In our last blog, we introduced you to step 1 of our Seven Steps to Better Market Research, which is to understand what you are buying. You’ll need to do some upfront research on the item or service needed by your customer or agency because at some point in the near future you’ll be talking with those customers about their requirements and you are going to want to sound like you’ve done your homework.
No customer expects you to have all of the answers of course, but then again they don’t want to waste their precious time answering basic questions that you could have (and should have) answered for yourself with a bit of research. So if you haven’t read the first blog in our series, take 5 minutes and give it a read before you move onto Step 2.
The Second Step to Your Best Government Market Research is to Ask The Right Questions
Market and supplier research is, after all, RESEARCH. It requires a degree of intellectual curiosity to do it right, which is easier said than done. But curiosity doesn’t always come naturally; sometimes it needs a kickstart to get you on the path towards identifying the right research questions to elicit the most productive supplier and market research. Furthermore, everyone can use a little help with thinking through a line of inquiry to support and direct their research, so in this blog, we are going to cover the following topics:
- Preparing for meetings with customers & stakeholders
- Thinking ahead to the solicitation
- Developing research questions to support your supplier & market research
- Researching cost and schedule considerations
These questions do go beyond the basic supplier and market research questions we proposed in Step 1, Understand What You Are Buying. And in fact, you’ll find that if you haven’t done that initial research (or haven’t done it to the appropriate degree) then Step 2 will be sure to show you where you fell short.
Preparing for Meetings with Customers & Stakeholders
As a government contracting professional, you don’t always have all the information about an upcoming requirement. Sometimes all you have to go on is a procurement request with a basic description of what your customer might need (and ideally the research findings you uncovered during Step 1). While we can all wish that every procurement customer is going to be superbly proactive in getting you the information you’ll need to conduct efficient market research, it’s just not the reality. In fact, in most cases, you’ll be the one taking proactive steps, but it’s all in the name of customer service, right?
Getting a meeting with your procurement customer shouldn’t be too difficult. But making sure that meeting is effective is quite another task. We have an entire blog dedicated to conducting more effective meetings with procurement customers and stakeholders, but we wanted to offer a few specific tips related to supplier and market research in this post. First, consider the nature of an early customer meeting: is it to collect more information about a procurement request? Are you reviewing a draft requirement to be included in a request for information? Maybe you’re so early in the process that a requirement doesn’t exist. This is what we mean by thinking ahead to the solicitation; this is the first aimpoint for all your acquisition planning efforts, and having an idea of where you are going will help you know how best to get there.
Thinking ahead to the solicitation can also help you prepare better for meetings by considering why the meeting has been called and what information you’d need to take away from the meeting to move ahead through the acquisition planning process. You’ll also want to refer to your understanding of the customer’s need. If there are gaps or holes in your understanding of the requirement, then a meeting with your customer is an ideal time to fill those spaces. Plus, asking an intelligent question to a customer – one that demonstrates you’ve taken the time to research and understand their needs – goes a long way to building a constructive, collaborative relationship with your program counterparts.
In addition to our New Rules for Effective Meetings, here’s a list of questions you simply must ask every customer or program team as you think ahead to the solicitation, along with a note about why you should ask them.
|Question||Why you should ask it|
|What is our anticipated budget for this effort?||
|Do we have any small business or socioeconomic goals associated with this requirement?||
|What is the current state of maturity for our requirements document?||
|How do we intend to evaluate offerors?||
|What are the key capabilities of our ideal suppliers?||
|What are the cost elements and cost drivers of the product or service we are buying?||
Download the Ultimate Guide to Government Market Research and you’ll get these questions formatted into a handy template, with space to record your own notes and feedback, so you can be exceptionally prepared for your next meeting with them. The answers will also help you to continually improve your market research as they give you some parameters to direct your research, as opposed to just staring at a blank google search screen!
Furthermore, as you collect information from your customers in these early meetings, you’ll be able to create a plan of attack for completing your market research and compiling the information you’ll need to design rock-solid requirements and solicitations to procure best value goods and services. For example, if a customer does anticipate a small business set-aside for woman-owned small businesses, you’ve already narrowed your field of research to a significant degree!
But how can you conduct a search that only focuses on woman-owned small businesses (or any other socioeconomic category for that matter)? Easy! Use GovShop’s government-specific filters to return government contractor companies that match your customer’s needs.
As you hone in on those highly relevant suppliers that meet your procurement standards, you’ll be able to learn even more about the products and services that may be yielded by your target market. But we’re not quite done thinking through the questions, which have primarily focused on technical capability and performance. Now it’s time to start thinking about the other two legs of the “iron triangle” of procurement: cost and schedule.
Other Elements of your Market Research: Cost & Schedule Considerations
Technical capability is an important consideration in public contracting (what good is a vendor that can’t deliver?) but it’s not the only input to determining a contractor’s qualification for getting the job done. Cost and schedule considerations are also important, and they require research of their own. To perform effective research into these rather broad areas, it’s helpful to narrow down our focus which we can do by answering one simple question: is what we are buying primarily a product or a service?
(Note: in cases where the answer is both, try to focus on whichever is the majority part of the solution. For instance, a software installation where the services required to complete the installation is more expensive than the software itself would suggest you consider your “what to buy” as a service.)
If you are buying products, here are some research questions to help you understand your cost and schedule considerations:
|Cost Questions (Products)||Schedule Questions (Products)|
|Does the product use any special inputs or raw materials? Are they subject to price fluctuations, normally available, and stable?||What does a typical supply chain look like?|
|Are subcontractors required for any aspect of the product development, delivery, or integration?||What are typical manufacturing lead times, packaging times, and delivery times for same or similar items?|
|Are there any product features that could be considered non-essential, but still “nice to have”?||Is the customer prepared to take immediate delivery of the products, or will they need to be stored in an advanced location?|
|Is the product a component of a larger system, and if so what are the compatibility requirements of that system?||Are the items “made to order” or are they kept in stock? What techniques do manufacturers of similar items use to manage inventory?|
If you are buying services, here are some research questions to help you understand your cost and schedule considerations:
|Cost Questions (Services)||Schedule Questions (Services)|
|Do the labor requirements and/or descriptions seem reasonable?||Are these labor categories abundant in the workforce, or more difficult to find?|
|Will the procurement involve personnel working on site or offsite? If onsite, will they require any government-furnished property?||If contractor personnel are required to work on-site, where will they be stationed? Does your facilities team need time to prepare the workstation?|
|If onsite labor, will the personnel require security clearances? Note there will be a cost and schedule impact here, as pre-cleared personnel are more expensive on a rate-per hour basis, while “clearance eligible” employees will need advanced time to get through the security vetting process.|
|What have other agencies paid for these services in prior contracts?||How deep is the contracting company’s “bench” of resources? You may want to know how deep the talent availability is in a given contracting firm.|
As you can see, asking good questions is imperative to conducting market research. Whether the questions are general research inquiries or questions to ask your customers, it helps to have a plan of action to guide you. So download our Guide to Market Research, which includes the templates we’ve discussed in this blog, and take some time to prepare. If you do, you won’t find yourself staring at a blank screen and wondering where to start!