More than a decade ago I joined a start-up whose mission hinged on a simple vision: do the right thing. It would become our mantra while building every piece of the business, from sales to marketing to customer service. Our brand would center around building peace of mind; one home, one community, at a time.

At the time, I thought of the business, selling residential home warranties to homeowners through partnerships with cities, as a b2b2c business. But I came to learn that the b2b portion is more accurately b2g, business to government. The distinctions are significant.

Over the last ten years there has been a tremendous evolution in the b2b marketing space toward a more human approach to sales and marketing; at some point we realized more clearly that human beings, and not inert brick and mortar companies, made buying decisions, and the art of building a relationship through storytelling and emotional connection has blossomed. These assets lend themselves well to the b2g relationship, but there are nuances that should not be ignored. Understanding these differences, some subtle and some not-so-subtle, are vital to forging meaningful and beneficial relationships with local government officials, whether your company is large or small.

Local government officials got into government because they want to make a difference.

It’s easy to get caught up in the negative news cycle around national politics and wonder if anything can ever get done, but especially at the local level, the truth is that most government officials got into government because they saw an opportunity to be involved and do something that could make a difference. They truly care about their community and the people in it. In the midst of this pandemic, we see local government leaders taking a very active role in working to protect both the safety and long-term economic viability of their communities.

In a recent Amazing Cities podcast, my friend Jim Hunt, Managing Partner at Bearing Advisors, local government expert and author, spoke with Joe Buscaino, Los Angeles Council Member and 2020 President of the National League of Cities (NLC). Buscaino reflected on his agenda as President of the NLC, set before the COVID-19 pandemic, and now especially poignant. Said Buscaino, “I want to lead with urgency on issues that matter the most to cities, towns and villages,” which include policy on “housing, instability, homelessness and using technology to advance our cities.”

“Local government leaders want to make things better. Especially at this time, they are working hard, long hours, to find ways to help their community during this crisis. Guiding cities and States through COVID-19 and on to economic recovery will take extraordinary commitment and dedication, that’s something local government officials bring to their work every day”, said Hunt.

Local government has its own “speak”.

In the business world, we often rely on commercial speak, we are “selling a product to consumers”, and our “product is the best one the market.” But local government officials are thinking of products and services in much different, broader terms. The way they speak about them reflects that difference.

In the world of the local government official, conversations are about “serving residents in communities”, whose “quality of life can be improved through public private partnerships.” They are interested in how “vulnerable populations can be served through equitable agendas.”

To effectively engage a local government official and introduce your product or service, you have to start by speaking their language, and more importantly, be able to demonstrate how your product or service will address these types of specific concerns. It takes time to not only learn the vernacular but truly understand the motivations behind it. Investing the time positions you and your company as good community partners, vitally important in the local government space. Building this type of engagement will help you learn who in the government needs to be involved in the procurement process, an important part of navigating the local government landscape.
“Elected officials, city managers, finance directors and public works departments all work together to deliver a myriad of important services to residents, it’s important to understand everyone who needs to be involved,” said Mike Conduff, President and CEO of The Elim Group and 2019 ICMA Distinguished Service Award recipient.

Local government officials are looking for solutions.

Clarence Anthony, CEO and Executive Director of the National League of Cities (NLC) gave me a great piece of advice early in this journey: local government officials are not looking to be sold something, they are interested in solutions they can introduce to their communities to make it a better place to live. Very often, a great deal of information about a local government’s plans and priorities can be researched ahead of time by looking at their website and taking the time to “meet” local government officials where they meet; via social media channels, organizations such as the National League of Cities (NLC), the International City Managers Association (ICMA), State Municipal Leagues and their respective publications, and other publications directed toward local government. Good resources include Governing, Route Fifty, City Lab (one of my personal favorites) and the Amazing Cities podcast.

Get to know the public policy issues and agendas that are important to your particular local government official. There are likely to be greater differences in each local government’s goals than one might find across commercial verticals. For example, once I had created a piece of content that talked about freezing and thawing cycles wreaking havoc on water and sewer pipes; that content, of course, did not work well in cities in southern Florida or California. Take the time to really get to know your audience and their concerns, being especially sensitive during challenging times such as these.

When creating content to engage local government officials, I adopt the mantra, “people not products”, as a guide to ensure that the “why” of our company; our mission, our vision, is ultimately and always, about people: the people in the local communities served by the government officials we are building relationships with. A company’s narrative should be telling their stories and demonstrating the value they received; in what ways have the solutions we provided benefited them? Our customers – the local government official and the residents they serve - are the hero of the story.

Doing business with local governments is not about selling a product, it’s about being a good community partner who provides solutions to help improve community life. Being thoughtful about how your company can contribute will help you build meaningful and beneficial relationships with local government officials.