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Your Elevator Pitch Needs Work

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… or you wouldn’t be reading this.

Yes, you. The “small, woman-owned company established in 2008, located in Alexandria, VA, that prides itself on excellent customer service and always striving to do best for our clients“.  Because if that sounds like you, you just wasted 20 seconds of everybody’s time for no good reason.

A truly great elevator pitch takes planning, practice, and precision. Especially in government contracting, where industry events are comprised of many companies of similar industries, you need to stand out, or you may as well be invisible.  Here’s what I mean:

  1. Planning. Know your audience.  Who is going to be in the room? What is the key takeaway you want them to remember? How will your 30-second opportunity set you apart from everyone else?  The point of the elevator pitch is for the listeners to spark an interest. Not to pre-emptively answer all their questions.  Naturally, your elevator pitch will be different in an open forum, in a 1-on-1 with a government agency, a potential teaming partner, or a banker.
  2. Practice. Every time you say “umm” or “you know” or “as I said” – you’re stealing seconds from your allotted time; losing the listeners’ attention; and killing your credibility as an expert.  Know what you will say ahead of time. Run it by a few people – a family member, friend, partner, a PTAP or SBDC counselor.  Be sure to test on people that don’t know the technical specifics of what you do, because if you’re speaking in code (or jargon), your customers may not understand what you’re saying.
  3. Precision. What are the key elements you want to convey that would want your listener to want to ask you more questions?  Look at a few templates for constructing the pitch, You can start  with this guide or this one. A generic, 1-size fits all blurb will fit no one. An appeal targeted specifically for the present audience will be more productive.

 

 

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Why Am I Here? (At this conference)

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I am lucky to attend many a procurement conference.  The piles of business cards, and the expansive collection of branded grocery shopping bags in my car will attest to that.

I go to learn the content, sometimes to speak, and to meet people (and depending on the content of the conference, not necessarily in that order). In fact, defining the business goals for attending – including sponsoring or exhibiting – is essential if you want to avoid wasting your time and money at events that aren’t right for your business. The process goes something like this:

  • Will my customers be there?

there’s nothing more frustrating than going to an event marketed as “Special event for government contractors” and there are 2 government contracting businesses in the room.  Look at past events, peruse the sponsor information, if published. Talk to the organizers. Ask your industry contacts if they think this is a good event.

  • Will my industry influencers be there?

Sometimes you have to see and be seen. If a preeminent industry event is happening and all your competitors are showing up and your absence would loudly proclaim that you’re not paying attention — then you better put on that suit and register before it’s all sold out.  If a customer tells you that they’re putting on an event and expending effort to bring you a program, get their folks to agree to speak, those should all be good signs that your absence won’t go unnoticed.

  • Will my resources /vendors be there?

Some of the events may not be all about you making a sale. Sometimes, you may want to learn about trends in the industry or resources that you can use in your business.  Looking for a legal pro? An event featuring attorney speakers on a particular subject matter may be a quick way to get a question answered – and perhaps a lead on a good attorney you can retain.  Same thing goes for any resource you need: the people putting on events, appearing as subject matter experts tend to be well connected, and may be great resources for your business.

  • Will I learn something useful for my business?

You’re there to learn – so engage, participate, ask questions, take the opportunity to have a word with a speaker (or at least get their card).  You can also make a good impression from the audience if you post / tweet about the event in progress, linking to the speakers’ and organizers’ Twitter handles can get you a few “likes” and “retweets” – building your name recognition and notoriety even as you’re in the audience.

  • Will I do “better” by exhibiting / sponsoring?

If your customers and partners are walking around and you want to get noticed, having an exhibit table is a quick way for them to find you. If you have something that catches their eye and gets them to your table – all the better.  At many conferences, sponsors get advanced marketing, such as social media, print, and website recognition. Bigger events even pre-print giveaways with all the sponsor logos.  Word of caution: if you do decide to exhibit or sponsor an event – make sure you’re ready. Do you have something to give away? (even a capabilities statement and some candy). Do you have a professional-looking presence? Logo, tablecloth, banner…. You don’t want to be over- or under- dressed for the occasion. If you’ve gone to an event before, you know what all the other exhibitors will have. You don’t want to look like you didn’t prepare.  If you’re a first-time attendee to a particular conference, it’s perfectly fine to just attend and make a decision if it’s worth exhibiting the following year.

