MEET THE EXPERT:
Brent Maas is NIGP’s Executive Director for Business Strategy and Relationships. He oversees the Institute’s marketing, accreditation, consulting, partnership, and other non-dues enterprise programs. Prior to joining NIGP, Brent served in marketing & sales operations for start-ups, global technology firms and the Walt Disney Company.
In order to help vendors gain insight into the world of the government buyer, we spoke to Brent Maas, Executive Director of Business Strategy & Relationships for the leading association NIGP: The Institute for Public Procurement. Maas discusses some of the challenges facing procurement agency staff as well as how suppliers can partner with them to solve problems and meet their goals.
How should vendors come across as they interact with buyers to be appropriate and helpful?
The best vendors approach specific government managers with the attitude that they must first understand the needs of the agency and can show they have an understanding about that organization’s mission and goals. They can do that when they share something valuable with that agency besides their product – their industry knowledge that speaks to a challenge or a specific issue that the agency struggles with. It’s presenting themselves as a resource with no strings attached.
Generally, established suppliers know how to approach and engage with agencies in a productive and professional manner. Still, there remain supplier representatives who will call on an agency without doing their homework or trying to understand their potential customer. “All I know is that I want the sale.” That’s not someone that a buyer would want to seek out as a trusted source of industry or product information.
Both the business development person and the agency buyer are coming together under the banner of “we’re both trying to do the right thing for the agency.Brent Maas, Executive Director for Business Strategy and Relationships, NIGP
Trust and respect go both ways, and suppliers need to extend professional respect to their potential government customers by giving them the same treatment that they’d give to their important private sector enterprise clients (who, presumably, they’d take time researching and understanding before they began interacting with them).
How do buyers avoid conflicts of interest?
Well it’s certainly true that a buyer can’t promise any future business in exchange for their industry knowledge or advice. There are some fundamental principles to follow. It basically gets down to the question, “Have you as a procurement department effectively communicated on your website about how you interact with suppliers? How opportunities are announced and awards made?” In other words, you are up front about the policies and procedures your staff will follow. Doing this sets expectations for suppliers, and lets them know there is no question that all vendors will be treated in a consistent way. This is fundamental to maintain that sense of integrity with the public, the agency and the supplier. If there are no foundations or ways to define the environment in which you will conduct business then you run the risk of losing trust and participation.
Other than supplying advice to a buyer, what else can vendors do to market themselves?
One of the best things businesses can do is participate in various supplier expos, reverse trade shows and association conferences to meet agency staff and build awareness. We’ve noticed that many mid to large size agencies will host some kind of vendor engagement event for suppliers, whether a traditional or reverse trade show. I also hear about some agencies promoting small business programs and providing sessions on the ABCs of how to do business with government. With the slow economy there seems to be a bit more interest in supporting suppliers in their community. Regardless of the type, many of these events are free if an agency sponsors it or are relatively inexpensive.
NIGP has 73 chapters nationwide that are independent entities and host their own events that suppliers can attend within their regional markets. Also, each year the NIGP Business Council, which is comprised of business leaders with a history of working with the public agencies, author a whitepaper on topics related to buyer and supplier relationships. These white papers provide excellent insights to suppliers (and buyers) looking for a better understanding of how to work with public agency procurement departments. These can be found on the NIGP.org website under whitepapers.
Can you describe the process buyers use to prepare for a new purchase?
First of all – and especially when there’s no prior experience procuring a particular product or service category, it’s important for the buyer to acknowledge when they’re ignorant on a topic and reach out to their network of potential subject matter experts. These could be people in their department, end users or outside their agency. They may also reach out to neighboring agencies for advice or talk with suppliers and peer discussion groups, if they’re a member of a professional association. Taking a network approach to learning more about product and service features, pricing and how to word the language in the solicitation, helps make sure the scope and objectives are as realistic as possible. Using RFIs prior to the RFP is another very good way for a buyer to publically and systematically collect input from the marketplace and gain a better understanding of a newer technology or tool.
If a buyer doesn’t have in-house history with a given type of purchase, they’ve got to find a way to successfully do that.Brent Maas, Executive Director for Business Strategy and Relationships, NIGP
If a buyer doesn’t have in-house history with a given type of purchase, they’ve got to find a way to successfully do that. The last thing a buyer should do is try to manage a new procurement based on limited knowledge without taking the time to access all the information that’s available. The principle holds true not just for emerging technologies but in other areas such as large scale infrastructure like a bridge refurbishment or new construction. What are those elements that contribute to a sound project overall – both in the past at their agency and at others?
The larger the procurement the riskier it is and therefore the more visibility and scrutiny buyers will face. They’ll want to do enough due diligence throughout the process, including involving suppliers. In many cases, there’s more than one way to approach a large project so they may need to look at the trade-offs and what’s worked in other situations.