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Guest Vern Edwards

Why won't COs talk to prospective suppliers?

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Guest Vern Edwards

The Rand National Defense Research Institute has issued a new report, Identifying and Eliminating Barriers Faced by Nontraditional Department of Defense Suppliers, by Cox, Moore, and Grammich.

http://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR267.html

One of the things that comes up frequently in the report are complaints by potential suppliers that no one will talk to them. Here is a great quote:

The most commonly heard barrier to nontraditional suppliers was a lack of access to and responsiveness from DoD. Firms had questions about the bidding process, about their own qualifications, about the technical requirements of RFPs, about unsuccessful bids, and about DoD program needs in general. For each of these sets of questions, most either could not get a response at all or could not get one that was detailed enough for their needs. As one interviewee stated, “My biggest complaint would be you cannot talk to anybody; you cannot talk to a contracting officer. You can call them ten times, you can email them five times; you cannot talk to anyone. Ever.” Similarly, several firms reported that when they did get responses, they were often vague, general, or circular; for example, a question about an RFP was referred back to the RFP for the answer.

So, contracting officers and contract specialists, is it true? If so, why? What's up? Too busy to talk? Afraid of talking too much and getting into trouble? Afraid of violating the Procurement Integrity Act? Afraid of giving someone an unfair advantage?

Isn't this just as true of most civilian agencies as it is for DOD?

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Guest jrt132

Hi, Vern.

I work in the contracts and procurement department of a private firm and in my experience, the majority of the calls are cold sales pitches. The callers typically have no idea what our firm does and how their product/service would benefit our company and its Government contracts. I do not have time for calls like those.

If the caller has done their research and know about our firm and how their product can provide a benefit, I refer them to the correct department.

I will give a supplier time to discuss our procurement process. I believe in inclusion of small business and helping them with our process and keys to winning work are important.

JRT

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Guest Jason Lent

If they are a local small business looking to get involved into federal contracting, I usually forward them to the director of business operations.

The overwhelming majority of "contacts" made to me by vendors is the "Hey we are XYZ DataCorp and we can totally meet all of your IT needs" emails that are apparently my punishment for putting my email address on FBO as a point of contact on a project half a decade ago.

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If they are a local small business looking to get involved into federal contracting, I usually forward them to the director of business operations.

The overwhelming majority of "contacts" made to me by vendors is the "Hey we are XYZ DataCorp and we can totally meet all of your IT needs" emails that are apparently my punishment for putting my email address on FBO as a point of contact on a project half a decade ago.

The vast majority of the inquiries I get are of this nature. The phone calls that I get are mostly asking questions about procurements that were put on the agency's procurement forecast. I generally do not get into any details about those procurements during the acquisition planning period. I suspect a lot of the phone calls I get are from firms that are selling information.

When they ask questions about a specific solicitation, I do my best to answer reasonable questions in a reasonable manner via solicitation amendment.

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No discussion of workload as it impacts the ability to effectively communicate? No discussion of skill mixes and attrition and suchlike?

I'm surprised.

Also, in my experience the COs are so busy responding to "taskers" from HQ they have little if any time to do their "real" jobs.

H2H

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Agree...the majority of "contacts" are blind sales e-mails that are not even personalized. If a vendor cannot bother to put more effort into it than merely pasting a bunch of KO email addresses in a bcc line, given the large number of vendors out there for most types of supplies and service, why waste time with ones that cannot manage to execute a marketing program with some thought?

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In my case, time is the reason I do not communicate more with contractors. H2H is correct. I am buried in Taskers from inside and outside my Agency. OIG, GAO, SIGAR, Congress, the Press, FOIA, OMB, OFPP and on and on, There truely is not time for getting our jobs done now.

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I agree with what everyone above has said. Also, there is a fear of speaking too much of a particular requirement, whether it be before or after a solicitation was issued. The general fear is that they'll tell one contractor something and not another and create an uneven playing field.

A couple of years ago the "Mythbusters" initiative was put out (by OMB I believe). Every seasoned contracting officer I spoke with did not agree with it. Most COs are so protest-adverse that all they want is arm's-length group communications and don't want to risk getting into any discussions with a contractor (especially one-on-one) about requirements. If it's not a formal industry meeting or site visit or something similar, contracting officers don't want to talk about requirements with potential offerors.

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I have had great experiences talking to prospective proposers, but I don't operate in the same prtest environment as many commenters here. Wish I could do more of it.

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I agree with what everyone above has said. Also, there is a fear of speaking too much of a particular requirement, whether it be before or after a solicitation was issued. The general fear is that they'll tell one contractor something and not another and create an uneven playing field.