 

  • Here’s what NOT to do:

  1. Look at your phone the whole time.  You’re there to meet people, right?
  2. Leave your business cards at home.  [I keep a stash in my car for emergencies.]
  3. Leave early.  I know you want to beat the traffic, but I can honestly tell you that government agencies that put a lot of work into the industry days and conferences – and find it disappointing that contractors who claim want to work with them dissipate from the room. I know everyone has multiple commitments; if this event / customer is a priority, commit to it.
  4. Forget to follow up.
  5. Follow up as a mass email to everyone – the best I can assume is that you weren’t paying attention when we spoke. The worst I’m going to assume is that you don’t care that much.
  6. Have unrealistic expectations.  Read the information about the event, the speakers, the sponsors.  Understand their roles and responsibilities with respect to the subject matter, and what kind of information you can learn through the agenda topics, as well as conversations you can engage in.
  7. Fail to read instructions and prepare. Read the registration page carefully. Review driving directions & traffic. Add the event to your calendar. If payment is required, take care of it.
  8. No-show. If you can’t make it, let the organizers know. They would like to have an accurate count for food orders, room capacity, and possibly waitlisted folks.
  9. Take it out on the registration desk.  If there’s a problem, ask to speak to an organizer. the folks at the desk doing check-in probably weren’t at fault for mis-printing your name. Yelling at them is not going to get you the answer you want – but being nice to them can get you what you need.
  • What SHOULD you do?

  1. Participate – strike up conversations, invest in an exhibit opportunity if it makes sense, ask questions in the sessions, if you see a staff person struggling with a heavy object, lend a hand.  There are a myriad ways to make a good impression.
  2. Show up on time.  Early-birds: that means you, too.  There are no gold stars for folks that want to register while the organizers are trying to set up. They’re even more anxious to get started than you are, promise.
  3. Dress professionally for the tone of the conference.  Logo shirts are usually a good idea — but you may want to check to see if attire is “business” – that is, suits required.
  4. If you have special needs, let the organizer know in advance so that we can accommodate you to the fullest extent possible.
  5. Share the love on social media. Post to LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook any insights or photos. Not only will it give you content, but it will be picked up and shared by organizers and speakers! and you may get a few more followers in the process.
  6. Follow up with folks you want to start building relationships.  Invite them to connect on LinkedIn, invite them out for coffee, ask them a follow-up question about the topic you discussed, bring up a tidbit from a conversation that shows you were genuinely interested in what they had to say.

What have you done at events you attended that made a difference in your business?

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Ode to the NAICS Code

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A fundamental building block of your company’s government contracting existence. The NAICS codes define you, quite literally, by associating your offerings with a certain segment of the universe of products and services sold in North America.    Then why are they so difficult to get right?

First, let’s define the problem.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, NAICS, or “North American Industrial Classification System”, is the standard used by Federal statistical agencies in classifying business establishments for the purpose of collecting, analyzing, and publishing statistical data related to the U.S. business economy. NAICS was developed under the auspices of the Office of Management and Budget (OMB), and adopted in 1997 to replace the Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) system. It was developed jointly by the U.S. Economic Classification Policy Committee (ECPC)Statistics Canada, and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Estadistica y Geografia  to allow for a high level of comparability in business statistics among the North American countries.

As of February 2016, there are 1045 active NAICS codes.  536 of them refer to services (from banking to industrial launderers to fur-bearing animal production), 509 refer to wholesalers and manufacturers (from music stores to dental labs to fasteners/buttons/needles).

And there must be one out there that perfectly describes you, and if you find it, everything is smooth sailing…

Not so fast.

Federal contractors need to look at NAICS Codes, much like they need to look at everything else they’re doing in pursuit of business: from their customer’s viewpoint.

So here are some best practices for figuring out what your NAICS codes should be.

Step I: Easy Stuff

  1. The Obvious ones. Go to naics.com, type in a keyword or two for what you do, and a couple will pop up. There might be even several that are close enough or fall within the range of your products and services. Write them all down. You don’t have to pick a “primary” one yet.
  1. Follow the Leader. What NAICS are your teaming partners and competitors using? Look at their websites, business cards, capabilities statements – the numbers aren’t a secret code. They’re a common denominator for associating similar products/services. If your direct competitors are using them, you might want to.
  1. Procurement History. I happen to love award analysis and historical data – it’s the best prediction of future behavior in government entities, because they tend to follow similar processes when doing the same work.  So if you look at usaspending.gov and www.fpds.gov and even www.fbo.gov, you’ll find that the NAICS codes associated with most of the work they’re going to be procuring are NAICS codes they’ll use again and again.  Much of the time, the NAICS codes will be the same as you found in steps 1 and 2.  So why bother?

