How to develop your sales skills for project success
Managing Partner, BUCERO PM Consulting
If you want to be successful as a project manager, or to make a positive impact on your projects, you need to develop your sales skills. Your success will depend on your ability to influence your project stakeholders positively. Some years ago when I (Bucero) worked for a multinational company, my manager said to me, “You don't have sales skills. You will not ever be able to sell any project at all. You are too good and in a world of wolves you cannot be a lamb.” As the years passed, I observed my business results, and I learned that many of my project sales were done indirectly, meaning I am selling when I am delivering a project. I am also selling when consulting within an organization. My only lament is, how much more effective could I have been if I had consciously embraced the sales process?
When dealing with external clients or customers, we are always on display. Customers look for professional behavior as one measure of credibility. They observe project managers almost all the time—looking for professional conduct, reactions and behaviors, how decisions are made, and the way they deal with people. They also look to these people as trusted advisors—people whose opinions they seek out when making decisions.
Globally within organizations, creating awareness of project management's true potential and value at a strategic level increasingly involves selling project management as a core, necessary discipline. Project management professionals do not exist in a vacuum; they work in organizations, and they need to convince their managers about the value of project management. This means selling project management to make others aware of the benefits not only for a particular project but within the entire business context. Depending on the maturity level, organizations react differently to project management initiatives. Project management has greatly evolved over the last decade. Starting a PMI chapter in your part of the world helps create project management awareness, but in and of itself creating a local PMI chapter is not enough to advance the profession. We have found that one of the keys to gaining project management acceptance is to spend time explaining the meaning of project management to executives (Graham & Englund, 2004). However, these people are not always available and ready to listen to you.
Sales Skills the Complete Project Manager Needs to Develop
We believe that the first skill is to learn to sell your value and experience. Projects are led by people. So customers identify and appreciate or refuse their providers depending on the people who are leading the project. Selling yourself is related to self-image, credibility, practicing integrity and authenticity, speaking the truth, and knowing the customers and their organizations very well. These things take time and effort, so plan to put in that effort.
I was part of an international team at Hewlett-Packard. That group implemented project management offices worldwide inside the organization. The program manager made an extraordinary effort, explaining to the management team how the project added value to project team members, to the organization and to customers, and provided visible signs of management commitment, competent team support, and improved project and organizational performance. The key to getting upper management support at this point (selling the project) was showing how the PMO (Project Management Office) solved current problems and provided immense business impact. A complete business case was presented to executives in “management speaks.”
The PMO stakeholders were the managers of the businesses and solutions that influence both end users and upper managers. Through a stakeholder analysis, I could determine how different individuals influence decisions throughout the project. This kind of analysis helped me understand the levels of concern and authority of the management team—and how those behaviors or patterns influence the delivery of results by project managers.
A short term business orientation is not compatible with a project-oriented business approach. Projects need to be planned and implemented; project managers need to be trained, mentored and coached; projects need sponsors. At HP I sold the need to upper managers to be trained in sponsorship. I was able to demonstrate that, although the project sponsors were not active members of the team, they were a resource that served as motivator and barrier-buster. Most upper managers believe project management is something tactical and relevant to project managers only. I spent significant time delivering short talks and workshops speaking the language that upper management understands—talking about profit, strategy, goals, and how to get better.
Every activity benefits from careful planning. Planning is important to salespeople because they are the people who connect directly with customers, and their success or failure largely depends upon their sales skills. Therefore, a sales planning structure needs to be prepared carefully. Project managers experience this process when they collaborate closely with sales people during early stages of customer project life cycles. We highly recommend that complete project managers get involved early in selling cycles. Their presence brings subject matter expertise, credibility, and commitment to the table. They can also ward off ill-advised projects, and they get advance notice of upcoming project requirements. One may never know exactly when the sales process begins, so it is critical to recognize that sales happen at any time and to be prepared to shift into a sales mentality at a moment's notice.
A sample structure for call planning includes a series of steps. Each step needs to be achieved first; after that move to the next step:
- Set appointment for a meeting
- Set meeting with decision maker
- Set meeting to present proposal
- Secure the order
- Determine future business opportunities
Mastering the sales planning process unlocks more sales potential quicker than any other process. Become skilled at a well-defined sales process that you can follow and learn from. Know also that a good sales process mirrors the pattern by which customers make buying decisions.
