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The Bottom Line: Acquisition Tied in a Gordian Knot

February 15, 2012
By Maryann Lawlor, SIGNAL Connections
E-mail About the Author

An interesting conversation on the AFCEA LinkedIn Group illustrates how complicated government procurement has become. Problem, solution—buyer, seller—would seem simple enough. But reality is quite different. The buyers have many rules to follow and many different revenue schedules not to mention that the problems that technology can solve are moving targets. The sellers, on the other hand, have revenue goals to meet, products that solve part but not all of the moving-target problems and a need to walk that fine line between explaining solutions in techno-speak and marketing-speak.

The LinkedIn conversation began with an article that Benjamin Dunay shared titled “Marketing to the Military—Why Your Technical Sales Pitch Shouldn’t Be,” which appeared on Sixthree Technology Marketing LLC. The company contends that defense industry sales endeavors boil down to translating technical terms into nontechnical language that buyers can understand. The goal is making buyers want the value of a product rather than providing technical specifications a buyer may not understand.

The first response to the post came from Charles Kaszap, a Canadian with 34 years of engineering and procurement experience in the military and civilian sectors. Although he agreed with the premise of the article, he pointed out that the buyer-to-seller relationship is not as simple as going from point A to point B. “Political masters will try to find a ways to allow the military to buy what it NEEDS but will rarely agree to what it WANTS. Big difference,” the president of KasLal Consulting Services Incorporated, Ottawa, Canada, stated.

John O’Sullivan, who spent 30 years in the U.S. Air Force and is a former superintendent of schools, contended that few vendors take the time to identify the buyers’ needs. “I can say that 99 percent [of the companies] had not researched my needs. They simply had a product or idea, it was great and I should need it. It is completely true that politicians do their very best to push their concept/constituents’ needs at my military and often jam it through in legislation. Almost every time, it was not what we needed,” he wrote.

Dunay admitted that both of these conversation participants make good points but stood by the original advice. “There’s a gap in understanding of military needs by the vendors and vendor product markets by the military, and it’s because the acquisition rules make it very difficult to achieve any real degree of market transparency,” he said.

“If a company can meet a military need, but it doesn’t know how to articulate that fact to the military buyer in value-based terms, then both sides are left worse off and the acquisition system isn’t working … The most successful defense seller should not be the one who is best at understanding defense acquisition! It should be the one who has the best and most-needed military products. Understand the commander’s needs and present your technology in a way that meets his needs in terms he understands and that articulate value to him as a military commander—not just in technical specs, but in real, no-kidding, ‘This is how it helps you achieve your mission, Sir/Ma'am,’” he added.

Tom Murphy, region manager, Signamax Incorporated, agreed that initial sales engineering presentations should be kept to an overview of benefits in layman’s terms and said that’s one reason his company is trying new media, including YouTube, for demonstrations.

An independent contractor supporting the U.S. Navy introduced yet another issue the government marketplace entails: budget cycle. Tying a product to a requirement and getting it into the budget is the key to a successful sale. “Many sales expectations center on getting the sale within the same fiscal year. The reality is that the government acquisition cycle is 24 months … Purchases today are based on a budget that was submitted 24 months ago,” he pointed out.

The bottom line is conversations like this have been taking place in Pentagon halls, at conferences and during sales meetings for years. Everyone agrees that acquisition in the government sector is a puzzle with hundreds of pieces that are not forming one picture. Explaining a technical solution in plain language is common-sense marketing. But much-needed acquisition reform is about more than conversations and marketing approaches. Someone has to step up and take the lead.

This one conversation in the AFCEA LinkedIn group is an example of how a single topic has many facets. Join the AFCEA LinkedIn group, but more importantly, participate in the conversations. Make your voices heard.