Private and public sector clients are very different beasts, here is what you need to know about winning work with the latter

douglas proud

It is to be welcomed that the construction industry is being placed front and centre by the UK government in its plan to “build, build, build” its way out of the covid-19-triggered economic crisis. But will contractors and consultancies that currently operate in the commercial arena be able to share in the bonanza?

Small and medium sized firms (SMEs) that have operated by the maxim of “do a good job and the work will find you” may find themselves chasing public sector contracts for the first time.

The public sector market is large and multifaceted. There are nearly 350 local authorities in England alone. Almost all tender opportunities are published via online portals such as Contracts Finder which are free to subscribe to. It is therefore easy to get stuck into filling in the forms and pricing the projects. However, for new market entrants this is rarely a recipe for success.

New entrants to the public sector will need to get to grips with areas of concern for public sector clients such as sustainability, diversity and social value

Suppliers with the right experience and that are more than capable of doing a great job, but which dismiss the tendering process as a bureaucratic chore, are missing the point. Promises between buyer and supplier on delivery, quality and added value that are often understood implicitly in the commercial sector must be made explicitly.

Public sector buyers are only allowed to score what is provided to them by the supplier. The best strategy is always to answer the question in front of you. Third party certification such as ISO accreditations, safety certificates, awards and client endorsement all reduce the risk factor for the buyer.

However, winning high-value and complex work requires more than good exam technique. Any new entrant must be able to answer the question “why should we appoint you to this framework or project?”. To do so suppliers need to identify, select and target potential customers and work to understand the tasks they undertake and outcomes they need, their current pains and how you can deliver added value. New entrants to the public sector will need to get to grips with areas of concern for public sector clients which may be less prevalent for commercial clients such as sustainability, KPIs, diversity and social value.

Public sector buyers live in a world that excludes the classic route to getting to know clients on the golf course or at the stadium, but they do welcome engagement with new suppliers. Especially if you are shaping your products or service specifically for them and can offer some insight or innovation that is relevant to them. However, once a tender notice is published it is far too late.

Let us be clear. Working for public sector clients can be challenging. It requires patience and the will to overcome bureaucracy. Profit levels will unlikely match those in the private sector. Public sector clients have demands in areas such as training and social value and they expect you to deliver on your promises. You may well find that project timescales are longer and management time required greater.

But the work they do is important, they do pay their bills and they may be the only show in town. At least for a while.

Donald Proud is the Managing Director of Caslocke Consult