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Blog: Don't confuse users with customers

posted Washington Business Journal, 1 Jul 2014


By Ray Bjorklund, President, BirchGrove Consulting


Users. Customers. The two terms sound interchangeable, but they aren't. And the distinctions matter.


With few exceptions, a user in a federal agency must turn to his corresponding customer procurement system in order to get services or products purchased — not unlike your corporate supply chain. Except that, unlike being a corporate executive, being a federal executive doesn't normally entitle you to signatory authority for contracts.


In the federal government, the contracting officer or specialist with the warrant-on–the-wall is the one who can sign. That person is the key official in the customer organization, the one who has ultimate authority and accountability for engaging the government in a contract. The user whose requirements are also to be satisfied may be in a totally different organization.


Case in point: for a recent VA technology requirement, the user organization was in Philadelphia and the customer (buying organization) was in Eatontown, New Jersey, with some of the financial and technical shots being called from here in Washington.


Why should you care about these semantic differences? Contractors who confuse these two roles may miss an occasion to make the procurement process work more smoothly. A savvy contractor knows how to meet each government party in the supply chain on their own respective terms — technical, purchasing, timelines, or financial.


Factors like risk aversion, an overflowing inbox, unpredictable funding streams, evolving security threats, and counterbalancing responsibilities interact in ways that create tensions between users and customers working on the same government acquisition projects. Arguments happen. Communication wires cross. You hear white noise or witness strategic flip-flops.


Today it's a full-and-open competition; tomorrow it's a small business set-aside. Fixed price suddenly trumps reimbursement. Definitive-contract procurements are canceled with no explanation, only to surprisingly be later reincarnated as a GSA Schedule purchase.


Contractors should do their homework to make the most of their role in (legally) helping the supply chain along.


Identify the customer organization and, better yet, the contracting officer's name. Knowing the responsibilities, workload, skills, and experience of the customer is an opportunity for the seller to facilitate the process. Knowing what types of contracts, what types of socioeconomic preferences, and what types of purchasing methods are typically used by the customer (and the named contracting officer) means you can fine-tune your position in the supply chain.


On the other hand, knowing something about the user or class of users should be more obvious. What users want, what they need over time, and how much influence they have over the budgeting and funding processes are important elements of the supply chain.


Recognize that users deal with frustrations of short budgets, long investment review processes, and a federal procurement system that often bewilders them. Many strong program managers become frustrated with contracting officers in the customer organization who are perceived as non-responsive.


Contracting officers, slogging through their workload within the constraints of their authority, can get equally frustrated. Many times they perceive the requirements handed to them are inarticulate and too unstable, or that requested acquisition strategies clash with procurement processes.


Who is on the winning side, the customer or the user? As a contractor, you'd be at risk to take sides. But you need to be aware of the potential for flare-ups and understand why they might be happening. Then try to put yourself in the shoes of the parties to the dispute. Help to resolve it to move your procurement along.


If you're chasing a business opportunity, you don't want agency-internal squabbles to plug up your revenue stream. Do your homework so you can sort out the differences between customer and user.


©2014 Washington Business Journal. Used by permission.