John Foley, president and chief financial officer (CFO) for Data Systems Analysts (DSA), recently spoke with ArchIntel to discuss how the company has integrated competitive intelligence (CI) and price-to-win methodologies to secure bids and draft proposals.
In addition, Foley reviewed how DSA has crafted an ideal CI team and the ethical implications of research and proprietary information.
“Great minds in CI don’t need to be an extrovert or an introvert, but preferably someone who embraces analytics. They’ll engage with the capture teams, operations, human resources, finance, and truly try to understand how programs operate. That is the perfect profile of your competitive intelligence person.”
ArchIntel: How does DSA compete for contracts using competitive intelligence?
“Recently, we’ve won spots on significant indefinite delivery/indefinite quantity (IDIQ) contract vehicles. Until three years ago, our main contract vehicle was DISA’s Encore II. As we’ve expanded our ability to pursue new task orders, we’ve also needed to enhance our competitive intelligence.
When you are competing, you need to know your competitors and customer trends. There’s a lot of information available in our market, but there is also an art to distilling what is relevant for each program.
The primary goal is to discover what the customer is looking for and find out if they are truly driving towards best value or not. A lot of the competitive intelligence “art” comes from experience as well. With the experience, you can see around corners better and get a feel if the analytics are right, along with sensing the price/tech trade-offs customers that you have to grapple with.
The other CI vectors or patterns to keep in mind are the Contracting Office, the contract vehicles and the relative complexity of the request for proposals (RFP). A simple RFP opens the door to more bidders. Therefore, drives more competitive pricing. For competitive intelligence, part of this is understanding if and how you can find a between solution than your competition.”
ArchIntel: How do you target your energy with contracts and deciding which bids are worthwhile and how do you compete against larger businesses?
“I’ve found that deciding on potential bids breaks down into knowing the landscape and how you fit within that landscape. Tier 1 and 2 companies usually have large proposal teams augmented by CI organizations dedicated to that function. They know how to analyze and reverse engineer available information and can closely monitor frequent competitors. That’s a major advantage.
However, the CI teams may become too distant from true operational knowledge and their processes may become too robotic. Tier 1 and 2 companies can also become complacent about maximizing their technical score, which can lead to price premiums a customer may not be willing to pay.
In smaller companies, they usually do not have the resources for dedicated CI teams. However, people making pricing decisions are often closer to the pipeline and each capture effort. By the time decisions come to gate reviews, upper management has a great sense of where we are with the offering and our price/tech trade-off.
Another major component to tactically achieve the pricing target is the organization’s ability to tailor their indirect rate structure. Salaries tend to be similar in the government services market, As a result, indirects can make all the difference. For large companies, the pricing teams’ value can be determined by their ability to maneuver through the organization’s disclosure statement.
In addition, large companies usually set pricing parameters and approval levels around contract type, size and profitability. Teams may avoid going below profit minimums and then attempt to drive cost down to achieve a price target.
That can damage their technical score. Smaller companies can avoid this dynamic and can achieve similar price points without sacrificing damaging cost cuts, to a degree.”
ArchIntel: What are the major lessons that you learned within and about competitive intelligence?
“My ‘aha’ moment in developing an effective price, one that meets the price target. An effective price target is one that wins while enabling optimizes the overall value proposition. – beyond the numbers.
The obvious, optimal scenario for a company is a superior value proposition that enables higher prices. That rarely happens, especially in IT services. In fact, it usually bends to the other end of that spectrum. There are 100’s, if not 1000’s of companies that can claim similar capabilities. The price always matters.
Another important component is setting up the organization to succeed after they’ve been awarded. It is very difficult to maintain aggressive pricing positions if your team cannot deliver. Delivering for your customer is paramount. When I was at a Tier 1 company, I often changed the level of our pricing aggressiveness depending on which division was bidding due to the confidence level that division can deliver.
It can be a disaster if you bid too low, win and then fail to deliver. Red programs usually start red. The ability to execute at low prices has to be part of your thinking when you’re bidding low prices.”
ArchIntel: What are some of the challenges you’ve faced with integrating new technology?
“There are a lot of disruptive forces from technology within the industry, however, up until recently, technology enhancements have been coming from our customer requirements and not necessarily from industry business models. This could change as ML/AI seeps into back office operations.
Many companies in this industry usually have very similar structures and systems. This may change soon, but for now, there has not been a disruptive business model that other industries have experienced.”
ArchIntel: How do you build a competitive intelligence team and find advantageous analysts?
“Ideally the team should start with foundational characteristics regarding diversity and ethics. From there you should also constitute the team with a range of thinking and background; a mix of backgrounds being operations, business development, finance, engineering, etc.
Ultimately, analysts need to have mastery of the data and the ability to bridge data gaps as they often deal with assumptions and holes with strict deadlines. Confidence and the ability to explain the analysis is also necessary to ensure capture team, executive, and CI dialog is effective.
In my experience, individuals with operations background, augmented with either financial and/or business development experience are ideal. Additionally, they all should have an inquisitive nature and a passion for winning.”
ArchIntel: What have been some of the more unique ethical challenges that you’ve seen over your career?
“DSA recently deployed ‘The DSA Way’ made up of 36 fundamentals. We focus on one of them every week. This past week’s meeting was called, ‘Act with Integrity.’ Recently, I conducted an all-hands meeting and discussed what to do if you mistakenly come across another company’s proprietary information.
What do you do with that? Without hesitation, do not share the information and engage your contracts/legal team. Do the right thing. This happens from time-to-time in our industry and it’s never worth compromising your ethics for short-term success.
If you’re in a gray area, always lean towards the ethical response. Always. This industry needs to be built on ethics. You can scuttle a company quickly with something unethical. As time has progressed, I’ve encountered less ethical challenges, especially when you’re talking to other teammates and other companies.
The government contracting sector tends to be highly ethical and, in that sense, it’s a great industry to be a part of and there’s a lot of pride in that. At DSA, we’ve had one program in different forms and the same customer since the 1960’s.
Ethics pays off, and if you’re unethical, you’re not going to be able to participate for long. Most companies won’t work with you. Obviously, customers won’t want to work with you either. Above all else, act with integrity and deliver on your promises.
If you make a mistake, admit it and fix it. From time to time, not every program is going to run perfectly. If you encounter problems, take it upon yourself to fix it. Those can actually become shining moments.”