Joel Koerber, vice president of Price to Win and Competitive Analysis at ICF, recently spoke with Archintel regarding the evolving sector of competitive intelligence (CI) and how standards and expectations have continued to change as the division grows, including ethical decisions, pricing and how CI within the government contracting sphere is unique.
“Competitive intelligence to me is about helping both the technical side and informing the pricing side. I look at it as putting a puzzle together by providing actionable information. Competitive intelligence can be part of the tip of the spear figuring out how to best determine what resources are needed and where to allocate them.”
Archintel: What are the most common problems that you have from clients?
“I think competitive intelligence is starting to create a niche for itself, and is helping firms have better use of their resources. For example, if there are two projects that are competing for resources, competitive intelligence can help firms figure out which one has the best probability of a win.
Especially today with firms trying to do more with less, competitive intelligence has a big role in helping them figure out which resources to allocate to which projects. In the federal space, it’s pretty well-defined about what can be discussed and when. When there’s a request for proposal out, all communication by law has to stop.
Up until the request for proposal (RFP) comes out, if they’re willing to take a meeting with you, it’s a matter of trying to figure out what they’re willing to share. Then, you have to try to figure out who amongst the potential clients is willing to help.”
ArchIntel: What makes competitive intelligence collection in the government contracting sector unique and how do you gain trust in the field?
“GovCon, I would split into two groups: civilian and the Department of Defense (DoD). It’s definitely easier within the federal civilian sector because there are less classified materials. The Department of Education (DoE) isn’t worried about trying to build missiles to take out satellites.
On the federal civilian side, there’s a lot more information to trove through, more firms bragging about what they’re doing and clients are more willing to talk. Additionally, there’s more information on federal websites. We go through the public domains, like LinkedIn and similar sites while we’re trying to piece together pictures of the puzzle.
On the DoD side, it’s definitely tougher and more relationship-based. You gain information through word of mouth. Within the DoD, there are people retiring that have relationships with the captain who has a relationship with the Lieutenant Colonel. In that situation, trying to leverage that relationship to figure out what’s needed can present difficulties. That side is definitely more focused on relationships and people.
In terms of trust and credibility, those are aspects that definitely take time. I’ve helped it grow. I’ve helped win work. I’ve established a reputation of being helpful and trying to solve problems, and I think that trust comes with time. That’s all there is to it.
Early on, I was viewed as the enemy because I was seen as somebody trying to prove you, or the program manager, wrong. Once you can shift that dynamic to where you get them to believe that you’re trying to help, you can build your reputation. There are several things you can do along the way to do that, and that can be an immediate shift.
Not so much as a shift to trust, but at least they will be willing to listen to an alternative point of view. I think what it comes down to is getting people to believe in that alternative viewpoint of the way things might be perceived.”
ArchIntel: How does data influence competitive intelligence in the sector and have you faced struggles with privacy and sharing information?
“It’s helpful, but it’s not the end all be all. One of the things that is out there that can balance all of the available information is the federal procurement data system. The system tracks all federal government contracts. You can see the contracts awarded, any extensions and if a company is running or not. That type of information is very helpful.
You can also whiff the contract in the federal space, depending on what type it is, from a price from a pricing-to-win, price-to-succeed, strategic pricing standpoint and run analytics on the award amount that a company might have, which can help influence the decision.
That’s where I think technology has been groundbreaking in competitive intelligence. A couple of years ago, you were still literally mailing Freedom of Information Act requests to the government. Now, you can do it online. There are firms that gather information for you so you can search their database. The amount of information that’s out there now and searchable is wonderful.
Regarding the challenges, if you’re trying to do things the right way, you’re not looking for private information. You’re not going to those places to try and find or hack into it. I think there are sources available that, if you’re willing to spend the time looking, you can find the pieces of the puzzle the right way.
It just takes time. Glassdoor is a great resource, but you have to be willing to go through 10 or 15 search pages of information to try to find the data you can use. When you do, you’ll know it to be a great thing.”
ArchIntel: How has competitive intelligence technology advanced the most in recent years and how has the measurement of success shifted?
“Definitely searchable content. In particular, Google searches. Everything is on Google. There are also some databases that can help with specific artifacts of projects. Govwin is a subscription-based service and they’re helpful as well.
However, I personally get more information out of trying, outside of specific contract information. I just spend time going through a company’s website and their publicly available information. Companies, when they are successful, like to brag about it. So if they’re bragging about something, and it’s useful for what I’m looking for, that is also very helpful.
We use that information to be successful ourselves and we gauge that success based on our wins. If we win, fantastic, but the biggest challenge we have with what we do is that we’re never, ever right. What I mean is we can give them a solid picture of what a firm might do, and we could be successful, but it is a game of close misses.
If we win, and score 99 out of 100, and we thought we were going to score 95 out of 100 based on our analysis, that means we left you know 2 million dollars on the table. On the flip side, it opens up a whole different set of questions if we lose. Then we have to ask ourselves, ‘Is there something we could have provided more of or something that we missed?’”
ArchIntel: How do you conduct successful price points in evaluations while remaining competitive?
“For a long time, price-to-win has kind of had a bad rep where it was: ‘What’s the lowest possible price we can provide to win?’ I flipped that on its head about 10 years ago and asked why we were racing to the bottom? I knew that given the way the RFP is written, what we know about the competitive landscape, knowing what they’re asking for and the actual pricing component of the RFP, I asked, ‘What’s the highest possible price we can charge?’
That is what I’ve made a career out of ever since, and sometimes, high is still low. There’s a firm that will be very low and you have to be close to them in price, and that can be uncomfortable.
Before, a federal government RFP could have a couple different sections where they specifically tell you how they will evaluate your technical proposal.
Typically, they will ask about your past performance. Your all-star people, what type of pricing it will be and how you’re going to provide for the RFP. One of those things can be more important than others.
For pricing, the RFP will ask if it is going to be time-and-materials, firm-fixed-price, etc., as well as the relationship between technical and price come together in the minds of the evaluators. The challenge of trying to figure out the balance is where the third realm comes together of what’s our price and how we can kind of interchange the two. Everything is unique. Everything is specific.
When you compete with other firms’ pricing, you have to ask how to mitigate that? Does it matter right now? In the past, there have been firms that have gone super low to buy work as an attempt to build up their pipeline of work to look attractive for an acquisition.
It’s not until after the deal is done, that the firm that bought them realizes the contracts are all awful and they can’t perform at it. You just need to try and search and find them and figure out what it means to you and your specific situation.”