Working with Limitations

Imagine this: your company has been selling millions of dollars in products to a well-defined niche market, basically because they search for the products online and you are the seller that comes up first. Suddenly, your company no longer comes up first, and your sales decline to a tiny trickle. Your business is essentially destroyed.

We’re not talking about a Monster Panda update here. We’re talking about how things work with government contracts. There is a central purchasing website for government offices overseen by the GSA, or General Services Administration. Companies that want to sell to the government have to register to be awarded GSA contracts, which give them the right to sell things at that website.

Shoppers — the Navy, for example, or your local VA Hospital — go to the website to shop. Typically, they’ll just search for the item they need. When they click “buy,” a seller turns up in their cart along with the product. They can, in many cases, choose a different seller. However, they probably don’t bother. It’s simpler to complete the transaction without really noticing the seller, and it doesn’t usually matter to them. They need a case of cleaning fluid and it’ll be delivered in the same way no matter who sells it, so why should they care?

According to the government, 60 percent of the more than 19,000 GSA Schedule holders never meet minimum sales requirements, so they lose their contracts. About 5 percent of the GSA Schedule contractors get 80 percent of the business. 90 percent of government purchases are made outside of GSA Schedule contracts — that is, they’re bought from some other supplier who doesn’t even have a contract. There’s a whole lot of buying going on, but very few people get in on it. For most, the trouble and expense of getting the contract is a complete waste.

You don’t have the option, as you do with Google, of optimizing your pages or your products. Sellers are listed in ascending order of price, with any special considerations (for example, being a woman-owned or veteran-owned business or having a certain minimum order) given in table form. A buyer could, with great determination, track down their favorite seller for each item they order: the company owner showed us how this could be done, and it was clear that they would really have to love the company in question to go through all that.

The government’s suggestion: “Develop an easy to navigate company website that includes your products or services, pricing, and point of contact information.” That is actually the only advice they give that isn’t about getting a contract, so it’s clear that they see the value of a good website.

We’re building an easy to navigate website for a GSA contract holder right now, and we spent a couple of hours with the owners trying to figure out the best way to link the new website with the website where sales take place. We have come up with a plan, and it seems to me to be a good example of how to work within limitations.

  • Be resourceful. It took us a while to come up with a solution, but we did it. You can’t give up easily and you have to be prepared to spend time on “what if” and “let’s try it.”
  • Be flexible. Things change. It’s easy to look at the government, or Google, or some other influential entity and blame your problems on their whimsical behavior — easy, but not useful. When things change, you have to change.
  • Be loveable. I can name at least three companies I love enough that I buy from them even though they’re not the most convenient or the cheapest, and I bet you can, too. Make it easy, make it convenient, but also do your best to show enough of what’s great about your company that people will be willing to take an extra step if they have to.

All companies have limitations. How are you approaching yours?






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