Ask Joe: What Does it Take to Win in Gov Tech?

Joe Morris, vice president of research for e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company, talks about what winning looks like when selling to the public sector.

by / September 7, 2017

Editor's note: Ask Joe will be a recurring series where Joseph Morris, vice president of research for e.Republic, Government Technology's parent company, answers commonly asked questions from those working in the government technology market. The conversation has been edited for length and cohesion.

When we talk about “winning,” what do we mean?

When I think of winning, I think of two components to that. One is obviously winning deals, and winning deals often. But two is establishing meaningful relationships and a position in the market. And I think the second one eventually leads to the first one, but I think it’s those two components.

It’s a broad question, but in selling to government, what does it take to win?

Well, government’s a tough business in that it’s a large market that we’ve talked about before. It’s many different governments, many different programs, many different verticals all with very specific needs.

But there are some principles that we adhere to that we think companies in this space or companies looking to get into this space should follow. We call them the 10 laws of sales and marketing, and they’re available on the e.Republic site. They boil down to the fact that governments do business with companies they know and trust.

If you’re sitting there going, "Well how do I, as a new entrant, develop trust when I’m a new player?" there are ways to do that. That’s having a relevant point of view so you can gain traction, you’re seen as a trusted adviser, developing content. We can walk through all of those. But at the end of the day, government is still somewhat risk averse. They don’t like to be the first to do much of anything most times, so they’re looking to go with known quantities a lot of the time.

But how do you establish that? That’s why you walk through those rules. Last time we talked about the fact that government has a very defined procurement process with rules and regulations. The great thing is they make all of that available to you.

Because they make all that available to you, they expect you to know that you need to register as a vendor, that between this dollar amount and that dollar amount, this is the process. They expect you to speak their language. If you’re coming over from the commercial market, they don’t want you to be talking about profit. They want you to be talking about the relevent stuff.

So how do you become relevant to win? I think that’s doing your homework. Most governments produce a strategic IT plan. Review that strategic IT plan in that particular city, that county, that state. Look and see if there’s alignment to what you’re offering and their needs. Look at the organizational chart, understand where people sit, what their responsibilities are. Look at the content that is produced.

Not to be too self-serving, but read GT [Government Technology], read the publications that are in this space. Read the surveys that are produced. One of the pieces of advice I always give to clients is take our top 10 priorities that are produced by the Digital Cities, Counties and States surveys and line up your offerings to them. If I see the top 10 priorities for state CIOs, I want to look at that and go, "OK, I offer X, Y and Z technologies, where do they fit? Are they on that top 10 list? Great, where?" Do the same thing for cities and counties. Now I’ve got something that we know that CIOs nationally have participated in, and it has some recognition, I’ve taken the time to match up my stuff to their priorities and now I’ve got a nice piece of collateral to share with the market.

That would be some of it. I think that understanding the organizational chart, understanding who’s involved in the purchasing process in your jurisdiction allows you to do that too. It’s seldom just one person, never just the CIO. There’s a person above the CIO, a department or business person that’s involved in it too.

So, know the rules of the game before you play, because there’s an expectation. Every single executive teleconference or interview that we do, they always say they hate being asked what keeps them up at night. They hate being asked the same questions because all that information’s there in most cases. A client’s going to find a government that hasn’t improved or updated their strategic IT plan in four or five years. It’s going to happen, but a lot of time it’s there.

Talking about vendors that governments know and trust, and thinking back on the procurement process, when it’s so regimented and there’s a scoring matrix for exactly how they’re supposed to be doing this, it’s supposed to be competitive, they’re supposed to be open to all vendors — how does the knowledge and trust factor fit into that?

Well, the knowledge part, the scoring of a standard competitive procurement, you can get that process, you can get those rules beforehand. You know how you’re going to be scored, so it shouldn’t be a surprise to you. If you’re a vendor, you can get those, "OK I’m going to be scored on X, Y and Z, those are outlined in the document. Here’s where we’re going to do quite well, here’s where we’re not going to do quite so well. Oh, they’re weighting this a little bit more, so do I need to go get a partner, do I need to bring somebody in to increase my chances?" This isn’t a technical term, but is there a hometown discount … because it’s a California-based company and they’re weighting that more? All those things are known to you, so you know roughly, maybe not exactly, but these are the really important things. There is no excuse not to know them.

