Marketing to the government is very different than marketing to commercial customers. With most commercial customers, you can wine, dine, and entertain them. Not so with the government. If you do, there are two outcomes: government personnel will either start avoiding you outright because they will know that you don’t know how to work with the government, or they might be corrupt and accept your gifts—and when that gets out in the open, you will lose your job, and your company will lose government business in a big scandal. It’s simply not worth it.
You have to know and abide by the rules. Government employees cannot solicit or accept gifts from any entity that does or seeks business with the government. A gift is any item with a monetary value, except for very modest items of food and refreshments, greeting cards, or plaques and certificates. There is a small exception: all gifts given in a year must not exceed a total of $50 in value from your entire company, and no single gift can be worth more than $20. You can give a personal gift to a govie if they were your relative before business-related contact was established, for example, but you cannot be reimbursed by the company.
If you go to lunch, it should be at a place where your government contact is able to pay for lunch out of his or her salary, which is probably lower than yours. Govies will normally offer money to you for their portion of the food, which you should not refuse. When they visit you at your facility and you offer food to them, put a donation jar there so that they can contribute a symbolic amount of money—otherwise they might have to do a tremendous amount of paperwork.
If you offer a discount to a government employee, make sure that it does not discriminate against other government employees. In other words, once you give a discount to one government employee, you have to give it to others as well. You can offer free training to the govie if it can be considered a “widely attended gathering.”
So, as you can see, there is much to learn in the world of interfacing with the government and building customer relationships—but it is not as complicated as one might think.
The government will meet with you, but you have to start early—at least a year ahead of the RFP—to prepare in style. You can do many things in capture as a last-minute crunch, but building relationships is not one of them.