How to Get Your Share of Government Contracts

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Looking to bring in new business? Then you're probably on the watch for government contracts coming up to bid. If you're not, you should be--even if you're not going to bid on them directly yourself. Here's a guide for getting started in government contracting.

Looking to bring in new business? Then you're probably on the watch for government contracts coming up to bid. If you're not, you should be--even if you're not going to bid on them directly yourself.

Together, federal, state and local governments buy over a $1 trillion dollars in goods and services each year. A not-insignificant amount of that money gets funneled into multimillion-dollar constructions projects. But other federal, state, county, city and town funds get earmarked for smaller projects - everything from website development to brake parts, motivational speakers, pre-printed plastic bags, and alfalfa. Some of that money could be yours if you pursue and win government contracts or subcontracting work from the companies that win big contract awards.

Sniffing Out RFPs
Government agencies usually issue formal documents soliciting contractors to bid on major projects and purchases. These formal solicitations are usually, but not always, called a Request for Proposal (RFP). Other commonly used terms include Invitation for Bid (IFB), Request For Bid (RFB) and Request for Quote (RFQ). Although some agencies have strict guidelines on when to issue which type of solicitation depending on what's being purchased and the expected dollar amount to be spent, there is no naming consistency across agencies.

One of the big challenges for contractors is locating appropriate bid opportunities early in the game. Experienced contractors usually learn about projects that may go out to bid before the RFPs are issued. By the time the RFP is released, they have already been through some extensive internal bid/no bid decisions and if the decision is to bid, they have a proposal strategy in place and have selected the subcontractors they'll work with if they win the contract.

Further complicating life for newcomers to contracting is that there is no one time or place where all offices or agencies always post bid notices. An office might publish the entire RFP on its website, or it might post a note about how to get a copy of the RFP on a physical bulletin board in the office, in one or more local newspapers, in regional or state-wide listings of contracts going up for bid, in FedBizops.gov (if it's a federal agency), or by sending mail or email directly to contractors on the office or agency bid list.

There are a variety of services that collect these opportunities and make them available to the public. A few, like Fedbizops.gov are free. Most, however are privately-owned, fee-based services available either online or as printed publications. In addition to announcing when RFPs are issued, they can be a source of advance information about upcoming projects, contacts, information about who won awards, and may include commercial as well as government projects. Sometimes, too, you can find notices from government agencies that are seeking sources for specific procurement needs.

In addition to the Fedbizop.gov site, services you may find useful include:

Another way of identifying potential future bid opportunities advises Lee Thompson, Sr. Contract Administrator, Alaska Railroad Corporation, is to look for long range acquisition plans published by government agencies. These long range plans will typically include recurring contracts (along with information on the incumbent contractor, dollar amount of the contract, and a description) as well as new major project that might come up for bid. They are often online and sometimes searchable. The Long Range Acquisitions Estimate (LRAE) published by the US air force at http://airforcesmallbiz.org/opportunities/ is one example.

If you are looking for contracts with local and regional government offices, join local business associations and become active in those that have members that are politically connected. Often those groups will know about or actually help plan projects that will later come up for bid.

Face time counts
Once you identify likely government prospects, take the time to get to know them. Start by at the town or agency website to see if there is information about doing business with the agency available. For instance, you can find information about doing business with the state of Alaska in the http://www.alaska.gov/businessHome.html section of the http://www.alaska.gov/ website and information about doing business with the Department of Defense at http://www.acq.osd.mil/osbp/sb/dod.shtml. Read whatever documents you find carefully. Some contracting people get annoyed if you ask them a question that's answered in the Doing Business With document they've made available to the public. You might also want to print the document for future reference.

Tip: One way to identify government and commercial customers you may not have found yet is to go to Google and search for the term "Doing Business With" (include the quotes). You'll find hundreds of entries listed.

Once you've read the Doing Business With document, make an appointment to visit so you can introduce yourself and your company's capabilities. Try to reach the people who actually use or indicate a need for your service -- that's not always the same as the person who makes the purchase. "Be sure to leave brochures," says Thomson.

If the office holds outreach events, attend them and be sure to introduce yourself to contracting officers who are there. Ask if the office has a bidders' list and how to get on it if they do. Read everything the contracting officers give you, or point you to. If there's a pre-bid hearing or meeting for any project you're interested in, be sure someone from your organization attends it. By being present, you can keep in tune with the customers concerns and needs and get known to the purchasing agents.

Keep in mind that at the local level, there may be a lot of politics involved in the awarding of bids. Get to know local officials and how things work in towns and villages if you'll be bidding on local projects.

If a government customer knows your company and knows of any unique capabilities your company has, those capabilities may wind up getting written into the RFP, giving you an edge over competitors. However, if your company is nothing more than a faceless name on a bidders' list or totally unknown before you submit a proposal, a contracting officer may wonder if you could really get their project out on time, in budget and up-to-specs.

Prepare Your Company To Be A Bidder
If you plan to sell to the federal government you must be listed in the government System For Award Management (SAM) directory (https://www.sam.gov/portal/public/SAM/##11 ) . Get listed in industry or regional directories that purchasing officers might search, and have a website that contains makes it clear what you sell and how to reach you. Contractor officers do search the web to find products and services they need.

If the project you're bidding on is a recurring contract, find out who the incumbent is, and find out what they bid on the project in the past. Study your competitors bids and price your services to be competitive. "Public procurement is all open book," explains Thompson. "Companies can go look at the old files and see what happened on the last go-round."

Writing a Winning RFP Response
Reading the RFP carefully and responding to each part of the solicitation is critical to winning a contract. "Write directly to the work criteria and make sure you cover all the bases - that is key," explains Thompson. If the RFP specifies the maximum number of pages the proposal can be, don't go over that amount by even one page. If the RFP calls for proposals of 50 pages or less, and you write 65 pages, all the pages past 50 may be tossed out unread.

Contracts are generally awarded to the "lowest bid to specs from a reasonable and responsible bidder," says Lee Thompson. A responsible bidder is one who understands the project and has experience to perform the work satisfactorily. "If you're bidding on something you've never done before, you're probably going to have tough time," he adds.

If your business is a minority-owned or woman-owned small business, be sure to make that clear in your proposal. It may give you extra points when your proposal is being considered.

Test the waters as a subcontractor
There's a lot to learn and a lot of responsibility that goes along with contracting. If your company is small and/or has never done business with the government, seek out subcontracting work to help you break in. You'll benefit from government purchasing power and at the same time, you'll start to pick up information from the prime contractor about what it takes to win, successfully execute, and deal with all the paperwork associated with government contracts.

Copyright 2014 Attard Communications, Inc.

About the author:
Janet Attard is the founder of the award-winning  Business Know-How small business web site and information resource. Janet is also the author of The Home Office And Small Business Answer Book and of Business Know-How: An Operational Guide For Home-Based and Micro-Sized Businesses with Limited Budgets.  Follow Janet on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/JanetAttard.

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