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updated: 1/16/2012 9:47 AM

Public sector can be worthwhile sales target

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Whether you think your Uncle Sam is a left-leaning wacko or a right-tilting nut, you might want to get to know your favorite Washington, D.C., relative a little better: The federal government can be an important source of sales for many small businesses.

So, in fact, can state and local governments.

Even better: There are free programs in place -- Procurement Technical Assistance Centers, or PTACs -- to help small businesses connect with government buyers.

The sales cycle can be long -- 12-18 months, says Michelle Pearson, president of Providentia Consulting and Management Inc., a Naperville financial and real estate advisory firm whose main client is the U.S. Air Force -- and you will have to follow the government's processes, but "Government always spends," says Marc Violante. "You simply have to understand how to look at the public sector."

Violante is director of the Illinois PTAC at College of Lake County, Grayslake.

Understanding the marketplace becomes easier after conversations with Violante and Rita Haake, Illinois PTAC manager at College of DuPage, Lisle. Selling to the government "is so different from selling in the commercial marketplace," Haake says. "You have to commit the time to learn the system. Otherwise, you'll be like a hamster on the wheel -- going round and round."

One way to at least slow the wheel is PTAC's computerized bid match package. With your input, Haake, for example, will enter keywords describing your business into the system. The computer makes daily searches and, when there is a match between your keywords and what a federal buyer seeks, emails the good news to you.

Then your work really begins. "I had to write a proposal," Pearson recalls. "Rita advised me on what the (RFP) actually was looking for, what's important to the government.

"She doesn't do the work for you, but she advises and reviews." That's important because, Pearson says, "If the information you provide is not complete, your response will get lost or slowed down."

The process is laborious enough. For Maria Nasharr, a contract employee seeking government business for, the branded unit of Chicago-based U.S. Compliance Center, Inc., navigating the paperwork gauntlet "was like a nine-month pregnancy." But the company, she says, has had some success: An order from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security-Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Now SafetyChix, which features industrial safety-related products, is working on fulfilling the requirements to be GSA listed, pretty much akin to a preferred vendor status in the private sector.

There is more to the government market than the feds. Violante, for example, is quick to encourage local businesses to look at potential opportunities at county, and park district and other municipal entities. With a new and apparently reliable vendor payment program, even the state is a possibility.

• Jim Kendall welcomes comments at

2012 121 Marketing Resources Inc.

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