GSA making headway on customer focus

If last month’s General Services Administration Expo in San Diego was any indication, Team GSA understands the importance of customer service.

GSA employees, dressed in red Polo shirts, chatted with vendors and agency customers about services, while the agency’s senior leaders mingled with other top government officials and corporate executives at dinners and receptions.

And by most accounts, this was not a one-off thing. GSA officials have made a point of getting in front of customers and cultivating those relationships. They are well aware that customers are not required to use GSA’s acquisition services and contracts — and that they need those customers to justify their existence.

But then again, the agency is still digging itself out of a hole after having developed a reputation over a number of years for giving their customers short shrift. The question is: Are they doing enough?

GSA: Mythbusters?

Steve Kempf, commissioner of GSA's Federal Acquisition Service, is one of the officials who is reaching out to customers. He said he has met several times with military officials and top acquisition officers. He also has his employees conducting focus groups and getting input from customers on various aspects of GSA’s operations. For instance, he asks customers what services GSA should launch to meet current and emerging needs.

“All of that is really about the customer and being a better partner with them,” Kempf said.

Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners, said GSA is cleaning up its act, based on his meetings with top procurement officials at various agencies. GSA's customer service has improved, particularly on the business development side, he added.

The timing couldn’t be better. Given the current budget crunch, agency officials are hunting for ways to streamline resources and reduce costs without slowing output, Allen said. Bulk buying can save money and time. And GSA's Assisted Acquisition Services program frees procurement officials to spend more time on agency-specific acquisitions.

Nevertheless, Allen and others say they still hear echoes of complaints that were voiced in years past. One concern is that GSA's commitment to customer service is not matched by insight into customer requirements.

Allen said some senior procurement executives don’t think GSA’s senior leaders have spent enough time learning about individual agencies’ missions.

“They didn’t think senior executives at GSA are showing their customers love,” Allen said. GSA provides significant training for people on the front lines of purchasing, but “it seems that they would benefit from more peer-to-peer interaction at higher levels.”

One retired procurement executive gave Kempf high marks for his customer focus but questioned the priorities of other GSA leaders, including Administrator Martha Johnson. Those leaders are focusing on areas such as cloud computing and the government’s carbon footprint rather than dealing with nitty-gritty procurement concerns, such as pricing policies on GSA schedule contracts and the management of governmentwide acquisition contracts.

“They’re not focused on doing business, getting better value for the government customer now and making their programs more competitive,” the retiree said, relaying comments from current senior procurement executives.

Whether that perception is accurate or not, GSA officials need to ensure that they are well-versed in the business of their customers, Allen said. Kempf’s assistant commissioners have been around for years and know their programs well. But the day-to-day work of internal reports and senior staff meetings keeps those people facing inward and attending to GSA-specific issues.

As all agencies know, daily office work — especially the numerous reports — can keep workers from their sales jobs. Even the most senior people have reports to generate.

“Some of this is inevitable, but some of it also stems from GSA’s seemingly irresistible inward pull that results in an inward focus precisely at the time it must be outward looking to be successful,” Allen said.

“Your customers want you,” he added.

However, another expert said GSA has revitalized itself and disproved the notion that it’s forgotten who it works for.

Standing in a packed convention center, Bill Gormley, president and CEO of Deltek’s Washington Management Group, said, “GSA is busting that myth.”

About the Author

Matthew Weigelt is a freelance journalist who writes about acquisition and procurement.

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