In October 2014, ICF International received something increasingly rare in the federal marketplace—a contract for a new government program.
The contract with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, Administration for Children and Families, Children’s Bureau (CB) will establish the National Capacity Building Center for Public Child Welfare Agencies (the Center). The contract has a value of $78 million and a term of one base and four option years. The Center will provide nationally informed, expert consultation and deliver a comprehensive array of training and technical assistance services designed to build the capacities of these agencies in order to meet federal requirements, successfully implement national child welfare policies and programs, and improve practice and service delivery.
Specifically, ICF will assist CB by providing individualized consultation to more than 52 jurisdictions; conducting up to 35 intensive capacity-building projects to support program improvement and title IV-E waiver demonstration implementation; executing national dissemination strategies for Center publications, curricula, tools and resources; and designing and delivering multiple comprehensive learning programs.
FedPulse had the opportunity to speak with Barbara Rudin, Sr. VP and Group Leader of the Health, Education and Social Programs Group about how the company positioned itself to win this new contract, and how they are navigating an ever-changing federal contracting landscape.
FedPulse: With so few new programs being awarded, what was your approach to positioning ICF to win this one?
In this particular instance, the agency combined 10 separate grants into one single contract to make management more efficient and realize economies of scale. While this is a new contract, ICF has been in the agency for 20 years. With our in-depth knowledge of the customer, we understood what they wanted to achieve and were able to respond to that need.
In general, I think a critical part of positioning yourself for new opportunities is by being a trusted advisor. That’s one of the challenges any contractor has when going into a new agency—it is hard for the agency to replace that institutional knowledge and insight. Your track record matters.
FedPulse: Part of being a trusted advisor is about nurturing your customer relationships. Are you doing anything new or different around that than a few years ago?
We have always been intentional about understanding what is it that clients are asking for. Whether it’s during the delivery of a contract or when we are responding to an RFP, we are constantly drilling down to what our customers really want. While this has always been a key element of nurturing our customer relationships, we are more focused on it now than we were in the past.
We also take every opportunity to create efficiency and show innovation for cost savings while still carrying out the specific functions required in the contract. Our customers appreciate this, and it builds trust.
FedPulse: In addition to nurturing your current customers, are there any tactics you can share when reaching out to the federal market?
In the federal market, you are looking at a very long sales cycle. So it is important to get in early and stay in front of customers and prospects. We are using the tools that many contractors are using—social media, webinars, speaking at conferences. These tools continue to be critical in reaching our market. We use them to position ourselves as thought leaders in specific areas. Being seen as a thought leader not only strengthens the trusted advisor position, it builds our reputation. Everything we do is about nurturing relationships, building trust, and listening to what our market wants.
FedPulse: Budgetary pressure continues to influence procurement practices, buying decisions and the access we have to government customers. How have these budgetary pressures impacted how you market to your federal customers?
Budget pressures affect everyone. In my career, I have seen a huge change in how to win work. Today, it is about being entrenched in an agency. As a result, there is more importance on keeping the contracts we have. You really have to look at the opportunity costs of pursuing new work where you have no track record, and whether it’s worth using scarce resources.
Budget pressures have also been an impetus to be more intentional about the work we bid on. In addition to focusing on recompetes, we are also evaluating the cost benefit of bidding on certain opportunities. We have contracts from $10k to $189M. That is a huge range. And it takes almost the same effort to bid on a small contract as on a big one, yet the small contracts create much less revenue. I am constantly challenging my team to critically evaluate the bid decision.
There are many great small contracts, but budgetary realities and procurement practices make bidding on all of them unfeasible for us at this time. Instead, we focus on using our business development resources as wisely as possible.
FedPulse: Do you have any advice you can share about winning recompetes?
I don’t think the steps to winning recompetes are very surprising; you just have to do them.
- Become trusted advisor
- Listen to what the clients want
- Don’t fall into incumbent-itis
By incumbent-itis I mean that no matter how entrenched you are in the agency and how much they want you, you still need to pay attention to what they are asking for and respond to that. Follow the road map the agency gives you. Winning a recompete is no longer a given; you need to approach it with the same enthusiasm as a new opportunity.
FedPulse: Anything else to add?
I think the biggest mistake contractors make is that we don’t listen to our customers. We are the experts and know what to do, so we don’t hear their needs. That needs to change, especially as winning recompetes gets more difficult.
Part of listening is knowing when to be ready to act. Where innovation is happening, you have to be positioned to step in as soon as client is ready, but without investing in something your customers don’t want. (FedPulse: see this post on convergence for an example of this topic.)
The federal marketplace continues to change. Successful contractors adapt to that change.
We would like to thank Barbara for taking the time to speak with FedPulse. To learn more about this new contract win, click here.