 

Step II: Secret Squirrel  Methodology [The logic behind seemingly illogical coding]

When you searched procurement history, you probably came across NAICS Codes that did not make sense. I have found “frozen foods” purchases coded as IT services. I recently even ran across a Piano purchase that was coded as an armored vehicle (Contract # VA24416F6918 if you want to see for yourself).  There are 2 things you need to think about: why does that happen, and what do you need to do about it.

First, Why, oh why, do NAICS codes used by my customers make no sense to me?

  1. Government is buying something to Meet Their Mission. Like I said earlier, put yourself in your customer’s shoes – they are not buying landscaping or cloud software because they want that particular product. They’re buying it because it is part of their mission – and the agencies’ budgets are allocated into big buckets to be spent on missions. It’s much easier to budget, track, award, and maintain contracts in those same buckets, therefore the NAICS Code will often reflect the customer’s end goal, not the

    means they are using to meet it.  If you are building a data center to support a mission to Mars, it might be coded as a data center – but it’s a lot easier for your customer to track the expenditures and justify to Congress an expense that is aligned with a mission vs. just a purchase for the back office.

  2. Mistakes Were Made. Government entities have procurement cycles, when something expires, they buy it again.  If the NAICS Code powers change the code and you missed it, you might be buying something under an expired code without realizing it.  Or maybe you transposed a digit and typed 12 where you meant to type 21. And now you have a whole new NAICS code and that’s how pianos get turned into tanks.
  3. “Small” Business affinity. NAICS Codes aren’t uniform, they have many different standards for determining whether an entity is small. While they vary across individual codes, the two major delineations are:
    1. For services, the standard is the average of the last 3 years annual revenues
    2. For products / manufacturers / wholesalers, it’s the number of employees

Let’s say there’s a $20 million dollar business that has been doing great work and when the contract comes up for recompete, the government customer wants the company to be included in the competition – have a chance to win the work.  Would the government ever put that procurement, if it’s a small business set-aside, under a NAICS code where the small business threshold is $6M? No, because that would preclude them from competing altogether.

So what do you do? Stay calm and do research.  When you are searching for opportunities and past awards, use a variety of search cirteria – keywords, agencies, vendors, not just NAICS, because if that’s the only criteria – it will be both too broad, and at the same time, too limiting as you are likely to miss good opportunities.

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Do Your Homework!

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Tell me if you’ve heard this one before – from contracting officers, OSDBUs, SBLOs, your well-meaning networking acquaintances and teaming partners and Chamber of Commerce #govcon speakers…And you have no idea what they are talking about.

What homework? How much do I have to do? where do I start? What’s the point? Are you just letting me down easy to wiggle out of a conversation? (Well, I can’t answer that last one – but I can certainly help guide you in the homework-doing department).

What the industry experts mean by ‘homework’ is to be prepared for a conversation with a potential customer – whether it’s a government agency, a large prime, or a similarly small business who you want as a partner.  Prepared to not just to recite to them how great you are, but to speak to your value proposition. What can you do for them?

Well, what can you do for them?

If you are even thinking about responding with something along the lines of “well, I can sell them my…” – STOP.

Federal agencies, and the food chain of contractors that you want to be a part of aren’t just buying products and services, no matter how shiny and cool. They aren’t “giving out” contracts, there are no magic words that would enable a government agency to suddenly bypass decades of processes and volumes of rules just to do you a favor.[1]

So how do you figure out what your customer wants to hear?

  1. Get to know your customer

How do you even know where to start, who would be a good customer for you? You may know from experience, which puts you a step ahead. But if it’s just a hunch – test that hypothesis through solid research before venturing out – you’ll save a lot of frustration and parking dollars.

  • What have they bought before? From whom? Where? How much did they spend? What kind competition do they usually have for your products/services? What NAICS do they use to buy your gadget?  Tools like USASpending and Schedule Sales Query are a good start. If you’re in IT, familiarize yourself with the IT Dashboard.
  • What are they on the market for currently? Opportunities in FBO, Procurement Forecasts.
  • Want more? Look at GAO reports, Inspector General’s office findings. What are your customers posting on Twitter? Are the decision makers speaking at conferences on topics of interest?
  • If you’re meeting with primes, find out in advance what they do. Their websites are a great start.
  1. Present yourself

Elevator Pitch, Business Card, Capabilities Statement, and a website. Know them, have them, invest in them. You want to present yourself as an established business that isn’t risky in any way. You want to appear polished and professional, memorable and knowledgeable.  If you are even thinking about sending an email to a government customer from a yahoo or gmail account, don’t do it. Get a company website with an email @your own domain. There are tools out there that make it really easy to put together a presentable website even for non-IT folks, for not a lot of money. Wix, SquareSpace are so easy, even I can do it.