And what about the trust factor?

So, the trust as in government’s initial trust, or trust to go with a particular vendor?

I would imagine that part of that is, you hear about kind of a bias, if you will, or leaning toward the vendor who was already on the contract or they’ve dealt with before in another capacity.

I think it’s that they want people that are in this space to some degree, that are proven. I don’t think it’s any different to when you or I go out to get a plumber or a home contractor. Do you want it to be the first job that they’ve ever taken on? Or do you want to go onto Yelp or Angie’s List or some equivalent and determine that this person has higher reviews?

How do you get there? How do you develop that? By creating case studies, thought leadership, positioning in the market so that way it is seen that you’re in this space. Does your website even say “government” on it? Have you done past government work? If so, you want to call that out on your website or in case studies so that way if I’m a government procurement official or IT official and I’m doing my research and I stumble into your content, I want to see a bunch of city seals and state logos. I want to see that because then I go, "OK this person has a track record."

If you don’t yet have that track record, I’m also interested in non-public-sector examples, but they still have to be relevant. You have to be talking that language, so create a point of view. Demonstrate your subject matter expertise.

I also say that now it’s changing. You see … new entrants winning business in many spaces. It’s not like if you’re not here you’re never getting in. There are a lot of new companies that are coming into the gov tech space and the civic tech space that don’t have what you would consider a pedigree of established wins. But what they have is a really competitive offering and they’re speaking the right language.

That idea of subject matter expertise can play itself out in a variety of ways. That subject matter expertise could be that you have tremendous deep expertise in the area of health and human services and you’re a leader in that space. It could be that you are a phenomenal case management solution, you understand how it links up to government, but case management is what you have. It could be a variety of different things.

How would you say you bridge that gap, if you’re a subject matter specialist who doesn’t necessarily have a ton of government background? How do you provide an assurance that you can make that leap wherever there’s a gap between what you usually do with business and what you’re gonna do with government?

It will vary. I think you have to look at similar situations. Have you done a similar initiative, maybe not in government, but in size and scope in a different industry? If you’re … in health and human services, have you done it in health care? Can that experience in that other industry be leveraged, and identify the commonalities of it?

If you’ve done it in the state of California, that means you can probably do it in the state of Connecticut. If you can handle Kaiser Permanente or Blue Shield or Blue Cross, well, you can probably handle the county hospital of XYZ.

Part of it is looking for those similarities and tying that up. But whenever you do that, that content, that messaging on that website, you have to tell that story and it has to be told in the right language.

Ultimately I think that the companies that succeed the most work the hardest to develop a strong relationship with the market and/or their client. And they do that by being a trusted adviser, and that’s by providing insight, by seeing around the corner and educating their prospect, that CIO, that IT leader, about what’s coming. And that could be because they’ve got vertical expertise. They’re seeing the transportation vertical on a much higher level because they’re not putting out fires ... or they’re leveraging their past experience. That could be about a program or that could be about a technology.

Look at something emerging, like we’re starting to see it bubble up in editorial coverage, around blockchain. There’s not a ton of public-sector implementations on it, but there’s vendors out there kind of educating on it.

You were talking about speaking the right language, can you elaborate on that a little bit?

Sure. Every industry has its own nomenclature. A lot of times if you have a company come over and they’ve normally been selling to commercial or private-sector entities ... a lot of things are about profit. 

That’s not a concept in government. That’s not the right term. You’re not going to go into a K-12 school district and talk to them about profit. You’re going to talk to them about educational outcomes and how you’re going to improve their graduation rate. When you go to health and human services, it’s not going to be about cutting costs to appease shareholders. It’s going to be about how do we help people get onto these social services programs, work them through the system and improve their lives, improve their outcomes. How do we help you do that more efficiently, perhaps, to contain costs because budgets aren’t limitless? It’s just leveraging the right language.

Ben Miller Staff Writer

Ben Miller is the business beat staff writer for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.