If you walked into a customer and they told you:
“We need your product to go through ISEC to get a CoN and ATO using the DISA STIGs to validate that it is compliant with our requirements. We also added your solution to our POM and plan to use a GWAC IDIQ like SEWP V, TEIS III, or ITES for procurement.”
Is that good or bad?
What are you going to tell your company?
We’ll answer these questions and much more in this article.
To start off, here’s a handful of acronyms for your reading pleasure:
AND MANY, MANY MORE!
Why is this important to you? Why should you care?
IF YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT THE CUSTOMER IS SAYING TO YOU
YOU WON’T UNDERSTAND WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE TO CLOSE REVENUE
Effective communication is key to winning this customer!
- Know who your customer is.
- Know what your customer wants.
- Know your customer’s acquisition strategy.
- Know your customer’s language.
How many acronyms did you know from the list?
Do you like acronyms? Well, the Federal Government LOVES acronyms. They have acronyms inside of acronyms inside of acronyms (HELLADS). The U.S. Navy even has an acronym for its dictionary of acronyms (DICNAVAB). It’s an entirely new language you have to learn to begin to understand the Federal Customer’s:
- Department and Agency names
- Congressional Bills
- Money or
Sometimes even now, when I am attend a Federal customer meeting, I have to stop the conversation and ask what the NEW acronym means. It can be very confusing and funny.
Know your customer:
DISA, NAVAIR, DHS, DHA, ICE, SSA, VA, FEMA, DOC, DOS, DOE…
The acronym carousel keeps going with the Federal Department/Agency naming conventions. A few examples:
- COMNAVSEASYSCOM – Commander, Naval Sea Systems Command
- DISA – Defense Information Systems Agency
- ICE – (No not for your drink) – Immigration and Customs Enforcement
- FEMA – Federal Emergency Management Agency
- HELLADS – High Energy Liquid Laser Air Defense System
Serving in the U.S. Navy for six years made it easier for me to work in the Federal arena and understand the acronyms. Below I have provided specific links to PDF’s and websites to assist in navigating the Federal customer. Their acronyms and abbreviations can be complex. Sales should understand who they are selling to, ensuring the product and service will help the customer accomplish their mission.
Please review these sites to better understand Federal Speak:
- A to Z – US Federal Government Agencies
- DoD Dictionary of Military & Associated Terms
- GovSpeak:A Guide to U.S. Government Acronyms & Abbreviations powered by: USCSanDiego
- The United States Government Manual: Commonly Used Agency Acronyms
Not only do you have to know the Agency you are potentially dealing with, but you should know the people that you are speaking with as well. Did you know it may be rude to call an E-6 in the military “Sir”?
In the example above, I wanted to illustrate the differences of ranks within the U.S. Armed forces. This is especially important to understand with whom you are speaking. While the insignias may look the same, there are major differences in how you address the person wearing that specific insignia.
For example, notice in Figure 1., that within the Army, Marines and Air Force that a Captain is an O-3 while in the Navy and Coast Guard a Captain is an O-6, which is just one rank below Rear Admiral. That’s a BIG difference!
This could be extremely embarrassing should you not know to whom you are directly your attention in a meeting full of military and civilian personnel.
There is another important reason to understand who you are speaking with. Understanding rank and titles in the DoD will tell you if you are being passed off to someone with little authority or if you are having a meaningful conversation with a decision maker. A program manager is either responsible for hundreds of millions in IT acquisitions or they are not. You need to understand why and who you are speaking with.
Know what your customer wants:
Knowing what your customer is talking about is paramount to successfully understanding their requirements and gaining their trust as a solutions consultant. While this is true for any vertical market, it is especially true for the Federal vertical. If you are in a meeting and a customer says, “We have to ensure your software works after being STIG’d. Also, can you send me your CoN and ATO?” or “This solution is great! Please send me a quote. This requirement will go to our contracting shop for a UFR this year.”
In the first scenario the customer is telling you that:
- Either you or the customer will have to STIG “Security Technical Implementation Guide” your product to contain any vulnerabilities in your product prior to implementing your technology on the customer network.
- On most DoD networks, the customer requires an ATO (Authority to Operate) and a CoN (Certificate of Networthiness) – though this requirement may be replaced with the RMF (Risk Management Framework) prior to implementing your technology on their network.
In the second scenario the customer is telling you that:
- This is NOT an order.
- This is NOT guaranteed to be procured this year.
- This is a UFR (YOU-fer) – Unfunded Request. They’re hoping funds become available the current fiscal year, meaning it was not in the current year’s funding requirements.
Both scenarios could have implications on closing business with customers.