They’ll be much more likely to invest time and answer questions from someone they see potential in.  They’ll be much more likely to send a complete newbie to their local PTAP office for the basic skills.

  1. Engage and ask the right questions

Forget asking your customer “what do you do.” If you haven’t figured it out, you’re wasting your time and theirs.   Now, if you are meeting a company you haven’t heard of at a networking event, that’s a fine question.  At a planned appointment, when you’ve had a chance to pull up their website at the least, it’s a taboo question.  If you’ve done the reading, you know what they do, you know what they buy, you know who they buy it from and how much they spend annually.   The questions you ask should showcase your knowledge of their environment and challenges, a subtle indication that you know exactly how to fix things – and a desire to understand their ideal state.

There are a number of opportunities to meet your customers – yes, at their office. Also at industry days, conferences, in LinkedIn groups, in local AFCEA, NCMA chapters, industry-specific organizations, and even on social media. Where are they going to learn? Where are they going to share information?  Don’t forget that your customers are people too – and can be found at dog parks and PTA meetings and home improvement stores. I’m not advocating stalking, but there’s a lot you can learn in a casual, no pressure, non-sales interaction that can enlighten your business development / teaming / proposal strategy.

This is plenty of homework to get started. If you need help, we’re here to help you work on your pitch, review your capabilities statement, assist with market research.

 

[1] Yes, there are instances where companies get work faster than the usual contracting timeline. That is the stuff of legends in our field. Usually, such miracles are the result of a lot of hard groundwork and persistence.

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Common Federal Procurement Acronyms

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Download: Common Federal Procurement Acronyms

ATO – Authority to Operate
B&P – Bid and Proposal
BAA – Broad Agency Announcement
BAFO – Best and Final Offer
BD – Business Development
BDO – Blanket Delivery Order
BOA – Basic Ordering Agreement
BPA – Blanket Purchase Agreement
CA – Cooperative Agreement
CAC – Common Access Card
CAS – Cost Accounting Standards
CDRL – Contract Data Requirements List
CFR – Code of Federal Regulations
CLIN – Contract Line Item Number
CO – Contracting Officer
CONUS – Continental United States
COR – Contracting Officer Representative
COTR – Contracting Officer’s Technical Representative
COTS – Commercial Off-the-Shelf
CPAF – Cost Plus Award Fee
CPFF – Cost Plus Fixed Fee
CPIF – Cost Plus Incentive Fee
CRADA – Co-operative Research & Dev’t Agreement
DFARS – Defense FAR Supplement
DLH – Direct Labor Hour
EDI – Electronic Data Interchange
EDWOSB – Economically Disadv. Women Owned Small Biz
FAR – Federal Acquisition Regulation
FAS – Federal Acquisition Service
FFP – Firm Fixed Price
FOIA – Freedom of Information Act
FOUO – For Official Use Only
GFE – Government Furnished Equipment
GFM – Government Furnished Materials
FFP – Firm Fixed Price
GFP – Government-Furnished Property
GOCO – Government Owned, Contractor Operated
GWAC – Government-wide Acquisition Contract
IDIQ – Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity
IFB – Invitation for Bids
IG – Inspector General
LOE – Level of Effort
LPTA – Lowest Price, Technically Acceptable
MATOC – Multiple Award Task Order Contract
MILSPEC – Military Specification
MOA – Memorandum of Agreement
MOU – Memorandum of Understanding
OCONUS – Outside the Continental US
ODC – Other Direct Costs
OIG – Office of Inspector General
OSDBU – Office of Small & Disadv. Business Utilization
PCO – Procuring Contracting Officer
PEO – Program Executive Officer
PII – Personally Identifiable Information
POAM – Plan of Action and Milestones
RFI – Request for Information
RFP – Request for Proposal
RFQ – Request for Quotation
SAP – Simplified Acquisition Process
SBLO – Small Business Liaison Officer
SBU – Sensitive but Unclassified
SCIF – Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility
SDLC – Software Development Lifecycle
SDVOSB – Service-Disabled Veteran Owned Business
SIC – Standard Industrial Classification Codes
SIN – Special Item Number
SOW – Statement of Work
SSN – Sources Sought Notice
TS – Top Secret
TS/SCI – Top Secret, Sensitive Compartmented Information
T&M – Time and Materials
WOSB – Women Owned Small Business

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