While the government seems huge and daunting, it's amazing how small the circles are of people doing similar work in the government for different organizations. That makes getting referrals a particularly effective way to keep a government sales pipeline full.
In the book, Seven Myths of Selling to Government, we talk about what makes government buyers tick. They are a very cautious bunch and generally take their responsibilities seriously as they spend taxpayers’ money. So, they want their procurements to solve a problem, be logical and cost efficient. (Notice, I didn’t say cheap.)
Government buyers don’t like to be wrong about their procurements as they may have to live with their mistakes for a long time. In the private sector, you can often recover quickly when you make a significant procurement mistake. A friend calls it the “hero/a-hole” theory. He said in his business, a large grocery store chain, folks could be a hero one month, but mess something up and be an a-hole the next month. The good thing is that you could be a hero again the next month!
I believe that in the government space, the same theory applies. But, because of the very slow way government works, you can wear that a-hole label for a long time. You may not get fired. You may even get promoted…but, often, you’ll still keep your label.
This makes the folks in the government hodgepodge cautious to make a procurement mistake. No wonder trust is so important when trying to win a government contract. A successful government contractor must have ways to demonstrate that they’re going to be trustworthy in this unique environment.
That brings me to the point - the Power of the Referral. If you’re buying something, don’t you like it when you get opinions from people you trust? Will these opinions influence your buying decisions? Of course, they will…probably a lot. The same thing applies in the government contracting space. Buyers like to know their peers consider a vendor trustworthy. (Of course, they do.)
Even with the bureaucratic things you have to do to win contracts from the huge monster of government, referrals still matter. The circles of folks are small, they know each other and they talk. Holy Moly, they talk. If you do something viewed as untrustworthy, the word will spread fast, despite the size of the government beast.
I like to tell the story of a young support person on a sales team I managed. The time came for him to try accounts of his own. He was pretty excited when I gave him a large western city to handle. Several people from the company had tried to win a contract with the city…and, no one could… including me. I figured it would be a good experience for him, but I didn’t expect him to make the sale.
Before he headed west, he set up appointments with our customers in the smaller cities in the area. One day around lunchtime, he called me and said, “Rick, I may have goofed up”. He said, “I had a good meeting this morning with one of our customers, helped them work through some issues and told him that I had an appointment with the big city that afternoon. I asked him if he wanted to go with me. I was kinda joking; I didn’t think he would do it…but he said yes. Now, what? Did I really screw up?”
I was silent for a moment. I could tell he was nervous about the silence. I finally said, “That was brilliant; make sure he gets there. Even if the customer talks about his issues with us, this shows me initiative, bravery and risk-taking on your part. And, I bet the big city will be impressed. I can’t wait to hear how this works out for you. I’m proud.” Needless to say, it was among the first of his many wins.
Referrals are powerful…particularly in the government space.
To be successful in government sales, become a… Master of Referrals!
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