Case Study: PMs Need Sales Skills

In a previous assignment, I was assigned as a program manager to coordinate a massive proposal for a major account to update their systems and OEM computers using us instead of a competitor. We gathered lots of information from the customer engineering manager about technical requirements, including custom modifications that would be necessary.

Normally, our company was not interested in developing custom solutions, since we were a hardware vendor selling off-the-shelf systems. The size of this deal, however, made us take notice. To further promote that interest, I arranged interviews with the division general manager, manufacturing manager, and headquarters sales manager. I brought the field district manager, sales representative, and systems engineer into the factory to personally meet with these key managers. These person-to-person meetings ensured that everybody knew what was happening and that we could go ahead with the proposal, knowing in advance that all managers who would have to approve it were supportive.

The requirements were challenging, so we worked as a team to develop a solution. We summarized our understanding of the requirements, and then covered the technical aspects, support, qualifications, company commitment, and pricing. I brought in an editor to proofread the long proposal. A graphic artist created a cover page and presentation slides highlighting a half-dozen key aspects of the proposal. I drafted a letter that the CEO signed, expressing executive commitment to the deal. I also crafted a script for the presentation and briefed the group general manager (later to become the company CEO), who would join us in the presentation. We booked the corporate jet for our journey to the customer site.

I advised the sales rep to call on the customer general manager, who in essence would be the economic buyer, in addition to the technical recommenders with whom he regularly meets. This is an application of “selling at all levels.” I suggested the meeting to mitigate the possible risk that the general manager would be surprised or ill-informed about a large appropriation request coming across his desk. But the meeting I suggested did not happen; the sales rep received comments from the engineering departments that their inputs were sufficient. However, this is rarely the case. The meeting should have happened. We may have also gotten better information about the market and the customers’ future business.

All participants did an excellent job in presenting the proposal. They appeared as an integrated, well-coordinated team. The group general manager was especially effective, reinforcing the highlighted script along with adding personal touches—for example, saying, “I come with the full commitment of the CEO and my own to working with you as a partner.” The customer reaction was “You blew our socks off!” since the proposal far exceeded their expectations.

This experience underscored for me the importance of orchestrating a thorough involvement of all key players in a sales process. Meeting face-to-face, sharing possibilities and enthusiasm, and demonstrating how a solution would work were important factors. I have since used this process many times and codified the steps in an action sheet. It works every time!

As a coda to this story, our company did not get this business, simply because the customer experienced a deep downturn in its business right about that time and had to cancel its upgrade plans. We also realized that, both in this example and in general, there comes a time to stop selling.

Not all efforts, even those backed by best intentions and execution, turn out successful. But the process was still regarded as a superb effort and successful project. I wrote a letter to the approximately 80 stakeholders who participated and thanked them for their contributions. We had succeeded as an organization in how we applied sales best practices and learning for all involved in a large program.

Lessons Learned

A key challenge facing many project, program, and portfolio managers is selling the value of their services and processes. Learning and embracing tenets of the sales process is necessary. Follow a selling process that facilitates relationship-building with buyers. In any new endeavor or purchase, buyers want to be “sold.” Buying is usually an emotional response, followed by rational reasoning to justify the decision. Building relationships is crucial to this process. Treat all stakeholders as potential buyers of your services. Be dedicated to serving customers, and present to customers what they really need. Probe for issues through carefully crafted, open-ended questions. Speak in their language. Sell to all levels in an organization, taking a holistic approach to the challenge. View objections as opportunities to “win the sale”; when buyers object, they are engaged and sharing what they really need.

Integrating these skills into your toolkit make you a more complete project manager.

Randy Englund, Englund Project Management Consultancy,

Co-author, The Complete Project Manager: Integrating People, Organizational, and Technical Skills and The Complete Project Manager’s Toolkit


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