One day after an Army meeting, another VP of Sales and I debriefed in the car going to the airport. Although he had been at many of my previous meetings, to my astonishment he had no clue how the meeting went with the customer. He stated to me that there were so many different acronyms being thrown around that to him it was a different language and a difficult discussion. By the way, it was a great meeting. We closed $520,000 from that opportunity.
It is very interesting that even the Federal Government knows that its language can be confusing. So, the Federal Government actually passed an Act in 2010 to provide guidelines for documents for the public.
“An act to enhance citizen access to Government information and services by establishing that Government documents issued to the public must be written clearly, and for other purposes.”
Know how to speak to the customer: Learn their language
The Account Manager or Sales Manager is not the only person that needs to know what the customer is talking about.
Company Pre-Sales Engineer
While sitting in meetings with the Federal customer, their technical personnel will be asking specific questions related to their requirements. Included in their requirements could be:
- Where is your product manufactured or built?
- Has your product been through Federal testing requirements?
- Do you have their specific certifications?
- What encryption libraries does your product use? Is it FIPS 140 certified?
- Are your products on the Approved Product List?
- And many more…
The Pre-Sales engineer has to be able to understand what the customer’s engineers are asking to demonstrate for their environment. If the Pre-Sales engineer doesn’t have a clue what the customer is asking their credibility and yours are on the line. The customer will wonder why you are even in the room. This happens when companies believe Pre-Sales engineers are all the same and can sell into both commercial and Federal accounts.
Company Inside Sales (IS)
The IS needs to ask the correct questions while qualifying an opportunity. If the IS does not understand what the customer is talking about in the conversation, the Sales Manager has their work cut out for them.
It is interesting, when an inbound call comes in from a Federal customer looking for demonstrations, product information, quotes or other pertinent information, the IS is your first touch with this customer. At many companies with which I’ve worked, the IS would get all the great information that normally you would obtain from the customer, even the name of who they work for. In most cases the customer will state: I am with the U.S. Navy or DHS. That’s like saying “I used to live in Boston, do you know John Smith?” These organizations are enormous. Yes, they work for the Navy, but where? What organization in the Navy? Questions such as these matter.
Marketing – Brand Awareness
This is an incredibly important requirement in the sales process. I’ve written so much Federal marketing collateral over the years because the commercial marketing collateral doesn’t speak to the Federal customer. There are many areas that do overlap between Federal and commercial marketing, but the terms are different. Just a walk around the floor of a Federal event/show and viewing other company’s booths and collateral provides great insight into the language the Federal customer understands and requires. In Picture 1 below, the messaging is direct and well understood in the Federal market. Yes, as you can see, lots of acronyms.
If you don’t understand the list of acronyms above, it could have very real consequences for a company trying to generate revenue from the Federal market. Let’s discuss a couple of these acronyms and their importance in closing business with the Federal customer.
LCTA – Lowest Cost Technically Acceptable
“Lowest Price Technically Acceptable (LPTA) source selection process (FAR 15.101-2) is where the government determines that the lowest price is awardable over the complaint technical offering of all proposals. LPTA is appropriate only when the government “expects” it can achieve best value from selecting the proposal that is technically acceptable and offers the lowest evaluated price.”
Why is this important? A company sales person can work with a customer for months or years to have their product or service procured. All the check marks have been checked:
- Requirement for the product or service – CHECK
- Funding approval – CHECK
- Procurement cycle – CHECK
Now the technical requirement goes through the procurement process – the contracting office/shop. The contracting shop has many tools at its disposal for procuring the requirements sent to it. One process is LCTA. This procurement strategy allows the contracting shop to send out a request for proposal/quote for the requirement that was sent to them. The contracting shop doesn’t have to include the actual name of the product that the technical personnel wants to procure. The contracting shop will get the quotes/proposals back and then decide to buy the lowest cost technically acceptable product or service that satisfies the requirements. OUCH! All that work and the customer gets your competitor’s product or service because they were the lowest cost and were technically acceptable to the “contract shop,” not the customer you were working with throughout the process.
- CLOSED? – NO!
If you don’t know what your customer is talking about it is almost impossible to solve their problem and sell a solution. Working with the customer, knowing what they want, helping them with the process and communicating effectively are key to winning. The Federal customer, especially the DoD, can have very specific and unique requirements, especially when helping the Warfighter. That environment can have an entirely new set of acronyms, but it is worth it.
Leadership, planning and knowledge are the keys to ensure you are successful in building this market vertical.
If you have a funny story or interesting story about your experiences with this subject, please send them my way. Would really like to hear from you.
In the next blog article, I’ll be directing my attention to Company Resources. I hope you’ll join me.
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BLOG Article 5: Company Resources: Hello! I need help.