Questions are the number one tool salespeople have for engaging the prospect, building rapport, discovering needs, agreeing on those needs, controlling the conversation, and managing the entire sell cycle. The best sales questions start with “what,” “why,” “how,” and are open-ended. They encourage customers to talk about issues they are facing. This gives the salesperson clues to ask deeper questions—questions about specific customer needs he/she can meet. Poor questioning skills lead to resistance in the form of objections later in the sale cycle and do not facilitate relationship building or company differentiation.
The Best Sales Questions to Ask
Questions help customers make their first key buying decision, which is whether to “buy” the salesperson. Questions build rapport and demonstrate interest in the customer. They uncover customer needs: who to call on, the decision-making time frame, competition, and how the customer will make the decision. As you ask open-ended questions to investigate customer needs, you will come upon some needs that seem to have a particular urgency. Whenever you suspect this is the case, ask a leverage question to confirm your hunch and clarify the situation.
- “How has this problem affected you and your company?”
- “What are the consequences if this problem continues?”
- “How are your customers affected?”
These types of questions encourage customers to talk about the gut issues they are facing. By clarifying what is really at stake with a business problem or opportunity, leverage questions increase the customer's desire for a solution. And they let the salesperson know how to present a product as the right solution to the right issues. If you want to be positioned as the best or only solution for your customer, ask the “Best” questions. They will view you as a consultant with their best interests in mind.
Features, Benefits and Advantages
The classic sales approach, applicable to almost any environment, is to cover features, benefits, and advantages. Seek compelling wording and arguments, not just a high score on the “jargon meter.” If you know not what the customer (or stakeholder) most cares about, you may need to describe all features of your product or solution. A better approach is to focus on what the customer truly cares about. Provide details, a prototype, or a demonstration so the customer clearly understands what the key features are. An example is: “This Project Management Office (PMO) addresses a key deficiency in the organization by providing a complete document management and retrieval system.”
Describe the benefits that accrue after these features are implemented, for example: “This system relieves in-field consultants from time-consuming, low value-added activities, provides increased quality assurance within the project delivery process through access to most up-to-date documents, and serves as a breeding ground for knowledge sharing.” Project how these benefits provide a competitive advantage for the organization, for example: “Implementing this system means our customers will be served by the latest technology with error free documentation, leading to more repeat business, and field consultants can spend more time addressing both existing and new customer requirements and turning them into sales.”
Steps in the selling process include:
- Use management-speak (when talking with upper managers)
- Clear identification of the problem
- Present compelling argument how features will produce benefits
- Cover the advantages of this approach
- Prompt and listen for feedback
- Close and get the order
Dealing with Objections
Many people dread the inevitable moment when clients, customers, or executives raise questions or concerns about the proposed project. In reality, the opposite ought to be true. These objections are wonderful gifts given to you. Now you know what it takes to win the sale or get a commitment. Without this valuable information, you have to keep pitching all features, hoping something captures interest. Objections open the door to win the sale—all you have to do is address them.
I was part of a team from a multinational firm preparing a project proposal for a telecom company in Spain. We worked on the proposal for two weeks, based on the RFP given by the customer. Some of the information was not clear enough for me, but salespeople from the seller organization did not allow us to meet the customer in order to clarify it. So we prepared our project proposal approach focused on our RFP understanding. Then we sent our proposal to the customer and he invited us to defend our proposal. When we started the presentation our customer started to make some objections. At the beginning we tried to reinforce our points to win the proposal, but some minutes later we understood that we were lucky because we discovered that we misunderstood some key things that would be crucial for project success. The customer's objections made us ask them more concrete questions, and we finally decided to rewrite our project proposal. Make it a point to ask for questions and issues about the proposal. Listen carefully, and ask clarifying questions to understand what is at the core of each issue. Address these objections with full honesty if you have an answer. If the issue needs additional work or research, state what process you will use to address the issue. Then make a mutual commitment for a future time when you can engage in further dialogue. The process at work here is to turn “negative” perceptions into “features” through innovative responses that support both personal and organizational integrity as providers of solutions.
For many salespeople and potential customers, sales presentations are nothing more than data dumps. Talking too much, presenting too soon, and just “winging it” on sales calls has grim consequences: lost momentum, stalls and objections, lost sales, extended sell cycles, margin erosion, and no clear path to improvement. Bottom line: an entire sales career can be mediocre at best without a clear road map to follow that sets up the sales presentation at the right time—when the customer wants to hear it.
