5 secrets of better branding for government contractors

December 8, 2011 by

There’s a good reason Vangent was named government contractor of  the year at the 9th Annual Greater Washington Government Contractor  Award gala.

Vangent delivered great results and had a strong brand. Over its  fifty plus year history, the Vangent brand grew from a small business  unit of NCS, to a $90 million operating division of Pearson PLC, to a  $700+ million stand-alone company owned by Veritas Capital that was  ultimately acquired by General Dynamics for $960 million on Sept. 30,  2011.

My paramount focus for Vangent’s brand over the past four and a half  years was to grow awareness and recognition as a powerful, effective and reliable partner for federal government agencies seeking a services  provider to support and answer questions about broad-reaching government programs. These programs included Medicare, military health care,  disease control and prevention, student loans and Cash for Clunkers, to  name a few.

In today’s government services market, where lowest price and  technically acceptable often trumps best value and best solution, and  where companies big and small, old and new, are jockeying for a slice of dwindling federal dollars amid an austere budget environment, an  effective branding strategy is critical to a company’s success.

Vangent’s growth and market strength were the result of great  customer service but also a strong focus on brand value, both internally and externally. Without a strong brand, many government services  providers look exactly alike. With a solid and recognizable brand, a  government services provider can come to stand for something valuable  and important for its employees, customers, investors and the citizenry  it serves.

Here are five rules of branding I practiced at Vangent which are  essential for any company looking to enter the government services  market, expand their market share or to re-position for new growth  opportunities:

1) Focus on outcomes, not offerings. You can put a  marketing brochure or a website of Company A next to Company B and cover up the names and you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. Many  companies feel compelled to list every capability or skill they offer in a ‘laundry list’ fashion without any context as to what problem or  challenge they help their customers overcome. A much more compelling way to communicate what a company does differently is to promote the  outcomes or results it accomplishes for its customers – in plain  English. Vangent built a successful branding campaign on the fact that “four out of ten Americans connect with Vangent, but never know it.” We  combined this powerful and memorable factoid with a unique result it  helped its customers accomplish. One example was how Vangent helped a  customer enable better information sharing among multiple agencies which saved time and money – reducing processing time from eight months to  just one day and shaving 30 percent in operating costs. Using that kind  of differentiator will make your company stick out from the rest of the  pack and allow you to stake claim to a result which you can build your  brand around.

2) Equip your employees with the tools they need to be effective brand communicators. In the government contracting world, employees are your most valuable  brand ambassadors. But the reality is that most employees who work for  government services providers can barely recite their company’s mission  or vision statements, let alone their menu of service offerings. The  reason is simple: Mission statements too often are too long and full of  over-used industry jargon. Make it easy for your employees by giving  them the tools they need to not only memorize the meaning or essence of  your company’s brand, but to internalize the brand so that they can  effectively explain what your company’s brand represents. When Pearson  Government Solutions was rebranded as Vangent in 2007, it created a  “brand playbook” given to every employee and helped them understand the  importance of branding, the words to describe Vangent’s brand and  examples or “proof points” that helped them explain what Vangent’s brand represents. The brand playbook was an essential part of Vangent’s  on-boarding program for new employees and was reinforced with a short  and impactful video shown to all employees.

3) Create an emotional feeling about your brand. It’s OK, really! Companies marketing products we buy and use every day  are masters at creating an emotional connection with consumers. They  want you to feel good about buying and using their product. That’s why  today’s consumer marketing focuses on how you feel versus how much the  product costs or whether you need it. Why can’t we apply that same rule  to the government services market? Vangent showcased its experts and  thought leaders on video in a series of conversations about some of the  most pressing challenges facing its customers. What’s the point in  keeping their faces and thoughts hiding behind nondescript bios or  ho-hum descriptions of your company’s services? Bring your company to  life and create an emotional connection with your target audiences by  storytelling. Showcase your company’s talent in rich content, quality  photos and compelling videos. You’ll offer your customers, teaming  partners and new recruits a glimpse into your company before they‘ve had the chance to meet you in person.

