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How SMEs Can Win Government Contracts - Bid Management and Customer Relationships

Winning government contracts (or contracts in any sector) relies on successful three-way relationships between the procurer, buyer and supplier. The key to business success lies in making this three-way relationship work for everyone.

How SMEs Can Win Government Contracts - Bid Management and Customer Relationships

by Elizabeth Vega,  Group CEO Informed Solutions, Cabinet Office Small & Medium Business Panel Member & Chair of the Meet the Buyer Working Group, 2018 Digital Leader Founder Award Winner, 2018 Queens Award for Enterprise: Innovation Winner, DIT Northern Powerhouse Export Champion, ScaleUp Institute ‘Access to Markets’ Committee Member

As a member of Cabinet Office’s SME Panel and Chair of the Meet the Buyer Working Group, I and the other Panel members work with Cabinet Office and Crown Commercial Services (CCS) to lower unfair barriers to entry for small and medium businesses (SMEs) who wish to access government and public sector contracts. UK government is definitely ‘Open for Business’ with SMEs, and it is investing considerable resources to affect the necessary culture change and procurement practices that enable SME-Fair buying behaviours.

There has been a huge amount of progress with regard to government engagement with and understanding of the SME supplier marketplace, and consequently more SMEs are successfully winning valuable government contracts. This has resulted in new marketplace dynamics and opportunities. However, there have also been unforeseen and unintended consequences.

Over recent months, CCS has become aware of the growth in third party organisations offering to write, submit and manage bids submitted through CCS frameworks. Their target market appears to be predominantly SMEs. CCS has been contacted by a number of suppliers concerned about the claims being made by some of these organisations in their sales approaches and marketing literature.

It’s All About Relationships

Winning government contracts (or contracts in any sector) relies on successful three-way relationships between the procurer, buyer and supplier. The key to business success lies in making this three-way relationship work for everyone.

For SME suppliers, building a real understanding of the customer, and their needs and challenges, is as important as having an enlightened buyer and customer-side procurement team. It’s about working well and effectively together.

For SMEs to succeed in winning government contracts, it takes more than writing an articulate bid, it’s overwhelmingly about shaping a commercial proposal that is easy to understand and delivers desirable benefits, outcomes and price for the customer. Essentially, an SME’s ability to become a government buyer’s preferred supplier is based on your company demonstrating that it understands the customer’s need and will fulfil your commitments to the buyer in efficient and convenient ways.

Building In-House Capability

techUK’s Civil Servants Survey highlighted that many SMEs had not sufficiently developed their approach to writing bids and managing customer relationships. Getting to know government buyers, ahead of the formal procurement and bid evaluation process, gives you valuable insight and a significant advantage. This means looking for ways to meet with the buyer, for example through open-market engagement webinars and ‘meet the buyer’ events. Building any insights that you’ve gained into your bid proposal communicates to procurers and buyers that your business is far more likely to be an engaged, effective and dependable supplier - irrespective of your company’s size.

How to Use Advisors And Bid Management Agents

 It is understandable that from a capacity and capability perspective, SMEs might seek help from outside advisors or third party bid management agents. There will be many advisors and bid management agents in the marketplaces, across the full spectrum of good, bad and indifferent. Use a thoughtful vetting process and include testimonial and reference checks.

Once you select your third party bid management agent, SMEs need to ‘direct’ their bid management agent, in the same way as you would expect to direct an external accountant or lawyer. It’s important to get comfortable directing any third party professional who supports your business and decision-making with expertise that you may not have in-house. It’s imperative that SMEs ‘own’ the buyer-supplier relationship. Bid management agents and advisors should work alongside the SME to understand the buyer’s needs, preferences and challenges; make sense of and comply with the requirements of the procurement and evaluation process; and collaborate in shaping and articulating the most favourable commercial proposition.

In my experience (and this is sector agnostic, not just public sector) you simply have to get to know the potential customer in order to shape the most competitive and mutually advantageous bid that provides directly relevant context, specificity and business benefits. By all means, if you need help in developing and crafting the words for your proposal then seek guidance from a third party bid management agent. If you engage your agent in the right way, this offers practical support in the short-term with bid development, but also in the mid-to-long term because it can help you upskill your own people.

My guidance to SMEs wanting to do business with government and large corporates is to work hard to build up your bid writing and customer relationship management skills. Reciprocally, I know that government is investing considerable resources in ensuring that it has SME-Fair procurement practices, so all companies with the required products and capabilities can compete for contracts on a level playing field, irrespective of size. These dynamics create new business opportunities and better buying outcomes for government and for SMEs.

Learning And Improving

Armed with the guidance and skills to bid for government work, it’s then about understanding why you win and why you lose when competing for new business. Here too, SMEs need to directly ‘own’ how they collect buyer decision intelligence, rather than delegate it to an agent. Customer feedback on why your company did or didn’t win the contract helps you learn and develop your competitive bidding capabilities, improves your chances of success on future bids, and enables you to better serve your government customers.

If you are an SME that is looking at using support from a third party bid management organisation, please read Crown Commercial Services’ guidance.

 

Elizabeth Vega, Group CEO, Informed Solutions

 

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