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Contractors that carve out a lucrative niche in the public construction arena might chalk it up to being able to provide a quality product, having minority or small business status, or keeping within a budget that will satisfy the owner.
They’re not wrong. However, there is something else that factors into that equation -- the ability for contractors to develop and maintain sound, productive relationships with the public agencies that dole out the work.
Make contact early
“It’s never too soon” to make connections with public agency officials, said Kim Pearman-Gillman, business development director at Seattle-based McKinstry, which provides consulting, construction, energy and facility services. “You have to be way in front on the relationship side.”
Once a local project is announced, she said, it’s usually too late to develop the kind of rapport that will let the agency’s staff or voting members know if the contractor is one that they’ll feel comfortable doing business with.
Becoming familiar with the complexities of city, county and other development authorities, Pearman-Gillman said, could take years, but that timeline is in step with many public agencies that are required to develop their capital plans several years in advance. Contractors that take the time to build relationships early on, she said, have the opportunity to let potential public partners know what kind of unique value proposition they can offer.
And sometimes nothing is a satisfactory replacement for face time. Instead of emails or phone calls, said Jonathan Moore, who is with construction and project management firm InVision Advisors in Tampa, Florida, there is an intrinsic value in making a visit to the public agency’s office before there are any projects being bid out. “Tell them, ‘I want to introduce myself. I’m not asking for anything,’” he said.
This can be a refreshing change for department heads and other staff members who go into meetings prepared for someone to ask a favor or make a sales pitch on behalf of his or her company. “It pays off,” Moore said.
Even when participating in federally funded projects, the decision makers — or those who can help make contact with the decision makers — are often local officials, so contractors should bear that in mind as well.
There are all sorts of networking events, including those sponsored by the Small Business Administration. Lourdes Martin-Rosa, president of Government Business Solutions, said the reason these events can give contractors a leg up on the competition is because small business specialists, which many public agencies use to help promote local participation, sometimes don’t have a list of qualified companies to contact.
These small business specialists exist at nearly every federal agency, she said, and they are often under pressure to procure work from local businesses, particularly if they meet minority or disadvantaged status.
Federal agencies, Martin-Rosa added, must come up with procurement forecasts, similar to local capital agendas, one or two years in advance of work they expect to launch in that time period.
“Contact them and let them know you have the capabilities early on,” she said. “They’re you’re advocates. They’re fighting for you.”
But, of course, there is always the low-bid scenario that gives contractors a chance to do work for a new agency. Even then, however, the ability to communicate effectively and win over those who will be administering the contract is critical.
Local contractors have an edge in winning certain types of projects, Pearman-Gillman said, but sometimes it’s necessary for out-of-the-area contractors to have expertise not readily available. Those companies, however, must also devote time to getting a good read of the procurement landscape and figure out what’s important to the community and its leaders if they want to earn trust.
Maintaining a good working relationship
Once a contractor has won a public project, good communication skills and being able to deal with a wide range of personalities are essential for maintaining a productive working relationship.
Moore said contractors need to learn to swallow their pride when dealing with those they perceive as difficult customers, particularly within the public arena. “You’re not going to change government officials,” he said.
Instead of butting heads, Moore said, both parties need to steer the discussion towards a fix. If the contractor and owner can agree that they both want to finish the project well, he said, any differences are petty at that point. The only question left is how do they put their personalities aside and work for the common interest of the project.
“It’s incumbent upon us to figure it out,” Pearman-Gillman said, adding, “If you know that client because you spent the time to understand them, you’ll have a good sense of who on your team will resonate with them.”
Communication skills can be tested further if the public agency responsible for awarding or overseeing projects has limited construction experience. While some are comprised of full-time members and staff, smaller municipalities might have part-time board members who rely on consultants or staff to see the project through to fruition.
Sometimes it’s all about patience, Moore said. “Explain it to them in a way they can understand."
“Arm them with information,” Martin-Rosa said, “but you want to bring it up in a conversational way.” Coming across as know-it-alls won’t get contractors very far.
Martin-Rosa said contractors pursuing federal work need to know that there is a shrinking acquisition workforce in the federal government, and there could be knowledge and experience gaps in some agencies. “Although incoming people get trained,” she said, “it’s not the same as someone who’s been there for 30 years."
In these scenarios, Rosa-Martin said, contractors have the opportunity to become partners – trusted sources of information – and take the relationship to a higher level.
Perhaps the best way to maintain a good relationship with a public agency, though, is to execute well on the project — building it as expected without problems like failed inspections or safety issues.
“They have to know you have their back,” Moore said. “We work hard at making them understand we’re not trying to pull a fast one or [trying] to get rich on misleading them."
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