Michael P. Fischetti is executive director of the National Contract Management Association.

Behind many contracting issues today is the implied topic of who is or isn't winning contract awards. In the private sector, it's rare to attribute lack of business success to the customer. Certainly in a commercial market, industry success and failure is usually laid at the feet of company management and its ability to understand and meet market needs. Not so in government contracting.

Along with well-structured protest procedures, industry can and does appeal to government legislative representatives, investigatory bodies, contracting managers, trade groups, and agency leaders concerning any real or perceived unfair treatment before, during, or after contract performance. One regularly hears rationale that the buyer, not the seller, was at fault for lost business and revenue. It's common practice, if not encouraged by government, for industry to openly critique customer policy, processes, strategy, requirements, and staff. These critiques include time of awards; market conditions; workforce training; communication; sensitivity to private sector concerns; selection methodology; risk mitigation; receipt of external advice (program, technical, incumbents, business, legal, trade groups, etc.); past performance criteria; and more. That's the nature of an open and fair process.

So, besides these avenues, what are positive tools within a firm's control to win and keep government business? They're more important than ever in an era of increased competition and fewer opportunities. Consulting firms can support, but the strategies are very similar to those commercially:

  1. Offer superior product: Certainly providing great products or services that meet customer needs at an affordable price is fundamental, regardless of market. Make sure your performance today will speak highly of you in the future. Past performance is a key consideration in future business success.
  2. Ensure your firm is qualified to do government business: Is your accounting system compliant? Can you withstand a contractor purchasing system review (CPSR), Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) audit, or pass a contracting officer's "responsibility" determination? Are you registered and licensed to do business? Have you paid your taxes? Can you positively "certify" to the several "representations" you will need to meet?
  3. Know your market: In government contracts, that means understanding agency authorization and appropriations language, attending industry days, analyzing Federal Business Opportunity listings, reviewing competitor strengths and weaknesses, and understanding past performance indicators that may help or hinder your business prospects.
  4. Understand government contracting statutes, regulations, and policy: Yes, it may seem complicated, onerous, and even overwhelming, but to anyone who really takes the time to learn, it makes sense and is very fair. Learn and create a culture of corporate acquisition knowledge.
  5. Find opportunities to meet and develop relationships with customer program and contracting officials: Become actively involved with professional associations and events where both government and industry communities can over time develop the credibility, relationships, and understanding necessary well before particular requests for proposals or formal communications are issued. Meeting agency or contracting executives can create an understanding of overall customer vision. Concurrently, operational, technical, contract, and program managers can provide insight to customer strategy, specific requirements, acquisition planning, or source selection methodology.

Unlike the commercial sector, it is fair and expected that all citizens have an opportunity to exert influence on the expenditure of taxpayer funding to support government contracting. However, traditional strategies for business success today remain, and in a climate where some assign success or failure to customer (government) failures, all of us must acknowledge the responsibilities we cannot deny toward our own business success.