visit FBO; closing a deal is another matter. A well-written proposal that betrays a lack of fluency with current government thinking likely won't get an award -- especially if your proposal is the first time they've seen your name.

Still, FBO can be a helpful informational tool. It posts presolicitation notices of potential upcoming procurements, often with the explicit request for interested vendors to submit information. Always respond to requests for information or "sources sought" notices; it's an important way for government officials to feel comfortable including you on their potential sources list.

The budget process also generates critical information. Every February, after the White House releases its budget proposal, the Office of Management and Budget posts on its website a spreadsheet, known as an "Exhibit 53," meant to contain all the IT investments agencies will make in the coming fiscal year. A related document, "Exhibit 300," contains business justifications for major IT projects, redacted versions of which also make their way online to an OMB-run website known as the IT Dashboard.

A Different Mindset

In a needs- and requirements-driven environment, embrace the mission of the buyers and learn their language. That's a mindset shift from the private sector.

Get quickly to the point of what specific use your product or service would be to the agency -- what incompletely resolved agency problem it will help fix. When calling on the phone, make sure you can tell feds in the first sentence why they should continue the conversation.

Successful companies in this market play a meaningful role early in the acquisition cycle. Provide the right type of information to educate acquisition planners about your capabilities while there is still time for them to consider you for an upcoming procurement.

Federal program managers with a mission and a budget can't obligate the government to pay a bill until they convince a contracting officer with a documented purchase request that adequate market research has been done and that the vendor selection process is sufficiently competitive.

Sellers have to frankly discuss the capabilities of competitors and get the program office to document that they have examined multiple options. Hopefully they'll describe their needs in a way that favors you.

NEXT: Marketing And The Target Account Profile

Growing your federal customer base enough to support a business can easily take at least two years of full-time prospecting. A disciplined strategy will define a focus, segment the market, identify stakeholders, and ensure agencies understand your value and are moving forward toward the procurement process. Performance metrics for each of these activities will indicate whether continued investment will pay off.

A target account profile (TAP) can help segment the federal government for people receptive to your message. The TAP answers three basic questions: • Where are the places your product or service will be a possible fit? • What relevant prior experience or knowledge do you have of the agency's mission? • Which personnel layer cares most about what you are offering?

You're looking for matters of basic compatibility. If you sell data analytics software that's not compatible with Oracle, don't waste your time marketing to an agency that's an Oracle shop. If a prospect demands security clearances at a level higher than your personnel possesses, move on.

A TAP can narrow down your marketing options to a small group of likely customers within a particular market segment. Develop targeted white papers, case studies and webinars. Participate on social media sites dedicated to particular groups. Conserve your event participation and sponsorship fees by going to events where you're surest to interact with your targets.

NEXT: Navigating "POET"

Another framework that can help build your marketing message to federal agencies is POET, an acronym created by Topside Consulting to describe four dimensions in the federal IT market: political, operational, economic, and technical. Companies must learn to navigate all four.

Politics is politics with a small "p." This isn't a reference to lobbying or Congress or political donations. Rather, politics here refers to office politics -- biases you won't know about until you really know the people involved. Hiring a former fed can help on this front. Be aware, however, that any former senior fed has both friends and enemies, and is known for certain biases as well.

Operational refers to whether your product, service or solution will do what it's supposed to, and whether your company will perform as promised. Getting something to work in the government environment can be a challenge as unexpected obstacles can arise. The dataset for your service might need serious cleaning. Or maybe the program office is convinced you've done a bait-and-switch with résumé qualifications. Companies and the government can butt heads in this area.

Economic refers to whether the government has the money to buy what you're offering. It takes about two years for a single cycle of the federal budget process to complete, and each federal fiscal year has a distinct buying season. Someone has to get the right amount of money into the right account in order for you to receive a fully funded order -- not one with the increasingly common "subject to availability of funds" clause.

Technical refers to the technical environment into which you must fit. Asking the questions necessary to know you are a good fit, can offer superior value and won't have problems integrating during implementation is the seller's job.

Identifying key stakeholders in the acquisition process and delivering the right messages at the right time during the market survey and requirements writing phases should be the primary task. Begin by segmenting the market into actionable targets using frameworks like the TAP and POET to build messages that will catch the attention of the people you need to reach.

The preceding information was adapted and digested from the book "The Inside Guide to the Federal IT Market," published by Management Concepts Press. For more information, visit

Steve Charles is a co-founder of immixGroup, which helps technology companies do business with government. He is a frequent speaker and lecturer on technology and the federal procurement process. He can be reached at


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