3 Mistakes Contractors Should Avoid Post-Shutdown

Key Takeaways for Executives

  • Taking on more work than you can manage well could mean lost sales in the long run.
  • It’s far better to underpromise and overperform than do the opposite.
  • Don’t deliver something the contract doesn’t call for, even if the customer asks for it.

As contractors rush to catch up on work and capitalize on new opportunities now that the government is operating again, they need to avoid some common errors that could be especially damaging during this tumultuous time.

The first mistake: Taking on too much, too quickly.

“Everyone comes out of the gate fast” when the government reopens after a shutdown, Larry Allen, president of Allen Federal Business Partners, told WashingtonExec. “That’s great. Everyone likes to get lots of work done after being closed down for 35 days, but don’t spread yourself so thin that you can’t follow up with the contacts you make. If you try to do too many things at one time, you can get yourself in trouble.”

Although sales managers might feel pressure to develop business and make up lost revenue, they shouldn’t take on more business than their companies can manage properly.

“If you’re not following up on your to-do list with each customer, you’re not going to get the sales you want,” Allen said.

For example, federal agencies frequently ask for use cases, especially with IT and other technology-focused contracts. These requests need to be honored promptly.

“Use cases should be something you have ready to go, so you get back to the office and write a quick thank you email and attach the use case to it,” he said. “Experienced salespeople know that agencies ask for use cases, and there’s no excuse for having a two- or three-day lag time.”

Bring a capability statement to the initial meeting with the customer, but save the use case so you have something to follow up with. That will provide a good reason to go back to your agency contact and keep your company top-of-mind.

Another common mistake, Allen said, is overpromising — especially when there’s intense competition for a rush of government work following a shutdown. Examples of this mistake abound, including everything from promising a partner or employee with a certain type of expertise or education who isn’t available, to saying your solution has capabilities it doesn’t.

For example, “If an agency asks if your cloud solution is [Federal Risk and Authorization Management Program]-approved, don’t claim that it is if it isn’t yet,” he said. “Be honest and say it’s pending or whatever. More than one contractor has gotten themselves in trouble by saying their solution was FedRAMP-approved, and it turned into a big dispute and the contractor looked like an idiot.”

Promising an unrealistic delivery timeline can be equally disastrous.

“Don’t say, ‘I can get it for you tomorrow’ if it’s going to take longer than that,” Allen said. “Then you’ve upset the customer, and if they have an immediate need for something, you’ve harmed their trust in you, which has an impact far after this piece of business.”

And don’t tell customers your solution will meet all of their needs to win a contract, only to find out later it will only meet some of them. That will cause cost overruns and risk termination for nonperformance or even default.

By the same token, do your homework; don’t bring your catalog of solutions to a customer meeting without any idea of what the customer’s needs are.

“Not surprisingly, those meetings don’t usually go well for the contractor,” Allen said. “You’ve got to know your territory in the federal government. For example, if the agency wants everything in the cloud and you’re only selling on-premises solutions, that’s not going to work.”

The upshot is that it’s far better to underpromise and overdeliver than do the opposite, no matter how much new business you need to acquire to make up lost revenue after the shutdown.

A third common mistake is delivering something the customer asks for but isn’t in the contract.

According to Allen, this often happens when there’s a disconnect between what the customer wants and what the contract officer puts in the request for proposals. In other words, the contract calls for X but the customer later says it really wants Y.

“That’s the time to stop,” he said. “As much as you’re trying to take care of a customer’s need, if you ship things that aren’t in the contract, the best case is that you’ll end up in a dispute, and you might not get paid at all.”

Related: Shutdown Hitting Small Firms Hard, but There are Survival Strategies

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