Knowing the Customer Is Key to Government Contracting

This post, written by David Wyld, originally appeared on Public Spend Forum

Often times, businesses trying to crack into the world of federal contracting report that they feel like travelers landing in a country where they know no one and don’t know the language. Federal acquisition does sometimes seem like a strange land, with its own unique tongue that sounds completely foreign to those engaged in sales and business development efforts for the first time. Just as one who thinks he or she knows the language enough to “get around” abroad, sometimes you can hear things that make you scratch your head and/or play turista and ask for guidance and direction.

When dealing with the feds, the members of your sales/business development team should be prepared for the often foreign language they will encounter when entering the environs of Washington, DC and Northern Virginia seeking federal contracting dollars. To be expected, there are the endless acronyms—some applicable across all agencies but many others that are specific to subagencies and even specific locales. There are also words and phrases that have meanings unique to the federal acquisition environment, none of which is more important than the notion of the “customer” and providing service to the “customer.” Yet, there is no more important linguistic difference to note than the unique definition of “customer” that exists inside the Beltway.

So, when you are trying to sell your widgets or your services to a federal agency, you may assume that you know who the customer is. The simple answer of course is that it is the agency—and while that’s technically correct, there are actually multiple layers to the customer identity, and attendant to that—multiple layers of service provision involved in selling to a three-letter federal agency.

When dealing with the world of federal contracting, you are really dealing with two levels of customers, not one. First, there is the “buying customer” level, the acquisition executives and staffers who represent the agency. And then there is the “using customer” level, the actual agency personnel who make use of the product or good in question or have the company’s service offerings delivered to them. Now, this dichotomy of customers is not totally unique to the public sector.

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