Program helps companies win federal contracts
Anyone who’s ever tried to navigate the complicated and time-consuming process involved in trying to win a federal contract knows that the effort can be potentially lucrative -- and aggravating. Granite State businesses looking for help in charting those waters can turn to the New Hampshire Procurement Technical Assistance Center, which offers advice and assistance on winning the federal government as a customer. Funded by both the state and federal governments, the program -- known as NH-PTAC -- holds classes as well and provides one-on-one consulting for businesses of any size. It also offers help to small businesses in finding available solicitations, building relationships within government agencies and guiding businesses through the proposal development process. “Our basic services are free, and we can walk you through every step,” said Joe Flynn, procurement program manager for NH-PTAC, who added that the easiest way for a small business interested in learning more about the federal contract-bidding process is to contact his program. Bidding on -- and winning -- a government contract can be a little like buying a hot stock; once you hear about it on the open market, the opportunity is all but lost. NH-PTAC’s ability to notify businesses of potential contracts that may suit them can give small companies a competitive advantage towards having a proposal accepted. For instance, NH-PTAC provides computerized bid-matching help on federal contract opportunities for clients -- something that’s difficult or impossible to obtain elsewhere. NH-PTAC also guides businesses through the maze of governmental e-commerce Web sites that can reveal important information about the previous procurement practices of specific agencies or identify other opportunities. Building relationships between New Hampshire companies and governmental agencies is another important step in the proposal development process, and a service unique to NH-PTAC, said Flynn. “You want to begin talking with the soliciting agency as early as possible, almost like working as a consultant. You need to know what the government is asking for, who the real buying agency is and who the contact person is,” he explained. “You want to help them with the pre-solicitation notice. While the notice has to be fair and open, you’ve already built a relationship with the agency and know what they really need, which may give you an edge.” Developing a winning proposal requires doing significant research into the strengths and weaknesses of potential competitors, and more importantly, your own company. Flynn said many first-time bidders make the mistake of going after contracts that are beyond their companies’ core competencies. “If you get in over your head, it can be very, very expensive to resolve the situation. And it can damage future relationships,” said Flynn. Building a relationship Competing for governmental contracts is not a quick process nor is it cheap. According to Flynn, most businesses new to the process can spend as much as 18 months preparing a proposal. Costs might not be recouped if a contract is not awarded, or it may take several contract awards to pay for the costs of the initial contract. Both situations can be hard on a small business, or even fatal if a contract is not awarded. “If you’re looking to expand to the federal government to save your business, you’ve made a wrong choice. Nobody can bankrupt a business faster than the federal government,” he said. Before the government can do business with a company, it needs to know the company exists, said Flynn. That means applying to the central contract registration system. To do that, companies must supply several identification numbers, such as a tax ID number and a Dun & Bradstreet data universal numbering system identifier, or DUNS number. NH-PTAC helps companies in obtaining these numbers as well as supports them in the registration process itself. According to Flynn, the government is ultimately looking for a “a happy, qualified supplier for repeatable business.” Like any other business partnership, projects will typically progress more smoothly when the two parties are familiar with each other. Consequently, federal agencies are looking for quality and stability in a potential contractor. “The federal government likes to see that a company’s been profitable for at least three years,” said Flynn. Another minimum requirement NH-PTAC counsels small businesses to have is computer savvy. “If you’re not, you’re probably not qualified to work with government,” Flynn said, adding that most of the communication and information in doing business with the government is on the Internet, and an increasing number of agencies are requesting that proposals be transmitted via the Web or another electronic format. NH-PTAC has developed a series of steps that describe how to create a successful proposal. Many of the steps -- including making copies of the original solicitation, thoroughly reading the document and highlighting all requested actions -- sound like common sense, but “common sense is sometimes not all that common,” said Flynn. NH-PTAC can walk a company through a solicitation to identify exactly what type it is, how that agency is expecting potential contractors to respond, how the agency will pay and even what precisely the requesting agency is asking for -- all of which can be confusing to first-time bidders. “One of the most common mistakes businesses make is in being non-responsive,” said Flynn. “Companies have to answer every item in the request the way the government requests it. If any item goes unanswered in the proposal, it will automatically be rejected as non-responsive.” Keeping in touch A company’s work isn’t done when a contract is awarded. The business must perform the work as agreed. This sounds obvious, but “scope creep” can and does occur, especially on long-term or complicated projects. “This can occur on both sides,” said Flynn. “Build in a capacity for changes in scope in your pre-negotiations and get it in writing. For larger disputes, you can use arbitration. Both sides really want to be happy.” Even if the primary contract is awarded to another company, there are still opportunities available. “Request a debriefing from the agency and get a full bidders list,” said Flynn. “You should probably already know who the other bidders were based on your homework, but you can use this information to look for subcontracting opportunities from the prime contractor or for other partnerships.” In fact, NH-PTAC can match large contractors with smaller businesses for subcontracting opportunities. Opportunities also exist in the reverse direction. Businesses can submit an unsolicited proposal if they think their product or service would be beneficial to the government. “Find out who in the agency is doing the buying. Find out who’s getting things from them,” said Flynn, “and write all those people.” While competing for governmental contracts can seem daunting for small businesses, armed with a solid proposal they can be won and be quite profitable, said Flynn: “All it takes sometimes is to think about things a little differently.” For further information, contact NH-PTAC at 271-7581 or visit nheconomy.com/nheconomy/ptac/main/index.php.