An ongoing program that gathers customer value and satisfaction data is critical to managing a sustainable competitive advantage. Leading companies often use customer value and satisfaction both as key performance indicators and as diagnostic measures for continuous improvement. But is it important to assess customer value in the world of government contracts? The answer is a qualified "yes". The ability for construction companies to learn from government decision makers can be crucial to beating the competition, though feedback isn't available in every situation.
In the case of a hard money bid, the government agency narrowly defines value as "best price," and that's all you need to know. On the other hand, when contractors are selected based upon qualifications rather than a fixed bid, learning from government decision makers can pay huge dividends.
When an agency puts work out on a fixed bid, it knows precisely what it wants and opens a price negotiation. When an agency issues a RFP, the psychology is different. The agency only has a general idea of a solution. A dialogue with potential solution providers is expected. This gives you a chance to pick the brains of agency personnel and zero in on their hot buttons. Your ability to smoke out project owner preferences during the RFP process can help you to outshine and upstage your competitors.
This article examines the tools best practices companies use to learn from government decision makers and project owners.
Improve listening skills
Your ability to learn from government project owners depends upon effective listening. A listening-centered approach to working with public sector decision makers can improve your ability not only to do good work today, but also to build a foundation of trust that leads to future contracts. I once saw a survey that said high performing sales people are better listeners. What made the difference? The study revealed that, compared to most people, these high performers tend to:
- Ask a lot more questions.
- Allow the client to do most of the talking.
- Wait much longer before jumping in with a solution.
How do you improve your company's ability to learn from government decision makers? Step one is to emphasize listening skills in the hiring process. Every employee who has a client contact will be more effective in meeting current and future client needs if they simply listen to what government decision makers tell them.
In addition to hiring good listeners, it often makes sense to inject learning from public sector decision makers into standard business processes. There are many ways construction companies can do this. For example, you really have the ear of agency personnel at the beginning of a project, right? Use this time to gain a competitive advantage. When your team is confirming job specifications, don't exclusively focus on the immediate project.
Gather as much owner/agency intelligence as possible. Probe into broader strategic issues such as the owner/agency's pain points, goals, long-term plans, etc. Ask and answer questions such as these:
- Do you know of any major issues that the owner/agency has, such as problems, trends, needs, sensitivities, internal pressures, external pressures, preferences, etc?
- What are their ordering/acquisition practices? Are they innovative or conservative?
- What is the ranking of the evaluation considerations in order of importance to the owner/agency? (Do they favor value or price? Do they have any preferences?)
Another proven approach is the client satisfaction survey. You have probably seen and perhaps even participated in consumer product surveys. However, sending a list of questions into a government agency isn't likely to elicit a response. Instead, try this. At the midpoint and again at the end of project, have a senior executive not on the project team call the agency project owner to get a reading on satisfaction levels. As with their private sector counterparts, public sector decision makers will be pleased to receive this kind of attention and, I assure you, they will be frank in both praise and criticism.
Surveying client satisfaction this way will not only improve your firm's ability to deliver quality workmanship, but can also throw light on new business trends and opportunities. Sharing survey results at company meetings expands "tribal knowledge" and helps to keep teams focused on client needs.
My final advice on listening skills is: Don't forget to ask for more work. I am always amazed at how people will talk to government agency employees nonstop and never once ask, "Is there anything else we can do for you?" or "Do you know of anyone else who might need our services?" Never assume agency personnel will volunteer this type of information.
Perhaps the oldest adage in the business world is this: "People do business with people they like and trust." This underscores the importance of building relationships. Showing interest in government decision makers before, during, and after completion of a project builds their confidence in you and your company. At the same time, it enables you to gather information that helps you know and understand the government people you want to work with. Through this process, you will be able to invest in a long-term partnership with key agency employees and stay current on their goals and needs, not just when work is put out to bid.
Do Secondary Market Research
It often makes sense to supplement direct learning from government project owners with secondary market research. The only way to analyze a government agency's purchasing trends is to be able to review all announced bids, RFPs, quotes, awards, amendments, etc. that the agency has released. This gives you a way to develop a trending analysis so you can gain a better understanding of the market and plan your government sales more effectively.
When planning your government market strategy, it will be important to analyze agency trends to use that information to your advantage when forecasting future sales. Agency purchasing history will be particularly helpful for you. You will need to analyze trends such as:
- What has the agency purchased in the past?
- What types of products or services do they tend to solicit?
- Where does it look like they are spending a good portion of their budget?
Access Historical Government Purchasing Data
Finding a single source for government business intelligence that allows you to analyze government purchasing trends can be difficult. Trying to gather and organize this trending information on your own will waste a lot of your time and will probably leave many holes in your analysis. The easiest way to access an agency's purchasing information is through an online government business intelligence database.
You can simply log into the online database and easily extract years of procurement information with the help of filtering capabilities. When looking at historical agency information, you can even view past projects and narrow them down according to your industry, which speeds up your analysis process.
In addition to accessing an online government business intelligence database, market sizing reports are very effective if you have a large-scale business or you don't have time to analyze trends yourself. Market sizing reports will help you figure out which government entities are spending money on your services and how the agencies' priorities are shifting over time.
Improving your firm's ability to learn from government decision makers can increase your chances of winning more business, identify new contacts of active government project owners, and expand your understanding of your marketplace and the firms you compete against.