4) Your brand is your culture and culture trumps strategy any day. The first question asked by any new employee is about the company’s  culture, not about the company’s strategy. They’ll want to know what  it’s like to work at your company, what the environment is like and the  opportunities to advance their careers. Many companies in the government services industry struggle in communicating their company culture and  instead give employees lists of customers, names of contract vehicles  and a list of company locations. Does that really answer an employee’s  need to understand the company culture? Hardly. Vangent focused on its  six core values and one in particular: We do meaningful work. Employees  understood the impact they had on the lives of millions of people every  day. This powerful value permeated throughout the company in employee  communications, external communications in the forms of media relations, investor relations and marketing and recruiting campaigns.

5) Invest in your company’s brand no matter how much and don’t be ashamed about it. The old saying “don’t be penny wise and pound foolish” certainly rings  true today in the government services industry where pressure on top and bottom line growth has squeezed out marketing, communications,  advertising and branding budgets. During an era of dwindling resources  in the federal government where blatant promotion is frowned upon, how  do you distinguish your company and justify precious resources? In a  down economy like the one we’re experiencing today, it’s more important  than ever to up your game and take advantage of new and inexpensive ways to showcase your company. At Vangent, I implemented an integrated  marketing program which focused on valuable content and compelling  videos. I also used social media tools including Twitter, YouTube and  LinkedIn to drive Vangent’s brand directly to the audiences it aimed to  reach. Vangent’s powerful messaging platform was on display at industry  events, conferences and trade shows.

Yes, employees, customers and investors do notice which companies  have got it going on and which companies are stuck in the past.

About the Author: Eileen Cassidy Rivera is former vice president of communications and investor relations at Vangent, a General Dynamics company. In December, she joined KeeganSilver as senior health marketing strategist supporting Booz Allen Hamilton. This article was published by Washington Technology on Dec. 1, 2011 at http://washingtontechnology.com/articles/2011/12/01/marketing-tips-government-market.aspx?s=wtdaily_021211.

Understanding the human dimension of federal contracting

November 23, 2011 by

Earlier this month, I was sitting on a stage with several government technology leaders, when one of them said something that cut through the usual noise.

“If you don’t do right by the people involved, the whole thing will fall on its face.”

The speaker was David Wennergren, the assistant deputy chief management officer for the Department of Defense. His point is relevant to all of us, both in government and industry.

It’s easy for us to focus on the numbers and the technologies. We wring our hands about where the money will come from to finish out the quarter, how to navigate budget cutbacks and still grow our businesses, and how to get a foot in the door with an agency. In the process, we can neglect the human dimension of the complementary challenges the government faces.

The buyer on the other side of the table, after all, is in a difficult place too. For government acquisition professionals, it’s not terribly difficult to make mistakes. They can accidentally spend in advance of appropriations, task the contractor to perform unauthorized work, inject bias into a source selection decision – the list is as long as your arm. Then there’s the additional stress of working within a risk-averse, rule-bound culture that limits options on a daily basis.

The acquisition workforce faces a tougher job today just a few years ago. With the chronic delays in congressional appropriations, these federal employees are now finding themselves halfway through the fiscal year and still uncertain about what funding they might receive and whether there will be any strings attached. As a program manager in the commercial world, you’d be frustrated.

There’s an old saying: “If you don’t have time to do it right, when will you have time to do it over again?”

An over-extended government acquisition workforce, short on qualified professionals, doesn’t always have time for either.

The best business leaders in our industry understand this. They work to help keep government acquisition professionals from getting in a bind. They know that if their government customer makes a mistake, it falls partially on the contractors’ shoulders.

Keep quiet when you know about a tactic that customers could use to solve their problems and you deny the taxpayer an efficient solution, limit the agency’s resources, and — consequently — limit your own opportunity to grow.

That’s why, increasingly, I think the key to success in our industry will be the people skills necessary to have a constructive conversation with an acquisition professional. It’s not an easy thing to do, and it requires a particular skill set. At the heart of it is an intimate knowledge of the world she works in. So study the Federal Acquisition Regulation and the financing rules. Attend events where people like Wennergren explain their challenges. Sit down with the customer and offer a new approach to s a program. Few contractors do these things.

But those who do find a receptive audience. During my time as a federal procurement official, I saw contracting officers with 15 years or more of experience approach me with a solution to a problem that they wanted to explore, courtesy of a contractor. Risk-averse culture or not, their minds could be expanded.

