For instance, some of you may recall two adages memorialized in the movie Glenn Gary, Glenn Ross: the ABC’s of sales "Always be Closing" and AIDA "Attention > Interest > Desire > Action". While most of us employ somewhat more sophisticated approaches, I am becoming increasingly aware that conventional sales tactics leave much to be desired when it comes to selling to our public sector customers.
The federal government’s annual funding process is at the heart of what makes selling in this market unique. It creates a seasonality that goes far beyond the use-it-or-lose-it spending frenzy of late summer. Savvy sales organizations should recognize and leverage these seasonal cycles to their benefit, applying a broad mix of resources appropriately at the right time of the year. It does little good to be banging the phone with an Always be Closing mindset when the people making decisions about your technology are writing objectives and justifications for investments they hope to get funded a year-and-a-half to two years from now.
The key is to begin by taking a look at the government’s annual funding cycle. Viewing this process from our government customer’s vantage point enables us to synchronize our sales efforts with their procurement and acquisition activities.
Q1: October through December – a slow start. Sadly, most agencies will not yet have their appropriation from Congress, operating hand-to-mouth under Continuing Resolution (CR), a law passed by Congress granting short-term operational dollars. Planned equipment or software purchases typically have to wait until the full appropriation is passed by Congress. It is also use-it-or-lose-it vacation time: the pressure is low on the government side at this time of the year. What do we do in the meantime?
From a sales and marketing perspective, this is a time to plant seeds for the future by delivering strategic messaging. Government executives now have as much time as ever to listen, talk and plan for the future. At this time of the year, they’re on the speaking circuit telling us about their key initiatives. In response, we listen intently, read the trade publications extensively, and develop a story illustrating how our technology can be implemented within a project or program. So say good-bye to Always Be Closing and adopt a mindset of how do I get an executive’s attention and interest with the understanding that desire will need to be generated with many stakeholders at different levels over the coming months and years before a contract action can occur?
Q2: January through March – a very busy time. Program managers and government executives need to get two quarters worth of work done in one before mid-year program and budget reviews occur. Money that is not being spent according to plan is often re-programmed (moved) to projects that are exceeding expectations. In short, those projects progressing according to plan often receive additional funds; those that are stalled can lose them.
From a sales and marketing perspective, Q2 is a time to focus on closing business. Hopefully, the sales that have been projected are ready for procurement, pending signature of the fund certifying official. It usually takes a few weeks from the time the appropriation is passed for the money to actually be apportioned into the correct agency/program account. Q2 and Q4 are the two major harvest times in the government year. Make arrangements early to have the contracting and deal support available during these months.
Q3: April through June – a time for re-planting. Program managers and agency executives are now focusing on meeting internal budget planning deadlines. They are writing business cases to justify requests for investments they hope to be able to make during the budget year two years from now. They’re also watching what Congress and the Executive’s Office of Management and Budget are doing to next year’s budget and they are making decisions that will queue up procurement actions for Q4.
From a sales and marketing perspective, Q3 is a time to focus on re-establishing the messages delivered in Q1. Visions for the future are now being documented in the budget preparation process. In many agencies these business cases are due from program managers by the end of May.
Q4: July through September – busy season. Contracting shops that may have been slow-rolling a transaction, now have a compelling event in view: it’s use-it-or-lose-it time and everyone knows it. Program managers need to get their money obligated against contracts or higher level government executives will grab it as the year comes toward a close.
From a sales and marketing perspective, Q4 is a time of hurry up and wait. On one hand, the government expects instant responses to the questions they have for vendors, but they in turn will be silent for weeks without sending out an order. What is going on? It’s the obligation period, when contracting officers are working diligently through all of the business and bureaucratic details required to ensure that a purchase order or contract award is written properly. At this point, the most effective way to coax the order through the process is for business people to engage with the program management office while contracts people engage with the contract office simultaneously.
In summary, we calibrate our federal sales activity metrics to the structured annual funding cycle discussed above, accounting for the general rhythm of activities that occur with almost every major deal. Training, managing and measuring your organization consistent with these concepts is a critical step along the path of achieving accurate, reliable and useful forecasts.
Steve Charles is the Co-founder, immixGroup, Inc. — www.immixgroup.com