After serving ten years on active duty in the US Navy, Government Contracting Academy founder, Randy Wimmer, transitioned into the perfect billable contractor job. He had a great team to work with and a highly competent customer. Despite feeling like he was only doing about 20 hours of work in a 40-hour workweek, the government thought very highly of him. Why? Because he quickly learned what it took to be a successful contractor. During this job, he learned the three Contractor Commandments that helped him thrive in the Federal Government contracting industry.
First, give the customer exactly what they want—not necessarily what you think they need. If they just happen to want what you think they need, then that’s great. However, to be a successful contractor, it is not necessary to agree with their vision, methods, or requirements. They are the customer and ultimately responsible for the mission. If they want things a certain way, just give it to them that way. Consider this. If you worked at a diner and a patron ordered the liver and onion platter, would you refuse them service because you prefer the meatloaf special?
Again, you don’t have to agree with them or accomplish their mission for them. You only have to make them happy. Randy had a simple saying that he frequently told his team. “Check your ego at the office door. Everything we do must be about the customer.” Please note that he didn’t say “the customer’s mission.” It’s never a good thing when you start to think you know better than your customer, even when you might.
Second, match your customer’s pace. If you’re supporting a caffeine-fueled workaholic, then you better buckle-in and start working at a hundred miles an hour! However, in most cases, there is a certain pace that government employees follow. Truthfully, it usually falls somewhere between comfortable and boredom. Some of it is mandated by law, instruction, or procedure. The Federal Government is not a profit center but a provider of governance, goods, and services to the public. The leader of the Free World can’t afford to be hasty and wrong too many times, so it follows the philosophy that it is better to be slow and right. In simple words, don’t over-fill your customer’s inbox.
Finally, never go native. Over time, some contractors forget to treat their customers for what they are, their customers. They start to feel like they are “an equal” to a government employee and a vital cog in the watch work. It’s easy to do, working side-by-side every day. Let’s revisit our diner example. Your role as a contractor is not always like a diner where the customer orders a cup of coffee, and you serve it to them. In the Federal Government market space, sometimes your paying customer is the one making the coffee, and you’re helping them operate the coffee pot to serve the patron, or taxpayer.
Although both government employees and contractors frequently espouse that they enjoy a partnership, they are not partners. Your government client can fire you with a second’s notice because they are the customer, and the customer is never wrong—even when they are. Bluntly stated, you are not partners or peers or team members with the government. When you’re with a customer, any customer, they are the most important people in the room.
The previous, somewhat harsh statement is no different than any other business—customer relationship, regardless of industry. However, as a contractor, you are frequently so integrated with the Federal Government workforce that professional lines may be easily blurred. Federal Government contracting has its own mindset, culture and set of rules. Yet, like any business, you are simply making your customers happy.