Sandra Walls is President and CEO of AIL Logistics Solutions, a multimillion-dollar, Memphis-based, service-disabled veteran-, woman- and minority-owned company that provides diverse logistics and technical support solutions to government and commercial clients. A retired Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force, Ms. Walls joined the company after serving 22 years on active duty as a logistics officer, managing supply and fuels accounts while making military history everywhere she commanded. She offers a real-world perspective on government contracting based on leveraging her military experience and built on doing what it takes to excel.
In Part 2 of this series, Ms. Wall addresses specific contracting processes and challenges.
Q: What are some misconceptions that many have about government contracting and doing business with the government as a whole?
The most common one I get from people is, “I hear the government does not pay you.” That has never been my experience. Ever. I don’t know who these people are dealing with, because under the “Prompt Payment Act” within the Federal Acquisition Regulation, the federal government is mandated to pay contractors in 30 days. If they are late paying you, they have to pay interest. So it’s in their best interest to pay you on time. They may be late for whatever reason, but that has not been my experience. Some of this is just flat-out fear, because some folks see all of the technical requirements, all of the paperwork, just a large bureaucracy, and they don’t want to deal with it – they’re afraid of it. I tell them don’t be afraid of it. Just go through one or two, and you’ll find that it’s going to become easier.
Q: What challenges are involved in responding to a solicitation?
Initially, the paperwork requirements may be frightening, but once you get into it and understand all the different sections, you get used to it and it’s not as hard. Certain parts of a solicitation never change. For instance, you have to declare your socio-economic certifications, whether you’re woman-owned, minority, service-disabled veteran, in a HUB zone, all of the above. Those are blocks that you check, and some of it is automated and online, so a contracting officer can look up that information or you can submit it with your proposal. The biggest challenge is responding to the technical piece, normally in Section C – the Statement of Work. That’s where you have to really “answer the mail” – tell them how you’re going to go about doing the job. What processes are you going to put into place to make the system work, or how will you improve their processes or enhance their bottom line. Whatever they ask you to do or provide, do it. If you don’t provide the information requested, you may get kicked out.
Q: Do you have a proposal writing team to handle that work? If so, do you recommend that approach?
We’re not large enough to have that kind of dedicated proposal writing team. Depending on the size of the contract, you can find people who make a living putting together proposals, but, in my experience, it’s an expensive undertaking for a small business. As we’ve evolved, we’ve applied that concept internally. We may assign a proposal manager to be responsible for the proposal, to capture the data from different possible areas and then consolidate it into a document that everyone reviews and plays a part in preparing. Also, now that I have a dedicated person on the government side of the business, he’s helping to pull together proposals and he loves to do it, so that’s brought a lot of value as we’ve grown. And, there are some agencies, like SCORE through the Small Business Administration, that will provide support, but they don’t write the proposal for you. They can provide some guidelines, help direct you, but for the most part, you have to wing it. You learn from experience.
Q: Unless you win a contract, how do you know if your proposals are on-target?
One of the cool things with federal contracts is something I haven’t seen on the commercial side: Contract officers are required by law to give you a debrief, offering feedback on how you did. Some things they are not privy to tell you. But their assessment can help you do better in terms of improving the quality of your proposals and help you better prepare for the next one.
Q: How difficult is to obtain security clearance for contracts that have security requirements?
The Federal Acquisition Regulation (FAR) requires a DD Form 254 to be incorporated in every classified contract. It specifies the security requirements and the classification guidance necessary for the contractor (or a subcontractor) to perform on a classified contract. So, under the contract, the contractor has to roll down a DD Form 254, and you can submit credentials for your clearance if you don’t already have a facility clearance or the appropriate clearance for that contract. What I’m finding now – unlike before – is that a lot of government agencies will want you to already have a clearance. You can get it as a subcontractor, if you come under a prime contractor who can roll down the DD 254 requirements, and you can start the process to get the clearance. But, if you don’t have a contract, you’re not going to get the clearance.
Q: How factoring can strengthen your government business:
Systematically, a 30-day mandate may, in practice, extend the payment cycle to 45-plus days. Consider the process of creating invoices internally; submitting them through various government systems, such as Wide Area Work Flow; the approval process; and EFT payment delays. Companies that seek government business need the ability to scale up and down with contract availability, which is why receivables factoring works so well for contractors. It supports ample cash flow that aligns with the accrued timing of your expenses.