Your Guide to Finding the Top Government Contractors for your Procurement Requirements
Market research is an essential chore for contracting professionals looking for top government contractors who offer the best value for their customer and agency missions. Simple in concept but more difficult in execution, government market research is divided into two categories: strategic and tactical.
Before we dive into our tips for improving your government market research, it is important to define these categories.
Tactical vs. Strategic Market Research
Let’s say you are in the market for a new car, and you know exactly the type of car you want, a sport-utility vehicle (SUV). But, you haven’t made up your mind about the exact model. So you open a google search and type in SUVs and start reading up on the different makes and models. Since you have an ideal outcome in mind (finding your best SUV), you are conducting tactical market research to find a car that fits your requirements.
On the other end of the spectrum is strategic market research. Say that you are a public procurement professional working for the U.S. Forest Service, and your program customer manages a fleet of government-owned vehicles. Every other fiscal year, the program replaces aging vehicles with new ones. Because these automobiles are used by foresters working in our National Parks, they always buy SUVs for their durability and safety.
Since you regularly purchase SUVs for this program, you know how important it is to stay current by researching best practices for fleet management and trends in the auto industry such as pricing, gas mileage, and safety features. This type of market research provides you with real market intelligence and helps you ultimately achieve best value for your customer when the time comes to solicit and evaluate bids. This is strategic market research.
Summarizing The Difference Between Strategic and Tactical Market Research
Applied to the public sector, you would conduct tactical market research for a customer’s unique purchase, something that doesn’t reoccur or has a quick turnaround time. If you work for a customer that is always buying the same type goods or services, like medical consumables, you may always be learning about the marketplace through the process of strategic market research. This is what Raj Sharma, founder of Public Spend Forum, likes to refer to as “market intelligence” to encompass the more holistic nature of learning the broader industry and marketplace in which you typically purchase.
Another way to think about it is, tactical market research is more like an investigation into a specific requirement or need, whereas strategic market research is more holistic “surveillance” of the market(s) from which you typically procure. This article from the Defense Acquisition University’s Acquipedia page provides a nice summary for further reference.
Do Your Best Market Research
So now that we have differentiated the two types of market research (tactical & strategic), let’s talk about how you can conduct really effective market research to find your best government contractors.
1) Understand What You Are Buying
This may seem obvious, but there are more nuances to consider before you jump straight in to market research. First and foremost, consider what it is you are buying. Is it an item or service that is commonly purchased, not just within the government but by private industry as well? If the answer to that question is yes, you are buying commercial items.
Commercial items may be easier to find through common search platforms like google, but be aware that not every commercial seller is capable of doing business with the government. So you may find great companies and products in your initial research, but it is important to know before you dig too deep whether that company is able to compete for government contracts.
Once you find companies of interest, you can validate their status by looking up their unique identifier in the Data Universal Numbering System (DUNS) and then search that DUNS number in SAM.gov. Or, you can use a database like GovShop, which only includes authorized government contractors, to screen out companies that won’t sell to you in the first place. Each company profile in GovShop includes the supplier’s DUNS number, which is a requirement for government sales.
Image Credit: Dun and Bradstreet
If the items you are buying are not commercial products or services, but have been purchased or created specifically for government buyers, they are considered non-developmental items, which are”any previously developed item of supply used exclusively for governmental purposes by” a government agency.
Nondevelopmental items are most common in the Defense industry, and generally require significant research & development prior to being available for use by the government. This blog will focus on commercially available items; for more help on procurement of nondevelopmental items, check out these great resources from AcqNotes.
2) Determine the Best Keywords that Describe your Ideal Product or Service Outcome
Once you understand what you are buying, you can start the process of determining the best keywords and search terms that will help you produce the best market research results. Not everyone thinks about this keyword research as part of the market research process, but it will really help you save time and increase the value of your efforts.
There are several techniques you can use to find the keywords that best describe your ideal product or service. The first is to experiment with Google search. Type some basic search terms related to your need, but before you hit “enter,” pause for a moment and see what suggestions Google has for you. These suggestions are Google’s way of telling you what millions of other people have searched related to your topic, and quite frankly, sometimes Google’s algorithm is better at predicting what you’re looking for than you are yourself.
Chalk it up to the wisdom of the crowd (and year’s worth of algorithmic refinement), but these suggestions can help you identify other keyword combinations and new words entirely that can yield better results for you. Don’t forget to scroll to the bottom of the search page where you’ll find “Searches related to…”, another awesome resource for refining your keyword research.
3) Start with a solid acquisition plan
There’s an old saying that failing to plan is planning to fail, and that is never more true than in government procurement. With all the policy, guidance and regulation related to the procurement process, it is important to have a clear idea not only of what you are buying, but how you are going to buy it. This is where acquisition planning comes into play.
Even when a formal acquisition plan is not required, contracting professionals should create a basic plan to guide their acquisition lifecycle. A well-developed acquisition plan can help you manage procurement acquisition lead times and deliver products and services to your customer. You’ll know more about your eventual solicitation after creating an acq plan, things like salient characteristics that are important to your customer, or whether your purchase will fall into the small business program. Most importantly, you may learn about your customer’s budget, which can help put boundaries around your research process.
Buying something below the threshold requires more informal market research and less paperwork; don’t go overboard if you don’t have to! A wel- crafted acquisition plan supports the market research process by identifying key information like the following:
- Relevant characteristics of the items being procured, such as compatibility with existing systems or known cost, schedule, and capability constraints.
- Cost and budget information like the independent government cost estimate (IGE) and lifecycle costs, which help contracting professionals understand purchase thresholds that can lend flexibility and time savings to the acquisition process.