The lesson here is simple. When you see a way forward, pick up the phone. Coach them, guide them honestly and objectively. “Do right by the people involved.” Together you’ll find the solution.

by Ray Bjorklund, Chief Knowledge Officer, Deltek – published by the Washington Business Journal – November 22, 2011 at http://www.bizjournals.com/washington/blog/fedbiz_daily/2011/11/the-human-dimesion-to-federal.html.

Fraud continues in small business preference programs

October 31, 2011 by

Contractor fraud in small business set-aside programs is difficult to detect and prove, but its annual costs to government are significant in dollars and damage to legitimate business that deserve the work, two federal watchdogs told a House panel Thursday.

In fulfilling the Obama administration’s goal of giving 23 percent of prime federal contracts to small business, agencies need to do better at making a public example of “bad actors” and at vetting contractors that misrepresent their qualifications for minority advantages through self-certification, according to Peggy Gustafson, inspector general for the Small Business Administration, and Brian Miller, IG for the General Services Administration.

They spoke at a hearing of the House Small Business Subcommittee on Investigations, Oversight and Regulations called by Chairman Mike Coffman, R-Colo., who sought to learn why much contractor fraud goes unpunished and unprosecuted.

“Just as we all benefit from small business prime contracting, we all suffer when fraud rears its ugly head,” Coffman said. “Legitimate small businesses lose the ability to perform when contracts go to firms that do not qualify for, or who are not following the rules associated with, the small business contracting program. The government suffers from this fraud because bad actors give all small businesses a bad name, so contacting officers are more reluctant to use the small business programs, which in turn results in less competition and a less vibrant industrial base.”

The set-aside programs consist chiefly of preferences for section 8(a) business development, Historically Underutilized Business Zones, women-owned businesses and the service-disabled veteran-owned program. Both inspectors general testified that their own agencies had fallen victim to fraud. SBA and the HUBZone certification program played a role in the sensational case exposed with the arrests earlier this month involving $20 million in fraud allegedly committed by contractors and two employees of the Army Corps of Engineers, Gustafson noted.

Miller described a recent $6 million contract awarded to a company that claimed to be run by a disabled veteran whose documents said he served three tours of duty during the Vietnam War and received medals and citations. It turned out, Miller said, he was a mechanical engineer serving stateside in the National Guard.

“It’s difficult to prove a monetary loss to the government because it did receive the goods and services,” Miller said. “But the real loss is to program integrity, to the legitimate small businesses that didn’t get the contract.” He added that fraudulent self-certification is difficult to detect and agencies rely on such information in the majority of the preference contract awards because their resources are limited.

“Strong penalties are needed to deter” the fraud, he said. “The tougher it is to detect, the tougher penalties must be,” though the rules should avoid punishing innocent companies simply because of a clerical error, he said.

Gustafson said each type of set-aside has its own level of vetting and the Section 8 program is the hardest for contractors to qualify for. She agreed that agencies could deter more fraud by publicizing their reviews of such programs, which in one instance prompted “contractors to drop out in droves.” It is acknowledged by all IGs, she added, “that the federal government doesn’t use suspension and debarment enough — that hits contractors in the pocketbook.”

Miller noted that GSA has an interactive map on its website providing other agencies with links to state databases reporting contractors that have been suspended or debarred.

Coffman asked whether agencies should take more responsibility for policing fraud. “It’s hard to draw simple rules,” Gustafson said. “Overburdened” agencies focused on awarding contracts are “not expected to know all the ins and outs” of the set-aside programs. Also, “the more difficult the rules are to administer, the harder it is to present the case to a jury,” she said.

But the issue “needs more discussion in the executive branch and guidance from Congress since it’s not always clear who’s minding the store,” she said. “If the programs don’t have integrity, we might as well throw them open to open competition.”

– by Charles S. Clark - Government Executive – October 27, 2011 – http://www.govexec.com/story_page.cfm?articleid=49156&dcn=e_gvet

SBA offers live web chat Oct. 27th on WOSB program

October 25, 2011 by

Are you a woman business owner seeking federal contracts?

