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Selling to the Federal Government: 4 Questions to Ask Yourself

Selling to the federal government? Discover four important questions you should probably be asking yourself.

I’ve been interviewing defense executives to support my Ph.D. research in public policy in recent weeks. Part of the interview process includes confirming the individuals’ professional credentials and backgrounds. The questions that come to mind in the process may not surprise many readers, but maybe they should.

How to Succeed in Federal Sales

To date, 100 percent of the executives interviewed report learning how to succeed in federal sales requires a degree from the school of hard knocks. That’s right, on-the-job training is the most consistent source of our understanding of how it all works. You might say, “So what?”

Executives across all industries change jobs approximately every 3.5 years. The defense industry is slightly more stable, but not at all levels. Changing positions twice within five years is quite common in the defense industry. The regular movement compounds an underlying challenge. We don’t all know what we’re doing and waste a lot of energy and (company) resources trying to “figure it out.”

How well do you understand the environment in which you are selling? Share on X

However imperfect, the military ethos to persevere, persist, and get the job done, as long as it meets the mission, makes perfect sense on active duty. Cost in dollars is rarely a severe consideration in conducting a military mission. But that mindset doesn’t make such great sense in business. Mistakes, wasted time, rework, and delays all flow to the bottom line at some point. Believe it or not, it can take defense executives with military backgrounds years to wrap their heads around the true meaning of this concept. So ingrained is the concept of getting it done that we can’t see how our shortcomings in process knowledge negatively impact our company.

Top Resources

There are some excellent commercial sources of learning how to develop business, manage captures and write proposals. There are also some “Washington, DC 101” seminars available from time to time. The Defense Acquisition University (DAU) is available to a select few contractors who can absorb an employee’s overhead cost in training. Good as they are, these resources cover a part of the landscape on which federal sales take place. Many executives are too proud to submit to the holes in their knowledge and sit through a course. 

Worse, the finer points of the legislative policy and funding process that underpin the entire acquisition process can’t be learned in a seminar. “Schoolhouse Rock” does accurately tell the story of how a bill becomes law, but leaves a few things out that might not have been age-appropriate for the children’s show. The legislative phase of the process is dynamic yet predictable, complex yet available. Too many fail to imagine how it impacts their livelihood and their company’s national security mission.

What are the top resources executives turn to in learning the ropes? “My network,” “My mentors,” and “Advisors,” also known as “greybeards.” What perpetuates is an insider process, loosely understood by those who have worked in and around the process. Many are simply putting lines in the water, in some cases hundreds of lines, hoping the fish will come by. Others are learning the ropes on the company’s dime before moving on to the next position. 

4 Questions to Ask Yourself When Selling to the Federal Government

You’ve read this far. What am I saying? I hope you are asking yourself some questions:

  1. How well do you understand the environment in which you are selling?
  2. How good is my network?
    a. Is it truly diverse? Or is it a homogeneous grouping of like-minded colleagues?
  3. Who are my mentors?
    a. Why do I think they know what is right?
  4. Who are the advisors?
    a. What makes them especially valuable?
    b. Is their value real or perceived?

The Make Your Move podcast is a multi-season series devoted to the lessons learned of military members in their post-active duty lives. I hope you enjoy the stories of the men and women brave enough to share their transition stories so publicly. Listen to the latest episode here.

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