Think governments buy technology like businesses? Think again.

Think governments buy technology like businesses? Think again.

Governments are the best technology customers to have.  When they jump into a technology, they go all in.  They tend to buy entire systems rather than single pieces of hardware and software, usually because they want to control every piece of the data chain.  While the trend in government procurement is certainly toward more commercial off the shelf technology, policy and regulatory requirements will always bring government customers in for a certain degree of customization – all of which boosts the bottom line.

Governments are also the worst technology customers to have.  The sales cycle for governments can be long – companies need a strong war chest to survive the hemorrhage of cash which comes with waiting for an uncertain payoff.  Building a government opportunity is more than a process – it is a slog.  Planting the seed of an idea, developing requirements with stakeholders, building top-level support, requesting and justifying budgets, and surviving a competitive procurement process can take several years of hard work and patient engagement.

Unfortunately, most companies tend to fall flat on their faces when they try to engage with governments and sell them on technology.  The main reason for this is they treat governments like a business – one with standard decision-making chains which purchase and use technology in standard ways.

Yet for all the talk of “reinventing government” and making government operate “more like the private sector”, government is still very different from your average business.  There is a specific culture of government which requires a unique form of sales behavior in order to be successful.  Here are a few tips for navigating a government sale:

Start at the mid-level

Salespeople have an obsession with C-level decision-makers, and rightly so.  Yet in the government, the top level people are almost always political or concerned solely with policy.  Many sign off on budgets in theory, but have no actual power to guide technology or purchasing decisions.  In fact, it’s often illegal for them to be involved in procurement at all.  That’s why you want someone several rungs down on the totem pole – a savvy bureaucrat who prepares the decision-maker’s budget and has direct connections to the field.

State your purpose

Most government people have no connection to procurement, and have an abiding suspicion of anyone who does.  There’s no worse thing for this kind of functionary than to find out midway through a meeting that it’s a sales call.  Cloaking your true aim in the guise of a “friendly discussion about your needs” or “talk about the challenges you face” just delays the inevitable rejection of someone with no monetary authority.  Government people won’t waste your time – if they aren’t part of the sales cycle, they’ll tell you.  But they have to know that you’re a sales person first.

Respect budgets

The golden age of government spending is long gone.  The small government era has taken its toll on budgets, and the last five years have been particularly difficult.  In this environment, technology spending is almost never done on a whim. Be prepared to justify the value of a technology investment, and consider the case that your champion will have to make against competing line items, which may include staffing and programming.

Play the long game

Business relationships are built quickly.  Government relationships are measured in budget cycles, program years, and political terms.  Priorities change over time, and often just being available with the right kind of technology can be enough when a shift occurs.  For all its slowness, the government can move with lightning speed when a scandal breaks or policymakers scramble to react to a hot issue.  Establishing that long game can pay dividends in government, often when you least expect it.