How to sell to the U.S. government

Written by Michelle Kelly

The U.S. government is easily the world’s largest customer, doling out an estimated $500 billion in business each year. And there’s nothing stopping Canadian companies from taking a slice of the American pie, says Judy Bradt, the principal at Summit Insight, a Washington, D.C.-based consultancy that advises Canadian small and medium-sized businesses on how to sell to the U.S. government. “A qualified vendor is always welcome in the States,” says Bradt. “The government here will pick you if you’re offering them the best deal and if the rules permit.”

  • Make sure you have the right experience. Does your company already export to the U.S.? To sell to the U.S. government, getting the necessary goods and people across the border should already “be like breathing,” warns Bradt. It’s also helpful to have already worked with Canadian governments at the federal or provincial level, which will clue you in to the way governments spend their money.
  • Know who’s gonna love ya. The website publicizes federal government procurement opportunities worth more than $25,000. Go there to sign up for an electronic opportunities bulletin by clicking on “Business Opportunities” and then “Vendors Notification Service” in the left-hand margin. In addition, many government agencies publish forecasts, from which you can find out how much they plan to spend and on what. Individual departmental and agency websites often give out this information for free. For example, the Department of Homeland Security’s budget can be found here. The Department of Health and Human Services has a similar page here. Becoming familiar with these forecasts will help you pitch to the people who are going to be most interested in your product.
  • Beat “Buy American” initiatives: While some contract agents are patriotic or even bound by laws requiring them to source products and services from American suppliers, there are ways to level the playing field. For a lot of common goods and services, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) can render your offer just as acceptable as a homegrown counterpart. Bradt encourages Canadian exporters to become familiar with the Act and learn how to use it advantageously. “Rules are not obstacles,” she says. “The rules are tools, so play them like a symphony orchestra.” Remember, if someone wants your product badly enough, they’ll get it.

    Showing sensitivity is also important in these tense times for the U.S. “Expect to find strong patriotism among U.S. government employees,” advises Bradt, “so think about how you’ll participate in a conversation with people who may have attitudes you don’t agree with.” She also says it can’t hurt to come armed with a few handy facts on Canadian troops’ deployment, for example. Information on our participation in rebuilding Afghanistan can be found here.

  • Partner up: Chapter 10 of NAFTA stipulates that the U.S. federal government must reserve 23% of its contracts for American small businesses. Although that isn’t helpful to most Canadians (for a Canadian company to qualify as an American small business it must comply to a whole list of standards, most involving significant American involvement in production and distribution), it introduces new opportunities to partner with other businesses. If a small U.S. company wins a big government contract, it may need help to fulfill it — help that you can offer. Partnering can not only bring in more business, it can also breed contacts and further opportunities down the road. Bradt adds that “people do business with people they know, like, and trust,” and suggests that even a well-planned business trip can take you a long way. Assistance with this kind of “visit planning” is offered by Canada’s trade commissioners in the U.S.
  • Go local: Don’t ignore opportunities at the state and local levels, but be aware that they are not always subject to the same rules as the Feds. Again, it pays to do your homework. While state governments generally are not bound by NAFTA to consider Canadian businesses on a level playing field, there are exceptions. Contracts negotiated at the federal level will stand if they are filtered to the state. Bradt says that last year in the IT sector alone, for example, $33 million worth of contracts negotiated federally — where NAFTA applies — were implemented in kind at the state level.

    Also be aware that guidelines vary from state to state. Some states — particularly those that border Canada — are more familiar with our country, and partnering with them may lead to better business relationships. As Bradt points out, strong relationships formed at the state level are often an excellent springboard from which to dive into the federal pool.

  • Hone your contacts: Every government department has a website. Comb through it and become an expert, then head to the department itself to press the flesh. Don’t know exactly who to approach? Check the Federal Yellow Book. “If I could only afford one resource and I was trying to make the contacts to win me business, this would be the one I’d pick,” says Bradt. It’s not free — a one-year first-time subscription will run you US$356 — but it will save you a great deal of sleuthing. (To learn more, visit
  • Go to the hill: The Canadian government wants you to succeed and has set up a website to help you do just that. This site, administered through the Department of Foreign Affairs and International Trade, contains all the information you’ll need to make a run at the market and also offers links to other useful sites for more information. Also check out the Canadian Commercial Corp. at It’s a Crown Corporation that will help you tailor your pitch and navigate the pathways of international business, albeit for a fee.

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© 2004 Michelle Kelly

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