Finding Opportunities through an Established Relationship Path
Finding those elusive opportunities not yet released as Requests for Proposals (RFPs) can be a bit like hunting for gold at the end of a rainbow. If you have an excellent relationship with your customer, you don’t just have a pot of gold, you have the whole leprechaun. With a strong rapport, you are privy to leads that arise through various channels. You could also find yourself in a coveted, rare position: having the ability to shape and create opportunities perfectly suited to your capabilities. Even if you don’t have a solid relationship with the customer, don’t give up. There may be gold for you, too.
Let’s start in the easiest place, a good relationship with your customer that will open doors for you. If your customer has confidence in your work, they will refer you to a different agency that needs work and even facilitate that relationship, when the opportunity arises.
Sometimes the customer simply wants to stay with you because they are comfortable with your work. You might get that coveted opportunity to bend their ear and help them make better-informed acquisitions. But be careful. Providing information to your customer needs to be done with some finesse and discretion. (More on that below.)
Shaping New Opportunities to Your Advantage
You may have key personnel that the customer likes, respects, and relies upon. For example, maybe you have a key personnel member who has been doing niche work for twenty-five years. This team member also has rare background training. Encourage the customer to write those qualifications into the RFP, so that it’s difficult for your competitors to compete.
Your customer might start talking about a job that you know requires a very specific part or technique for which only one company owns the market. Encourage the customer to write that specific requirement into the RFP and at the same time, partner with that other company exclusively, well ahead of the RFP.
You can also educate your customer as to the need for your expertise. One highly-credentialed, retired, Government-employee-turned-business-owner gave informative talks to a Government agency about improving their building process. When he noticed how excited that customer was about what he was saying, he knew that an opportunity would be forthcoming. He went out and partnered with every possible competitor before the RFP came out, so when it did, he had a stellar team in place and nobody left to compete.
Don’t Go Too Far in Shaping an RFP
Be very careful about how you go about shaping the RFP. The Federal Acquisition Requirements (FAR) state that a level playing field must exist, so that everybody has the chance to influence the customer with their proposals. If you go on record as writing the requirements for your customer, you won’t be able to bid the contract, as this is a conflict of interest.
Be subtle when making suggestions to your customer and create a real rationale for your particular qualifications or personnel. When your customer takes the written requirements to their contracting shop, you don’t want the contracting officers to throw it out or disqualify you because they suspect the customer is wiring the contract for your company. The art is in helping to shape the RFP without stepping out of line.
Creating Opportunities Without an Established Relationship
You may not have the type of relationship with the customer where you can influence them one way or another. Listen for whispers of an opportunity or look for an announcement on Fed Biz Ops or Capture2 in the form of a Request for Information (RFI) or Sources Sought. The customer releases an RFI when they want industry’s input for something unfamiliar to them. This is your chance to get the customer’s attention and use your credentials to shape the RFP. The caveat is that you’ll be doing this alongside your competition. It’s crucial that when you respond to the RFI, you carefully put time and effort into it so that the customer knows that you are an expert.
Resist the temptation to rush through your response to the RFI, just because there’s no immediate award. If the RFI is something right in-line with your qualifications, and the project can be potentially big, you want that customer to be interested in what you alone have to say. In some happy instances, companies have been called to DC because the customer wants to learn more. This is an excellent chance to not only establish authority with the customer and get their attention but to provide your vision as to how the future RFP should look.
One Last Loophole in Shaping Future Opportunities
This is a longshot, but it bears mentioning. If you’re an 8(a) company, you have the ability to go in and shape contracts worth up to $100M with the Government, and have the contract sole-sourced to you, without the possibility of protest. If you aren’t an 8(a) company, consider partnering with one.
A large construction company found out their customer decided to release an upcoming opportunity they were sure to win as a small business vehicle. They were too large to bid as the prime, but they didn’t give up. They found out who shaped the opportunity for small business. It was a Native American-owned small business from Alaska with no record of past performance. The 8(a) company’s parent company was Korean, but the parent company didn’t have any past performance, either. Note: 8(a) companies can claim their parent company’s past performance. The incumbent company lent their past performance by partnering with the 8(a) company as a subcontractor on the RFP. This gave the Government confidence in the 8(a) company and everybody won.
If you have an excellent rapport with your customer, you have the source of the gold. Don’t miss out on your chance to bend their ear or position yourself for opportunities before they come out as RFPs. Just be careful about what kind of advice you give when trying to shape the RFP or you could be disqualified. Finally, if you don’t have an established relationship with your customer, don’t give up! Use your knowledge to get them to listen to you.