Learning from Our Mistakes

April 20, 2022 | Business Development, Government

One of the benefits of experience is that you learn not just what works, but what no longer works all that well.

I’ve seen this in my work helping businesses develop and implement their government business plans. Our clients often use techniques and approaches that we used successfully in the past in securing our own government contracts. However, some of the methods we once used now go against everything we teach. Here are a few examples–and the lessons we now share with our clients as a result:

  • Undervaluing our services. We got into government contracting because our local economy was struggling and a lot of our business had dried up. We launched as a veteran-owned entity and pursued a government contract that would double the size of our business overnight if we won, pricing our bid too aggressively low in hopes of winning. Well, we did win–but we were lucky to survive. We were capable and smart, but we left too many variables to chance and didn’t earn what we should have. 

The lesson: it’s better to lose a bid based on a competitive price than to undervalue your services.

  • Relying on RFPs at the expense of relationships. Our initial government business plan consisted of watching to see when opportunities would drop. We’d attend bidders conferences when they were scheduled, but that would be the first time we met the Contracting Officer’s Representative (COR). And when there was no bidders conference, our only contact with the agency was an email with questions about the RFP. And if no bids were available, we just waited until they were.

The lesson: build relationships with potential buyers before you pursue opportunities with them, and be creative in how you approach them (asking CORs to host industry days, for example).

  • Only responding to RFIs when we had time, only answering the questions we were asked, and asking questions too late. If we were too busy, we would either forego an opportunity or wait to respond, which often resulted in more work (and more stress) in the long run. And when we did respond, we stuck to the script, only answering the questions we were asked, which sometimes prevented us from sharing information about our past performance, experience, or accolades. We also never made the case that some opportunities should be set aside for small business, although we would protest after the fact when they didn’t comply.

The lesson: Never take the foot off the gas, miss the opportunity to tell your best story, or ask questions that might change the game (and don’t burn bridges)

So, why did we succeed despite these initial missteps? Because we were damn good at providing services that the government needed. That is invaluable. You can’t beat that type of marketing. However, I often wonder how much more successful we would have been if we knew then what we know. At least our clients can benefit from that knowledge.

What have you learned from your experience that you know 20 years ago? What would you do differently if you could do it over again?

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MYTH: Doing business with the government does not rely on relationships and does not require any marketing. All that is required finding opportunities on web sites and responding with quotes/proposals.

FACT: Having great relationships with government end users can provide more opportunities beyond RFQs/RFPs posted to government web sites. Some opportunities do not even require the government put it out for a competitive bid process so knowing someone could present more chances to do business. Furthermore, relationships also help build positive past performance history which is critical to winning future opportunities.