Contractors and Procurement Officials: Customer Service Is A Two Way Street

There seems to be a development that is coming more and more to the forefront: the case of the out-of-control Contracting Officer (KO).

There are usually two paths to interactions with a KO, one being the KO who is overwhelmed with the workload, doing the best they can to handle it, and simply have very little interactions with the contractors. Further, these KOs are very professional, and want to help and guide businesses to be successful, especially small businesses.

This path I would say is the vast majority of the 1102s, and the environment that most contractors work in. That is to say that contract execution, and subsequent performance or contract issues, result in interactions mostly with Contracting Officer’s Representative (COR), and the Program Manager (PM). If you are dealing with the KO, you have some serious problems.

However, there seems to be encroachment in federal acquisition, and government contracting in general, of the second path of KOs, those who act as KO, COR, PM, judge, jury, and executioner. These KOs take advantage of their power over the contractors, and are the first to threaten termination when issues arise in performance, both actual and perceived.

I started a discussion on GovLoop about this topic, but it was something that perhaps no one wants to discuss. Certainly the manifestation of inexperience and subsequent performance issues by 1102s was covered recently in the Washington Post, but talking truth to power and holding those in power accountable can always be difficult, especially with vindictive acquisition personnel.

It should not, and does not, have to be this way. For every conversation I have with a small business colleague on a great relationship with a client, there seems to be another where a company is being crucified for one cent on an invoice, then being threatened with poor past performance and possible termination. What has gone wrong?

I think the pressure cooker that is being an 1102 is creating an environment where those in the trenches are being left to their own devices, without proper leadership, guidance, and direction. Since training on being a business advisor, negotiating, customer service, or understanding how businesses function is effectively non-existent, bad habits develop. Left unchecked, these bad apples rotten the organization, and it seems like more and more rot is advancing. Further, those bad habits get exacerbated by firms that get bullied and intimated, and enable this behavior because they fear being retaliated against through options that get dangled like weapons, or through adverse past performance.

Something has to give.

The mission has to come first, and the “gotcha” attitudes simply help create more problems for performance by both parties. Many contracts call for monthly meetings with stakeholders to discuss issues, and these platforms should be productive ways to help resolve problems, and help create trust and attitudes that enable an environment to work like partners, not adversaries.

It has been alarming at the rate of complaints by small businesses to small business advocates at federal agencies of maltreatment by procurement personnel, and the rise of protests is also a manifestation of these negative and mistrustful attitudes.

Of course, some companies deserve what they get when they under bid work, don’t perform, undermine small business “partners,” and simply use the government as an ATM.

However, contracts are expected to provide exceptional service for the taxpayer’s investment. That is a given, and understood. Nonetheless, that goal is a two-way street, and requires both parties to act in the best interest of the taxpayer.

Can’t we all just get along?

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Jaime Gracia

Leadership, training, and a better relationship with the small business advocates. Many of these KOs either ignore the rules, or simply don’t know them, because the culture has metastasized and they get away with it. Further, industry does not want to “rock the boat,” so they allow it!

Let me be clear that I am not trying to paint all KOs this way. Most of them, like I said, represent the government in the best way possible. Nonetheless, inexperience and poor leadership seem to be allowing a larger segment of the rotten apples to make things difficult in trying to execute a contract.

Chris Hamm

When trying to understand individual or organizational behavior, I find it most useful to consider the operational environment and stimuli. Clearly, acquisition professionals did not start out their careers to be mean spirited, heavy handed, or non responsive. Something over time reinforces that behavior. Most likely, it stems from risk aversion. Training is part of the answer, but addressing the other signals is also necessary. You can’t just teach a CO customer service, you need to foster an environment that permits open interaction with vendors and does not punish the CO for innovation and risk taking.

I know it is frustrating to be on the other side. 1102 behavior is hard to understand with seeing it in operations. It would definitely be healthy to see a re-emergence of the exchange programs proposed earlier.

David Dejewski

I’ve known a few power hungry KO’s, but only a few. Most are busy and frustrated. They’re dealing with being late to the party (the government doesn’t invite them early enough in the process), government clients doing a terrible job with requirements and scope, contracts taking too long to get awarded, and business development people peeping around like little chicks with their mouths open, waiting for a meal. Sounds to me like you have a KO who’s reaction was to make a splash with total control. That can’t last long.

As a government COR for many years, this KO would probably frustrate me too. They can’t be everywhere at the same time. That’s why they have COR’s – to monitor contract performance and share in management responsibilities. It’s always better, in my opinion, to have more than one set of eyes look at a problem – especially if punitive action is being considered. They do have final authority, but it’s a rare KO who acts alone.

From the government side of things, a private conversation is in order. If that doesn’t satisfy, then bringing in others from the KO shop (i.e. chain of command) may be warranted.

Unfortunately, industry is rarely up for this sort of boat rocking. Typically, they will either quietly finish out their engagement and try for another KO, or go full tilt and lodge a complaint. Contesting a contract action is hugely unpopular and tends to draw attention from other KO’s in the office.

As a business development guy working for a contractor (before I was government), we used to have several KO’s lined up (we had relationships with them). Whenever possible, we would “guide” our government client POC towards our favorite KO’s to process the paperwork. At one time, we would even use other regions to process our contracts – simply because we knew who was easy to work with and who wasn’t.

Jaime Gracia

My first question to the business executive who was in this situation was to verify what actions he was doing, and of course his response was you mention David, nothing. He did not want to have a reputation for being a trouble maker, so limping along until the end of the contract was the strategy.

What about the next small business that comes along and suffers the same fate at the hands of this dysfunctional organization? That is what the small business advocates are for, to help guide the situation as a type of “mediator.”

It is always best to have options about personnel like you say David, especially at the Director level so you know the players and can hopefully influence who you work with at the KO or contract specialist level. Sometimes you get who you get, and it is rolling the dice.

Very frustrating on both sides, no doubt.

David Dejewski

Few small businesses have a “fight” programmed into their budget (time or money). If a business executive gets a reputation (deserved or otherwise) for being a trouble maker, lost opportunity costs can be significant. In my experience, they barely have enough margin to be taking care of their own fate, let alone the fate of other small businesses down the line.

You mention the “small business advocate,” Jamie. Is this someone from the SBA you’re speaking of or someone else? This isn’t familiar to me. I assume others might also like to know more.

Jaime Gracia

Small business advocates are positions at all agencies, whose responsibilities are to ensure competition, and that small businesses are successful in performing and executing contracts at their respective agencies.

They are a platform for small businesses to find assistance at agencies, when they are unsuccessful through the normal channels of communications with their respective clients and contracting personnel. They should be a tool to help fight back and help get relief, but again, it warrants possible negative consequences.