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, use and abuse small buinesses, or 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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