By Greg Hayes, Managing Director, IIZUKA Software Technologies Ltd
It’s often been said that it’s difficult for SMEs to sell their goods and services to Government. The process is said to take too much time and resource, with lots of red tape and cumbersome procurement processes. It’s no wonder that many small businesses focus on selling to other SMEs.
But what is the situation really like? As an SME with a number of national and local Government customers, we’ve seen the changes brought in to improve procurement practices with the aim of meeting the Government target of procuring one third of goods and services from SMEs by 2020. As a result, we’ve got some ideas about what constitutes best practice, on both sides.
There’s no doubt that Government departments are working hard to improve engagement with SMEs, but, in our experience, the results to date have been mixed.
For an SME, responding to a tender is a time-consuming process, which requires input from senior staff. As a supplier of cloud-based software, we’re often competing against major players like Microsoft and BAE, with huge bid teams and significant resources; these suppliers can afford to spend time on bids which may or may not be successful. Due to our limited resources, we have to decide carefully which contracts we’re going to bid for, so the more information we get up front, the better.
That’s why we’re big fans of pre-contract engagement.
Done well, it allows suppliers and procurers to find out whether they’re a good fit, in terms of their product or services and also their culture and working style. Building excellent client relationships is crucial for a business like ours, which provides a product and an on-going support service and being able to meet face to face with a potential customer at a supplier day, or pre-tender meeting is a vital first step in that process.
A briefing from the Government department, setting out exactly what they’re looking for, followed by an opportunity to meet on a one-to-one basis to ask questions and share knowledge is, in our view, best practice for pre-contract engagement.
For the procuring department, a supplier’s briefing day provides an opportunity to find out what’s out there in the marketplace. They might also pick up information which will help to extend or refine their requirements. This can save a lot of time and money further down the line!
If, having attended the briefing event, a business realises that particular opportunity is not for them, then they’ve only lost a few days’ work in preparing for and attending the event, as opposed to weeks of input for a full tender. If, however, they feel it’s a great fit, then it provides knowledge and confidence to put in a great tender.
We’ve recently won significant business from departments following this process. We knew from our early engagement that we met, or exceeded their expectations, which gave us the confidence to bid for the business. The Government teams knew that we had the product, expertise and customer service focus to provide an excellent product and service.
As a supplier of cloud-based software, we’re now part of G-cloud, the new digital portal through which Government departments procure cloud-based services.
There’s no doubt that this has made it easier to supply Government departments. We provide our details, setting out information about our product, pricing, service standards and quality and security standards. Government departments looking to procure software can search the G-cloud using keywords based on their requirements to find businesses which can supply the product they need.
This means that departments can pre-qualify potential suppliers and then engage with those who best meet their needs. For us, it means that we’re getting more enquiries – and that those enquiries are generally for a service which we know we can provide.
It’s a win-win for both parties and a great step forward for Government procurement.
There’s another area we feel very strongly about – the importance of SMEs demonstrating that they’re ready to work with Government.
SMEs need to realise what Government departments need and be prepared to show that they meet the required standards and have the expertise required.
For us, working in IT, this means being certified to ISO27001, to demonstrate that our systems and processes are secure and ISO9001 to show that we adopt high quality management principles and practices. It’s also about being accredited by CESG (now part of the National Cyber Security Centre), to show that we protect the security of our communications and data. We also have our entire system pen-tested at least twice a year.
Attaining these certifications can be a time-consuming process, but it’s a crucial one if an SME wants to work with Government.
We can also talk to potential customers about work we’ve done with other Government departments which required extremely high security standards and put them in touch with those customers if they require any further information.
We’ve worked extremely hard to build this platform to reassure Government customers and demonstrate our expertise and readiness to work with them.
So that’s our blueprint for success in working with Government in the Software sector. Engage with potential customers at every opportunity, fully avail yourself of the opportunity presented by G-cloud and be prepared to invest in (and maintain) independent quality and security accreditation.
We’d love to hear your thoughts too.