The U.S. Small Business Administration’s October web chat will focus on the Women-Owned Small Business (WOSB) federal contract program aimed at bringing more WOSBs into the federal contracting arena.  Federal contracts can provide women entrepreneurs with the oxygen they need to take their businesses to the next level.  Celebrate Women’s Small Business Month, and visit http://go.usa.gov/4BV to get updated information about the women’s contract program.

Meanwhile, Michele Chang, senior advisor in the Office of Government Contracting and Business Development at the SBA, will host the October web chat on “SBA’s Federal Contract Program for Women – Part 2.”
This event will take place from 1 to 2 p.m. EST on Thursday, Oct. 27, 2011.

SBA’s web chat series provides small business owners with an opportunity to discuss relevant business issues online with experts, industry leaders and successful entrepreneurs.  Chat participants have direct, real-time access to the web chats via questions they submit online in advance, and during the live session.  Participants will gain valuable information on how to participate in the program to gain increased access to government contracting opportunities.

Participants can join the live web chat, and also post questions before the October 27th chat, by going online to www.sba.gov, and clicking on the web chat event under What’s New.

To review archives of past web chats, visit online at http://www.sba.gov/content/monthly-web-chat.

GSA offers webinar tips for marketing to the government

October 24, 2011 by

GSA is hosting a live webinar to provide new small businesses insider tips on successful government contracting.

The webisnar is scheduled for Monday, Nov. 14, 2011, from 1:00 to 2:00 pm EST.

The webinar is entitled ”Six Easy Steps for Marketing Your Business to the Federal Government.”   The training is designed based on feedback from seasoned contractors who have provided insight to their success.

Space is limited.  Reserve your space now by going to https://www2.gotomeeting.com/register/392544194.  If you are denied participation in this webinar, the participant capacity has been reached.

6 reasons your proposals fail

October 20, 2011 by

I received a call from a mid-sized “large” business that had submitted a proposal for IT services and had just learned their proposal did not make competitive range. They were irate and wanted to protest, alleging that the government had not fairly evaluated their proposal.

They had hired a proposal consultant, spent lots of money developing their proposal, and were assured their proposal was professionally done. Before filing the protest, the company asked me to review their proposal. Here’s what I found when I did the review and what I told them.

Professionally developed proposals always have the same characteristics — they are compliant, responsive, compelling and customer focused. They present a solution that is easy to evaluate and score well — and they are aesthetically attractive. I used each of these criteria while reviewing this company’s submission.

Compliance

The proposal’s structure is expected to follow the request for proposal’s instructions (section L of this RFP) and also track with the evaluation criteria (section M).

Initially, this proposal followed section L, but then it departed and added sections not called for in sections L or M. It then skipped required section L topics. Finally, some evaluation criteria were never addressed in the proposal. The easiest way to lose points during an evaluation is to not follow the instructions or not address the evaluation criteria. Simply put, this proposal was non-compliant.

Responsive

The content of each proposal section must respond precisely to each topic prescribed in the RFP. The section headings should track to the RFP instructions, and the associated discussions should be consistent with the section headings. When proposal text fails to address the sections heading, the sections are non sequitur, e.g., an applicable response does not follow a particular section title.

The proposal seemed to have section text that was lifted from other proposals and pasted into this proposal. The responses were close, but not close enough. To the non-practitioner, much proposal text sounds alike. After all, if the RFP asks for a QA Plan and we give them a Configuration Management Plan, who would know the difference? This proposal team did just that. I scored some of the sections a zero because they failed the responsiveness test.

Compelling

This is a proposal term that describes how convincing or persuasive the proposal is. In government procurements, we expect the proposal to meet the solicitation requirements fully and exceed those requirements, where practical, in a way that is beneficial to the customer. There should be many features in the proposal that demonstrate a high likelihood of contract success or that exceed solicitation requirements. Assertions about company performance and claims about solution features should be substantiated by real evidence, not boastful rhetoric. Features with relevant and substantiated benefits, presented persuasively, provide the basis for selecting one bidder’s proposal over another.

In this proposal, as I read through 200 pages of hum drum technical prose, I found features were few and benefits were even fewer. There was no basis for differentiation and no compelling basis for selection. This was not the way to write a proposal.