A couple of years ago the "Mythbusters" initiative was put out (by OMB I believe). Every seasoned contracting officer I spoke with did not agree with it. Most COs are so protest-adverse that all they want is arm's-length group communications and don't want to risk getting into any discussions with a contractor (especially one-on-one) about requirements. If it's not a formal industry meeting or site visit or something similar, contracting officers don't want to talk about requirements with potential offerors.

How sad a state of affairs this is.

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I once worked in an office that used to prefer to give post-award debriefings in person and have an open dialog with the unsuccessful offeror. However, after a couple of contentious briefings in which protests were later filed, the office instituted a policy of providing only written debriefings. The offeror then has a limited timeframe in which they could submit questions, also in writing. I can understand why contractors would be put off by that.

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I think lack of experience and understanding on what is permissible is the culprit.

The OMB Mythbusters memo is a great example of an initiative that didn't go anywhere. OMB comes up with a broad policy statement on how to do things differently. But the majority of people don't have the confidence or experience to do things differently. They are used to being told what to do and how in very specific terms. Since not much came out further on how to implement Mythbusters, it hasn't happened.

People at the contracting officer/contract specialist level are afraid to do more. This is either from either personal experience, seeing what happened to others that made a mistake, or just don't know.

A perfect example is the lack of face-to-face debriefings. Companies often spent $50,000-$100,000 in proposal preparation. They lose and want to know why and have lots of questions. The typical response now is "put your questions in writing" and "we will give you a written response."

Between email, electronic submissions, awards without discussions, and telework, have face-to-face or even telephone contact is rare.

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I guess I'm in the minority here...Contractors are owed what the FAR requires COs to give them. The sections on debriefings are specific and allow for the debriefing to be done "orally or in writing, or by any another method acceptable to the contracting officer." Contractors will fully leverage their protest and claim abilities; I don't know why I wouldn't fully leverage my ability to conduct a debriefing in the method acceptable to me.

Controlling the information is important during a debriefing. If a program person or a member of the SSEB makes a minor mistake or misspeaks, the unsuccessful offeror could get the impression that the source selection was wrongly decided. The way to prevent that sort of error is to put it in writing and answer reasonable questions in response to the written debriefing. I don't think that's being protest adverse, just prudent.

As far as meeting vendors face to face in other situations--If you have lots of extra time on your hands and like to listen to marketing pitches, sure go ahead. That doesn't, however, describe my situation.

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For me, the issue is whether I'm dealing with an "offeror/bidder" or a "prospective supplier". Relative to the former, I try to avoid pre-award one-on-one dialogues to the maximum extent practicable in order to avoid creating unfair competitive advantages. An RFI process that provides the answer to all offerors/bidders is my way to go. On a post-award basis, I give as much as the FAR allows, whether a debriefing or a brief explanation.

Relative to the prospective suppliers, I echo the sentiments expressed earlier. More often than not, the contact I receive is akin to "How do I get on your preferred vendor list?" I also get the name droppers with "I was speaking with BG Comeasiam and would like to meet with you to tell you how you can sole source to my company."

For the serious inquiries where the prospect desires information on how to do business with the Government, I do my best to point them to helpful resources, such as SBA, PTACs, etc. Otherwise, I politely decline the requested sales meetings by explaining my need to avoid the appearance of favoritism.

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I must agree with some of the recent posters

Written debriefings are prudent and save time.

I do not meet with contractors unless it is for a current requirement due to lack of time.

If you are a good CO, you make more awards. More awards means more administration. More administration means more OIG audits, more GAO audits and reports, more congressional inquiries and more press releases that need to be cleared. Soon the good CO is overwhelmed and no longer a good CO.

The World according to Boof.

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Guest Vern Edwards

Go back to the opening post and read the quote.

The businesspeople who want to sell to the government are looking for someone to talk to so they can find out how to do business with it. Now think of some of the questions that we get here.

Government contracting is an extremely complex process, and many newly prospective sellers are looking for a quick "Government contracting for dummies" source of information. That is not in the CO job description. The CO's job is to execute a process and represent the government in its conduct. COs don't exist to conduct a course in the ABCs of Government Contracting, and they are not buyer reps for selling purposes. Take a class If you want to do business with the government and don't know how. There are hundreds of them. (There are some books, but most are too specialized for the general reader.)

The Federal Government's contracting process is not designed for those looking to stop in, meet with a customer's representative, and make a presentation and a quick sale with little muss or fuss, and it never, ever will be. The barriers to entry into the Government market are high and always will be, even in the market segment devoted to "commercial items". That's the reality, apparently because that's the way the citizenry want it to be.