- Delivery requirements for physical goods or discrete deliverables, or period of performance requirements for services to be rendered.
- Technical, cost and schedule risks that may impact how requirements are developed and goods and services are to be procured
- Mandatory or recommended sources of supply. Depending on nature of the items to be purchased, some organizations require that contracting professionals use pre-defined lists of approved contractors or government-wide acquisition contracts with pre-negotiated terms, conditions and prices.
- Product or service descriptions that help to define minimum requirements, salient characteristics, or key performance indicators related to the items to be procured.
When creating your acquisition plan, keep in mind that the procurement process is not always linear, and neither is market research. As conversations with your customer evolve, and as your market research continues to inform your requirements document and eventual solicitation, things can and will change. So treat your acquisition plan as a guide that can be updated as new information is obtained.
For more tips on developing your best solicitations, check out 14 Tips on Writing Better Solicitations.
4) Utilize relevant category, product and service codes
A common question many contracting professionals have is what are category and product service codes used for? In federal government, these are also referred to as federal supply codes, and are used to describe the products and services commonly purchased by the government.
Public procurement organizations like the National Institute for Government Purchasing (NIGP) have developed a universal taxonomy for identifying commodities and services in procurement systems. NIGP Codes are primarily used in State and Local governments, and the entire list is commercially available through an annual licensing agreement. Other systems like the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) are used by the public and private sector to classify and measure economic activity in the continent.
For market research purposes, each code system can be used to refine keyword searches into more specific lists of qualified government contractors that can best fulfill your customer’s requirements. For instance, the NAICS code system is often used in federal acquisitions to make business size determinations, a key consideration when deciding whether goods and services can be procured through specific socioeconomic set-aside programs. Product Service Codes are useful when conducting strategic market research, as they can help you compare offerings from suppliers who register under those codes. NIGP codes work in a similar way.
In GovShop, users can combine keyword searches with our category codes to narrow down large search results into a manageable list of the most relevant suppliers. This makes it easy to find the appropriate category codes as well as suppliers who qualify under them.
5) Consider available sources, contract vehicles, and qualified vendor lists
Do you want to save yourself time and effort on your next procurement? Of course you do! By utilizing all available sources, in many cases you can avoid formal source selection methods that require full and open competition and add months to your procurement acquisition lead times.
In federal contracting, certain items are designated for purchase through mandatory sources of supply, like Federal Prison Industries or the Committee for Purchase From People Who Are Blind or Severely Disabled (also known as the AbilityOne Program). Using these mandatory government sources and procurement lists are have important corollary socioeconomic benefit, such as job creation for underserved populations which can positively impact the economy, all while providing contracting professionals with an easier path to procurement.
Government buyers can also look to governmentwide acquisition contracts, cooperative purchasing agreements, and statewide, multi-agency vehicles that consist of pre-negotiated, fairly priced items. Typically, when ordering from one of these multiple award schedules, contracting professionals can skip the more complicated request for proposal process and instead issue a request for quotes, which require less time to evaluate and make source selection decisions.
The most popular governmentwide acquisition contract is the schedules program run by the General Services Administration. If you are wondering who can buy off GSA Schedule, check out this comprehensive list which includes helpful FAQs about GSA’s Federal Supply Schedules. If you’re looking for an easy way to search GSA Schedules by keyword, GovShop has you covered! So try GovShop’s contract vehicle search next time you want to save time and effort on your procurement.
If part of your market research process includes searching for small businesses, contact your agency’s small business representative. They can help you identify qualified suppliers that match your socioeconomic and small business criteria, and review your solicitation documents for inclusivity and other opportunities to permit small business competition.
State and local government procurement professionals should also consider cooperative purchasing programs, such as those offered by NIGP and the U.S. Communities Government Purchasing Alliance. While cooperative purchasing programs and GSA schedules are focused on leveraging the buying power of public sector buying power by processing transactions, they also maintain vendor lists that can help with strategic and tactical market research..
6) Develop genuine relationships with industry partners
Federal acquisition regulations direct contracting professionals to participate in “interactive, on-line communication among industry, acqusition personnel, and customers” during the market research process. It seems obvious, but talking with suppliers is a great way to learn about the capabilities and characteristics offered for sale in a given industry. Check your organization’s policy for communicating with industry before you get too far down this road, and review federal best practices in a series of OFPP myth busting memos from the Office of Federal Procurement Policy.
Other innovative techniques exist and comply with federal policy. Instead of hosting an industry day (which is great for tactical market research), consider inviting vendors to attend a reverse industry day where they listen to your program and contracting colleagues describe their future needs and acquisition priorities. It’s a “reverse” take on standard industry days where contractors do most of the talking, presenting to the government audience on their products and capabilities. A reverse industry day gives government contractors a chance to hear directly from program owners and other personnel about their upcoming procurement needs, which can inform their business decisions and development strategies.
Finally, Think Ahead to Contract Management
Many procurement professionals get very excited about the acquisition planning, market research, solicitation, and award phases of the acquisition lifecycle, but few can say the same about contract management. But after the award is made, there is still much work to be done to ensure the best value you acquired is actually delivered to your customer.
When you’re working through the market research process, keep your own self in mind, because there’s a high likelihood that after you award the resultant contract, you may be the one responsible for managing it! A well organized, written market research report (even informally) included as a memo to the file can be invaluable when tackling tough questions and circumstances in the post-award contract management page.
If you keep these six tips in mind next time you begin market research, you’ll be able to identify the top government contractors in your target market, help your customer write better requirements, and ultimately produce best value outcomes for all of your procurement stakeholders.
Do you have any tips and tricks for market research? Share them with us in the comments below, or start a thread on our open global community discussion forum. We love to hear from you!