Customer-focused

Proposals are customer focused, and marketing brochures are company focused. A customer-focused proposal discusses how your company proposes to do the work and the benefits the customer will receive from your performance. If the proposal just brags about how good the company is and how outstanding its processes are, then the proposal is company-focused at best. Company-focused proposals cause evaluators to lose interest, whereas customer-focused proposals hold evaluators’ interest and score higher.

Slogging through 200 pages about how good this company is does not substitute for a cogent explanation of what the company planned to do and how it was going do it. If I had read one more time that their processes were “best of breed” or “world class,” I think I would have just closed the book and quit reading.

Easy to evaluate

Evaluators generally start their review with the proposal evaluation criteria in section M of the RFP. They build an evaluation checklist, and then go looking through the proposal to find information that addresses the topics in the evaluation checklist. They search for only what they need to find to evaluate the proposal and write up their evaluation results. Call-out boxes, pull quotes, feature/benefit tables, sections headings and other techniques help draw the evaluator’s attention to the appropriate information. Every evaluator will tell you that if they can’t find it, they can’t score it. Professional proposals are structured so the key evaluation points are extremely easy to find and evaluate.

As you might expect, in this proposal, key evaluations points were missing or not readily found.

Appearance

Proposals should be attractive and easy to read. They should have a consistent document style, appropriate color pallet, paragraph labeling and numbering scheme traceable to the RFP, and an appropriate mix of text and supporting graphics. Single-column text is fine with half-page or quarter-page-size graphics positioned consistently on the page. Graphics should convey the intended message with the appropriate level of detail.

The proposal was attractive, and if you didn’t read the content, it looked like it would score pretty well. I gave them high marks for attractiveness and accolades to the desktop publishing team.

At the end of my review, I told the company executives to save their protest money. In this case, the government did them a favor by eliminating their proposal from the competitive range. This proposal was not professionally done, even though they thought it was, and it had no chance of winning. After the review, they agreed not to protest and resolved to do better next time.

About the Author: Bob Lohfeld is the chief executive officer of the Lohfeld Consulting Group. His e-mail is moc.gnitlusnocdlefholnull@dlefhol.trebor.  This article was published Oct. 7, 2011 by Washington Technology at http://washingtontechnology.com/articles/2011/10/03/insights-lohfeld.aspx?s=wtdaily_181011.

SBA proposals could make small-biz credit easier to get

October 18, 2011 by

The Small Business Administration is considering changes to its rules that would allow an agency spending its money through a task or delivery order to chalk up the awards to its own subcontracting plans, according to a Oct. 5 Federal Register notice.

Agencies could start to get credit toward their annual small-business  subcontracting goals for their orders placed against multiple-agency  contracts, a perk for agencies as procurement policy officials push  strategic sourcing.

Each agency has to set its own annual goal to make sure that various types of small businesses have an opportunity to participate in its contracts.

Currently though, when purchases come through an inter-agency contract, the agency that holds the contract gets the credit. That applies to the General Services Administration Schedules contracts too.

For example, consider an agency that places an order against a governmentwide acquisition contract. Say a large company gets the award and subcontracts some of the work to a small business subcontractor. The agency that hosts the GWAC gets the credit for hiring a small business, not the agency placing the order.

Prime contracts work differently. If an agency awards an order placed on a GWAC directly to a small business, the purchasing agency gets the points.

Agency officials have told SBA they would like to get the small-business subcontracting credit when they’re spending the money. SBA is also considering giving discretion to the contracting officer from the agency that’s placing the order to establish the subcontracting goals related to the individual orders.

Officials also want real-time insight into subcontracting on interagency contracts. Contractor may have to report their subcontracts with small businesses to the host agency’s contracting officer for each order.

Currently, contractors are reporting to the agency twice a year at the most.

“Reporting on an order-by-order basis will allow the funding agency to receive credit towards its small-business subcontracting goals,” SBA writes in its proposal.

SBA is taking input on the proposal through Dec. 5.

In light of SBA’s changes, Dan Gordon, administrator of the Office of Federal Procurement Policy, has pushed agencies to think beyond their own purchasing and, instead, buy with the government in mind.

Strategic sourcing gives the government leverage over the contractor in setting prices. A greater quantity of potential orders encourages contractors to lower prices.