I have little patience for those who want information, but who don't want to invest in studying the system and the process. It's one thing to be asked to unravel a complex matter for a novice practitioner or even for a journeyman. It's another thing entirely to get a series of "quick" basic questions from someone who is looking to hit and run. And I have no use for the perennially clueless who always prefer asking to researching, most of whom cannot write a coherent question.

I am more sympathetic toward questions from prospective offerors about government solicitations. Sometimes I'm startled by the complexity of government RFPs and RFQs, and I know that many COs don't really understand the documents that they issue. But I say "get lost" to those who come to bidder's conferences and ask questions about fundamentals. The CO is not there to teach the business. He or she is there to answer questions from informed businesspersons about the specific requirement. And he or she has much too much going on to take spot calls from last minute anxious seller's reps and marketeers.

If you're thinking of selling to the Government, go to www.cchgroup.com, and buy a paperback copy of the FAR. When it comes, pick it up and consider it. If you're not willing to invest in learning what it contains and what it says and in training your people to deal with it, throw it away and sell your stuff elsewhere.

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Post 17 is spot on as it pertains to the original quote. The rub is that prospective sellers who don't know how to "break in", don't know what they don't know. Unfortunately, even taking the time to give every cold-caller the information in post 17's last paragraph would, I'm willing to be, be time-prohibitive.

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I think the issue at least from the Rand Report and other things like this from the Association of Proposal Management Professionals (http://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.apmp.org/resource/resmgr/apmp_surveys/2014_apmp_pic_survey_v6.pdf) is industry can't find anyone to talk to about specific requirements. I'm not thinking about general marketing and sales pitches but genuine questions and concerns.

We constantly hear about promoting competition and small businesses but how do we help do that? Not talking isn't a way For example firms may see an existing contract is up for competition. They want to learn more. So they start with the contracting officer. Assuming they can get through, they often are told things like "I don't know," "submit a FOIA request," "wait until the solicitation is issued, ", etc. If a company waits until an RFP is issued to start working on a proposal, their chances of winning are practically nil. By not communicating, we are helping the incumbent win again at probably a not very competitive price.

It is rare that a CO will take the time and effort to help a company learn about a requirement. But isn't getting the best possible contract for your agency your job? Allowing the agency to pick from a wider choice of the best possible proposals gets your there.

Then a company may see a problem or not understand something in a solicitation. Just try and get a timely answer. Or just even try and explain the issue to a person. Even when you get through, its usually you have to put it in writing for the CO to send to the program people to answer and then probably to a lawyer to review.

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I agree with Vern's Post #17.

I have sat in many of these meetings that are suppose to be "how do I do business with the government" and turn into " what information can you give me to get your business."

My response has always been- To do business with the government, look for an RFQ/RFP etc etc on GPEs and respond to them the best you can...

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The Rand report is not based on data; it is based on interviews (i.e., anecdotes). I suggest we weigh its recommendations accordingly.

That being said, the report does identify commonalities among the interviewees' concerns. Vern's original post notes one of the several common concerns. I keyed on the concern involving delayed DCAA audits and delayed final payments. There are others.

It is amusing (or sad, if you prefer) to see how many concerns are repeats from 1995. The more things change ...

Vern noted barriers to entry in post #17. Exactly so. There was a time in the late 1990's/early 2000's when several constituencies attempted to lower those barriers. There was some success in doing so but, even so, battles to retain those barriers were being faught behind the scenes. The "traditional defense contractors" had invested heavily in overcoming those barriers, and they had a vested interest in maintaining them. It was just good business.

Fortunately for those traditional defense contractors, the barriers began to be fortified once again in the mid-2000's, based on mounting criticism that contractors were using those "loopholes" to reap windfall profits. Example: see Steve Schooner's 2001 paper "Fear of Oversight: The Fundamental Failure of Business-Like Government." The evidence cited in Schooner's paper was the reduction of contract-related litigation in the 1990's. From my anecdotal perspective that trend has definitely reversed course over the past 6 years--which is great news for attorneys and consultants!

H2H

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my belief:

in general, a well-informed potential offeror who does not already have an established business relationship with a contracting office will rarely get the professional courtesy of a considered reply to a question about specifics of an issued solicitiation, even when the question is submitted in writing. Even when the question concerns a really obvious error.

anecdotally,

I get a lot more respect from a contracting office after prevailing in a protest of one of their boneheaded mistakes.

anecdotally,

contracting offices benefit from good protests.

everyone's time is wasted by bad (not well reasoned or well founded) protests.

learn the difference.

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