Wagner: A recipe for failure

There are good and bad ways to sell to feds. The best way is to understand their needs.

A few months before I retired from the federal government, several General Services Administration senior officials and I met with representatives of a company with some wonderful technology to sell. The meeting had been arranged through connections, not because we had an interest in talking to the company. The meeting was a waste of time for everyone.

The company’s business model seemed to incorporate four elements: deploy new technology and talk about how great it is; promise the impossible from the technology; market it to the most senior people; and use connections to deliver the message.

That business model is a recipe for failure. I can explain what’s wrong with it without once invoking competition or the Federal Acquisition Regulation.

The first mistake was to begin with the technology rather than with what the government needs. The company’s representatives had no idea what we needed beyond the most basic level. They felt they had great technology, and we should want it.

It might have been useful to talk about our needs, what the technology could and could not do, and how it might meet our needs. But that’s not the discussion we had. Our discussion was about how great their technology was and how all their customers loved it.

The second mistake was to promise the impossible. Federal managers know what is feasible and what is not. We talk to our peers in industry and the government, and we listen. We know that anti-gravity is either impossible or not attainable with present technology. When a company offers software that solves all our problems, we know to listen politely and move on. The third mistake was to try selling specific solutions to senior people. Senior managers are not buyers. We drive the process that leads to buying. We articulate a strategy or supervise operations, but we don’t choose one product instead of another.

People who are familiar with information technology specifications choose. It may be useful to discuss strategies or priorities with us, but it is important to talk about IT specifics with the staff members who will be evaluating products.

The fourth mistake was thinking that connections are deal-makers. Of course, connections matter. They just don’t matter that much. Connections might get you in the door, but what you have to say will determine if anything comes of being there. Connections without content soon become worthless.

I don’t mean to suggest that all companies are as confused as the one I’ve described. I have often met with firms that understand my problems better than I do, that understand the dynamic between senior managers and IT decision-makers and know what they can safely promise. They figure out where the senior people are taking an agency, what that means for agency needs and how they can offer solutions that satisfy those needs. They even understand that staff members — not senior management — will be deciding if their solution is the best. Those are the firms we want to talk to more often.

So what happened after that meeting I described? Our folks looked at the technology and found several firms had similar solutions, but none that fit our architecture. Pity, because I thought the technology was pretty cool. Fortunately, my IT staff members knew more about it than I did.

Wagner recently retired as acting commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service after more than 30 years in government.

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