Office of Management and Budget officials believe agencies want to use more interagency contracts in order to squeeze the most out of their funds and lessen their employees’ workload.

“Particularly in this tight budgetary environment, agencies have told us they are eager for tools that can help them stretch a dollar further and do more with less,” an OMB spokeswoman said Oct. 5.

SBA’s proposed change may make subcontracting goals slightly easier to meet, especially if agencies are turning more toward the interagency contracts, said Ken Dodds, senior attorney at SBA.

He said agencies would find it more difficult to meet subcontracting goals if they didn’t credit.

About the Author: Matthew Weigelt is a senior writer covering acquisition and procurement for Washington Technology.  This article appeared Oct. 12, 2011 at http://washingtontechnology.com/articles/2011/10/12/sba-subcontracting-credit-multiple-agency-contracts.aspx?s=wtdaily_141011.

13 banks commit $20B to small business lending

September 26, 2011 by

The four largest banks in the U.S. are among 13 financial institutions that have committed to increase their lending by $20 billion to small businesses over the next three years, reports the Washington Business Journal.

The banks are: Wells Fargo, Bank of America Corp., Citigroup Inc., JP Morgan Chase & Co., KeyBank, Regions Bank, Huntington Bank, M&T Bank, Citizens Financial Group, TD Bank, US Bank, PNC Bank, and SunTrust Bank, the article said.

Karen Mills, who heads the Small Business Administration, made the announcement while touring the Ohio-based Wrap-Tite packaging supply company that was recently given a $1.5 million SBA loan.

According to the Associated Press, the loan enabled the company to purchase a production facility five times larger than its old locations and expand its number of employees.

On Sept. 20, Vice President Joe Biden also visited the plant to underscore the significance of the 13 bank commitment. The move will buoy small business lending that dwindled from $700 billion in 2008 before the recession to $600 billion, Biden told the AP.

– by Washington Technology staff – Sept. 21, 2011 – http://washingtontechnology.com/articles/2011/09/21/agg-13-banks-to-increase-small-business-lending.aspx?s=wtdaily_220911

New on-line government forum created for small businesses

September 23, 2011 by

The House Small Business Committee has launched “Small Biz Open Mic” as a forum for small business owner to speak directly to Congress about government policies affecting them.

Committee Chairman Rep. Sam Graves describes the site as a:

“… new media forum that encourages blog-type comments and testimonials from small business owners across America regarding government policies, and allows participants to comment on Committee news, legislation, hearings, and news stories that relate to small business growth and development. Comments from participants about legislation and policies that impact small businesses will be used to help the Committee conduct its official business.”

Small business owners can upload videos and leave comments at http://smallbusiness.house.gov/OpenMic/SubmitFeedback.aspx

You might want to consider saying something about the value that you receive from the services of a procurement technical assistance center (PTAC) like the Georgia Tech Procurement Assistance Center!

Check it out the full site at http://smallbusiness.house.gov/OpenMic/

OMB urges agencies to pay small business contracts faster

September 22, 2011 by

Federal agencies must accelerate their payments to small business contractors, according to an Office of Management and Budget memorandum released Wednesday.

The new guideline cuts the recommended payment time in half. Previously, under the 1982 Prompt Payment Act, agencies had to make payments within 30 days from when an invoice was received. Now, agencies should make payments within 15 days, or as soon as practicable.

With the government spending nearly $100 billion a year in small business contracts, OMB predicts this will boost cash-flow for small businesses and help create economic growth.

“This will benefit tens of thousands of small businesses by getting money into their hands faster,” Jeff Zients, deputy director for management and chief performance officer, said in a blog post for OMB.   The late payment interest penalty will not change, however. A provision in the Prompt Payment Act, the penalty is triggered when an agency does not pay within the 30-day mark.

Initial reaction from the National Small Business Association is positive.

“We’re supportive of it conceptually. Expediting the payment time is a good thing,” said Molly Brogan, vice president of public affairs for the group.

Agencies are expected to notify OMB by Nov. 1 when they can begin making accelerated payments.

– by Caitlin Fairchild - Government Executive – September 15, 2011 at http://www.govexec.com/story_page.cfm?articleid=48808&dcn=e_tma.