By Jeffrey Shen
Over the last five years, we have seen a dramatic increase in the number of companies focusing on the federal health market. Even with the FY18 budget cuts, there is a continued strong emphasis on federal healthcare throughout the government including HHS, VA, and DHA. With federal contracts such as NIH CIO-SP3, NIH CIO-CS, VA T4NG, VA CEC, VA VECTOR, SAMSHA IDIQ, GSA Alliant, DHA OASIS, and a host of other contracting vehicles – there is no shortage of contracts to provide your services. And even if you are a prime contract holder for one of those contracts, you still need to market and position your company to federal health decision makers to position yourself for upcoming opportunities. With competition from hundreds of other companies, what sets you apart from them and allows you to develop those relationships more quickly than others? Red Team Consulting took this question to HHS and VA decision makers to get their feedback. This included individuals at the program level running major federal programs, small business directors inside these agencies, and procurement staff in charge of contracting decisions. The feedback was detailed and candid and focused on a company or individual’s knowledge, focus, and experience. I separated each of my interviews into five primary question categories:
- What are the common positive traits you see from companies you wish more contractors demonstrated?
- What are the common frustrations you experience with industry?
- What are the things a company can do to improve their marketing and sales? How should they distinguish themselves from their competitors?
- How much of business development is relationship development?
- Does the extent of health experience matter when you’re awarding contracts?
For purposes of confidentiality, I have withheld names and positions from those I interviewed.
[Editor’s Note: Part One of this article is in the Summer Issue of FedHealthIT Magazine, read it here.]
How companies can improve their marketing and sales and separate themselves from their competitors
One of the small business directors I spoke with commented that companies need to lead with their capabilities and not their certifications or socio-economic designations. He said he already knows hundreds of companies within each socio-economic designation, so leading with that can often hurt your chances of establishing an initial connection. Tell the customer specifically what your company does right from the start. Related to this point, one health agency senior procurement executive stated that if your company provides IT services, don’t simply state your company provides IT services. Lead with the specific types of IT services you provide. Is it networking, cloud, mobility, application development, data analytics, software engineering, telehealth, or security? He continued that he understands companies want to provide as broad a portfolio of services as possible for federal health agencies, but it immediately will turn off a decision maker if you don’t immediately cite the 2-3 specific technical competencies your company brings.
One of the program managers I spoke with said that he likes when companies offer specific technical skills or experience that other companies might not offer. For example, if an agency is seeking mental health specialists, clinicians, or scientists (and that is what you provide), then be upfront and say you offer those types of resources with applicable experience. You can even go so far as to say you have candidates with specific college degrees, advanced degrees, or technical certifications in their areas of interest. The key here is understanding what those needs might be and reflecting your experience in the people you have.
While many companies offer similar services, there are ways a company can distinguish itself. One federal health program manager offered that you can impress them with your knowledge and understanding of the agency. Coming prepared for a meaningful, specific discussion will always leave a positive impression on a government person. Additionally, one small business director commented that companies should communicate how the Government can get to you. This could be a discussion on existing contract vehicles, GWACS, and other means for an agency to award you a contract. He specifically stated that no matter how much the government likes you, if they can’t find a way to get to you, they’ll award the contract to someone else.
Finally, regarding proposals, I spoke with a senior procurement executive who has overseen numerous source selections and we discussed how companies can distinguish themselves during the proposal evaluation process. He told me that proposals that respond to what is being asked in the RFP, aligning to instructions and addressing the evaluation criteria, will be in a far better position than many other competitors. He offered some candid advice; he said to treat the government as uninformed. If there are 15 specific points of evaluation criteria, actually address all 15, point by point and spell out what the values and benefits are for each point. Further, this senior procurement executive was baffled as to why more companies do not request debriefs, win or lose. It is a company’s chance to learn how the government assessed your proposal. He cautioned that you shoud not invite a lawyer to a debrief meeting — contracting officers will immediately shut down and you will get less information as a result. As for those companies that often have trouble getting meaningful feedback during a debrief, this procurement executive had some interesting advice. You should let the contracting officer know in advance that you have no intention to protest, you simply want to learn how to improve your proposal. Or you can wait until after the protest period to request a more informal discussion. You might be surprised to learn how much more open a CO is willing to be when there is less fear of a protest. Otherwise, as indicated by this procurement executive, “expect the boilerplate debrief.”
