SelfInformed

August 2011


How To Sell To Uncle Sam

Friday, July 29, 2011


By Mollie Neal

The U.S. government purchases $500 billion worth of goods and services each year and is required to spend at least 23 percent of it with small businesses.

Fortunately, you don’t have to build tanks or manufacture parts for fighter jets to enter this market.

Government officials spend their money on everything from office supplies, window washing and pest control to computer repairs and printing services. If you aren’t marketing to Uncle Sam, you may be missing out on a big opportunity.

The idea of selling your goods or services to the U.S government may sound like a daunting task mired in bureaucratic red tape, but it doesn’t have to be. By taking a strategic approach, you can acquire government clients whose spending doesn’t dry up even when the economy heads south.

Think Locally

Potential government customers are not just officials at air force bases and the Pentagon.

The Internal Revenue Service, Social Security Administration, Postal Service and Department of Veterans Affairs, for example, have offices located throughout the country.

If you look around, you’ll probably find a number of government officials working in your vicinity, says Mark Amtower, founding partner of Highland, Md.-based Amtower & Company and author of “Selling to the Government: What it Takes to Compete and Win in the World’s Largest Market” (Wiley, 2010).

Open the phone book, find government offices and set aside time to call or visit, advises Amtower.

Many federal offices have a designated small-business officer, and other agencies have people in charge of purchases. When calling or visiting, explain your products or services and ask if it’s something workers could use. Also ask how the agency typically goes about making purchases and find out the best way for you to approach buyers within the office or agency. The process may be quite simple.

If purchasers live locally, they’re probably like most people who prefer to spend money with small businesses in their own backyards, says Amtower.

Create A Leave-Behind

Being professional and having a proven track record is important.

Amtower suggests creating a one-page document that says who you are and what you do. List previous clients and include any special certifications, awards and other information that may demonstrate your professionalism and differentiate you from competitors.

By leaving behind your document, prospective clients will know how to find you when they need you. Or at least they’ll be able to pass the information along to an appropriate person in the office.

Accept Credit Cards

If you only accept cash or checks, you’re out of luck.

Nearly 300,000 civilian and military government employees use the GSA SmartPay 2 credit card for their discretionary purchases of up to $3,000. And they spent $18.8 billion with these MasterCard and Visa credit cards in 2010, reports the GSA.

If you have merchant accounts with these credit card companies, then you can accept the SmartPay cards. The transactions don’t require any invoices, contracts or red tape between the buyer and seller.

U.S. Army Corp of Engineers staff members, for example, often shop at local retail stores for sandbags, concrete, gloves and other hardware supplies. Some local authorities use SmartPay to simplify transactions such as paying for weekly lawn care, says Amtower.

Placing the SmartPay logo in your storefront window, catalog, brochure, website and any other marketing materials lets buyers know that you’re government-friendly.

Attend Meetings

Tap free and low-cost resources to learn about marketing to the government. Professionals at U.S. Small Business Administration offices, Small Business Development Centers and Procurement Technical Assistance Centers are happy to help you learn more about doing business with the government.

They often hold meetings and seminars where you can network with government officials and build relationships with prospective customers.

The SBA, for example, funds regional Business Matchmaking events throughout the year. Much like a speed-dating program, a small-business owner shares information about his or her products and services with government officials for 15 minutes before rotating to a new meeting.

Obtain Certifications

The SBA has special programs to help specific groups secure federal contracts. Becoming certified as a woman-, minority- or veteran-owned business might give you an edge in obtaining contracts among officials who need to meet specific procurement requirements among these groups.

Becoming certified with the Historically Underutilized Business Zone or the 8(a) Business Development programs could also help. A Woman Owned Small Business Federal Contracting Program, known as 8(m), was also launched in February 2011.

If your business fits into any of these categories, you may be eligible for valuable no-bid contracts. Local SBA officials can advise you on your potential eligibility and help you gain proper certifications.

Rent Mailing Lists

Contact a list broker for lists of SmartPay cardholders or purchasing agents. These lists typically cost around $100 for 1,000 names.

A few agencies even put these contacts on their websites, such as NASA’s list of SmartPay cardholders.

Targeted mailing lists are beneficial for promotional direct mail and postcard efforts. Remember to include SmartPay logos, GSA certification numbers and other items that demonstrate your ability to do business with the government.

Register Your Business Online

Registering your business on government sites used by purchasers is a good way to raise your hand and be noticed.

Sites such as Central Contractor Registration and the GSA Schedule are excellent starting places.

You can also begin proactively looking for contract bidding opportunities at sites such as:

Reaping The Rewards Of Marketing To Uncle Sam

Kris Duffy, owner of Fort Hill, S.C.-based Venture Media, and her husband, Jim, a producer and director, have been serving government clients for more than 20 years.

They regularly check sites like Fed Biz Opps and conduct searches by business category for bidding opportunities. The couple generates 85 to 90 percent of their annual revenue producing training videos, public service announcements and other projects for government clients such as the Navy, National Park Service and the Department of Transportation.

“We love working with the government,” says Jim. “There are a lot of advantages. Even with a down economy we haven’t seen a dip in our business. We always get paid and typically receive the money within 35 days of submitting an invoice.”

Neil Gordon, owner of Chestnut Ridge, N.Y.-based Decorating With Fabric, has generated more than $250,000 selling his custom drapes and blinds for offices, residential halls and theatres to government clients at West Point and Fort Hamilton.

The key to his success has been a strategic approach.

Gordon develops contacts and relationships by networking and meeting purchasers at facility manager conferences and other events. He builds credibility as an industry expert and stays top of mind with these prospects by sending them regular email newsletters and regularly updating a blog. He also shares prospect names with an owner of a furniture rental business who markets to government buyers.

Accepting the SmartPay card is “a deal maker,” says Gordon, and he equates his GSA certification to having the Good Housekeeping Seal. It not only helps him land government contracts, but also gives him more credibility with his commercial clients, he says.

“I am a big believer of multiple streams of income, even if you are in a specialty niche business such as mine,” says Gordon. “Years ago I only worked with high-end residential clients. If I hadn’t changed my business model the past few years [as the market dried up] I would probably be out of business. It’s also a refreshing change to break into a new market.”

Author Amtower offers this advice for small-business owners trying to break into the government market.

“It’s not a quick hit. Like entering any new market, it takes time, energy and resources, but can be well worth your efforts.”


Mollie Neal is a New York-based freelance writer who has enjoyed working on various writing projects for government officials at the USPS.


Apply For A $5,000 NASE Growth Grant

An NASE Growth Grant™ could be just what your business needs to help you sell your products and services to Uncle Sam.

These $5,000 grants can be used for marketing, advertising, hiring employees, expanding facilities and to meet other specific business needs.

To be eligible for an NASE grant, you must:
  • Be an NASE Member in good standing
  • Demonstrate a business need that could be fulfilled by the grant
  • Provide a detailed explanation of how you will use the grant proceeds
  • Show how the grant will improve your business growth and success
  • Offer supporting documentation such as a résumé and business plan

NASE Growth Grants are awarded at the sole discretion of the NASE. Unfortunately, not everyone who applies will receive a grant. Decisions of the selection committee are final and are not subject to appeal. No application feedback will be given.

Read this article in PDF form here.