he key word for the emerging business in pursuing sales with the Federal government is niche. Looking at one of the simplest illustrations, there is virtually no community in the United States today that does not host one or more Federal installations. While most of the procurement for these activities is centralized, they invariably have substantial miscellaneous and emergency needs that can be fulfilled locally. In fact, most Federal agencies encourage local procurement to foster good relations with the community.
For example, while most stationery, office supplies and cleaning/sanitation products will be ordered through the General Services Administration catalog, the long delays between the initial GSA order and the eventual arrival of the goods opens up attractive opportunities for local suppliers. Here, the niche of the emerging business may simply be a prosaic geographic advantage.
The access to discovering this business can be as effortless as schmoozing with the business manager or controller of the local operation. Surprisingly, they are often quite uninformed about reliable local sources of supply. In a local facility, they do not have the organizational resources to cope with many "nuisance" needs. You may be required to "bid" on an annual supply contract, but many of these are not seriously competitive — there may be few, if any, alternative suppliers. In fact, local vendors are frequently asked to draft the Request for Proposal (RFP). It is not uncommon that your quoted prices are simply the prices in your general catalog. The criteria for selection as a supplier is that your prices are fair and there is assurance of reliable quality and delivery.
Just as in private sector business, personal relationships can be important in this kind of Federal business. Most local Federal activities are not immense establishments, but are facilities with staffs of 20 to perhaps a few hundred people. And these people are your neighbors — the men and women you encounter in the PTA, the Rotary Club breakfasts, your church, and your golf club. Therefore, you are not having to deal with a distant and faceless bureaucrat; you can work with a real person. If some special situation or performance problem arises, it is usually possible to work this out face-to-face with the end-user. There can be an informality in these relationships quite different from the common perception of a vast impersonal Federal government with which it often seems impossible to do business.
The key is to get to know your customer — and the Federal government is not fundamentally different than other customers, especially at the local level. Talk and visit with your customer, listen to what his/her problems and needs are, learn what the current dissatisfactions may be with present supplier relationships, and ask how you can be helpful, how you can take a perceived problem off of their backs. And be flexible! Many Federal operations have some thorny need or procurement problem with which they have been stumped; while it might not be exactly in your traditional line of business, you may be able to satisfy this unique and urgent need quite well — with comfortable margins. Many smaller businesses have been able to develop attractive additive business with the Federal government almost by accident by simply listening and responding.
The perceived rigidity of Federal procurement is commonly a deterrent to seeking government supply contracts; it may take a long time to overturn established supplier relationships. However, this rigidity works both ways. Once the smaller local supplier establishes a satisfactory relationship with the installation, it can be very difficult to be dislodged by an outsider when your performance has been satisfactory and you are indeed right next door.
Especially at this local level, the Federal customer can be a good customer. They need you as much as you need them. With billions of dollars of local procurement needs every year, the emerging business is particularly well-positioned to capture this lucrative and perhaps untapped marketplace, literally, just down the street.
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Revised: July 21, 2023 TAF
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