The Importance of Relationship Development
There is a general philosophy in government contracting that people buy from people they know, like, and trust. That is not too far off from the feedback I received from two HHS and VA decision makers. Federal contractors need to have the appropriate knowledge and competencies, but beyond that, they also need to be able to develop relationships. Make sure that the people representing you – business development people, onsite program managers, or healthcare professionals – are positive reflections of your company.
The feedback from one HHS small business director is that individuals need to get involved in associations such as HIMSS and local NCMA chapters. Also one contracting officer suggested that companies attend other local NCMA chapters, especially those situated closely to federal health agencies, since contracting officers will often attend local NCMA events more than other association events. One piece of advice that resounded loud and clear: “No one in government is going to give a $4-5 million contract to someone they don’t know.”
One of the program managers I interviewed had great advice for companies that might not have the opportunity or availability to attend events. He suggested they conduct their outreach to government during the early stages of the acquisition lifecycle to develop the relationship with the contracting or procurement staff. There is a caveat to this approach – he specifically said, do not wait for the actual RFI or market research request to be released to conduct your outreach. Typically when federal agencies have sent out their official market research requests, contracting officers will be more hesitant to meet or have conversations directly with contractors for fear of impropriety or unfairness. They may be more open to dialogue if companies offer insights and inputs before the official market research request is posted. This obviously requires significant due diligence and planning on the part of the company. The person I interviewed does not necessarily want to dissuade companies from responding to the actual RFI and Sources Sought requests – his advice was just to approach the COs in advance of the official requests.
The last piece of advice was regarding health-focused white papers. They are good and helpful but only after a company has had some communication with the contracting officer – make sure they’re expecting it and know what to expect.
How Important is Health Experience?
I specifically posed this question to each of the federal health decision makers given the number of “new” companies trying to enter the federal health market without deep federal health experience. I received a mixture of both “by the book” answers and answers based on what they see as reality. One diplomatic answer was that it doesn’t matter as much as long as companies do their homework and are able to apply their prior experience to the specific health requirements in an RFP. In fact, one senior procurement executive noted that most of what HHS buys is not even health-related and therefore health experience may not be a driving factor in certain procurements. As all of the decision makers concurred, knowledge of the program and agency will be expected and may help bridge a gap in experience.
In terms of the “real life” answers that I received, these federal health decision makers said they like to do business with companies they know and ultimately trust. That trust is often built over time from a company having performed in the exact or similar federal health fields. So, we can assume health experience is an important unstated factor when evaluating companies.
And the question remains, what if your company doesn’t have the experience or a prime is unwilling to bring you on as a teaming partner because of your lack of healthcare experience? One federal health contracting official noted that companies should hire individuals that have health degrees, healthcare experience, or at one point in their career served in a healthcare position. Sometimes the qualifications and experience of individuals within a company can help substitute for corporate health experience.
While the results of these interviews may not represent anything ground-breaking, it is interesting to hear consistent feedback from federal health agency program managers, contracting officers, and small business directors on their expectations from industry. Their final comments are that companies need to make it their job to know what HHS, VA and other federal health agencies do and need, and to tailor their approach to that specific environment. One federal health decision maker commented that 75-80% of the information you need to research is publicly available, and the other remaining 20-25% will require effective dialogue and relationship building with your counterparts in federal health agencies. They are there to help and guide companies. But remember, being prepared is only the first step in relationship building – knowing how to apply your solution to the customer need is what will ultimately set you apart from the competition.