I would like to share with you some reminders regarding how to prepare a great sales presentation. Obviously each case needs to be customized. So pay attention to the following:
- Be informed: Before preparing any presentation for one person or thousands, know your purpose (inform, persuade, entertain, sell), know your audience well (demographics, attitudes, hot buttons, background), and know your logistics (time allotment, number of people in the audience, time of day for presentation, room arrangements, room type).
- Pay attention to timing: A good practice in our experience for a straight presentation is to plan, prepare and practice for 75% of the allotted time. If you end early, no one complains. Ending late means poor planning. If you expect some involvement from the audience, plan on 40% of the time and 25% for interaction.
- Be based on audience interest: All presentation material is not created equal. When preparing your talk, consider the “must know, should know, and could know.” Our best practice is to limit the material based on time or audience interest.
- Use your passion: Using your enthusiasm will create more impact and action than pure data. Include stories, analogies, metaphors, and previous experiences to reinforce the key points.
- Prepare user friendly notes: Use bulleted points instead of sentences. Make the type easy to read (minimum 18 point type, boldface), only use the top of the page to avoid looking down.
- Rehearse your presentation: Practice saying it differently each time you rehearse out loud. It is worth the effort.
- Be excited: No coach tells the team to be calm. Transform the adrenaline into enthusiasm. You can control the physical nervous by breathing from the diaphragm, positive visualization, and self-talk, plus by being prepared and practiced.
- Deliver your presentation with excellence: Deliver with passion. It is amazing how positive provoking enthusiasm is. If your voice is expressive and your gestures animated you will appear to be passionate and confident. Questions and answers: The question and answers part of the presentation may be more important than the actual presentation. Think ahead to all possible questions that might be asked, particularly the ones that might throw you. Paraphrase the questions before answering them, and take into account the motivation of the questioner. When answering questions look at all audience members; they may have had the same question. Avoid complimenting some questions and not others. Treat all questions and questioners with respect.
- Excellence: Remember that speaking is an audience-centered sport. Avoid speaking out of ego, appearing too cocky or unprepared. As long as you stay focused on the audience in preparation, delivery, and during the questions and answers, you need to be successful as a presenter. In our experience, practicing those tips was very helpful. Another best practice after delivering your presentation would be to analyze “what was good, what was not so good, what should be improved for your next presentation”.
The principle mission of the salesperson is to gain commitment. That is the reason why companies value the work that we do. To get successful in this skill, at the beginning, determine the objectives for every sales call. When all features, benefits, advantages, questions, and objections have been covered, get closure and ask for the order. Ask for explicit commitments to a course of action by all key stakeholders. Get them to nod their heads in public or sign a contract. Many presentations, proposals, or sales calls fail to produce desired outcomes simply for a lack of closure. This is not a time to be timid. Follow-through is important. Even casual requests for information or support benefit from clarifying when and what work will be done. As human beings we are almost hard-wired to do those things we said we would do. Conversely, if no one asks for a commitment, we are happy to do what we can, but with no guarantee of completion or priority. Avoid the dropped ball and ask for clear commitments on as much of the work as possible.
Project managers may be called upon to prepare customer proposals, commonly referred to as RFPs (Request for Proposal) or RFQs (Request for Quotation) or even RFIs (Request for Information). This is usually a huge challenge, mainly because they do not have enough time to interact with the customer during proposal preparation. That situation leads to many assumptions that may affect the quality of the proposal…and then the future project. The goal is to develop winning project proposals. Proposals are the basis for starting projects. Successful proposals are well planned, well written, cohesive, and competitive. Proposals may be addressed to external or internal customers. All proposal efforts of any size have a proposal leader and a proposal team. The temporary nature of the proposal team requires that the proposal leader be able to quickly assemble and motivate the team. Communicate to the proposal team the need for the proposal and its importance to the organization. A proposal tells the potential customer how you will achieve their requirements or needs. Winning a contract from any proposal requires a dedicated effort to develop the document for delivery to the potential customer. That proposal development requires discipline. The most difficult thing to be successful in a proposal is to convey the proper message and commitment to perform the work.
The strategy we suggest to follow to win a contract is:
- Understand customer requirements and needs
- Know and analyze the offer from your competitors
- Assess what your organization can offer
- Make a decision as to how to shape your proposal for the highest probability of winning
Involve the best specialists from all required areas to prepare the proposal. The proposal leader needs to ensure that all necessary tasks have a qualified person assigned to write a portion of the proposal. Develop a schedule for proposal work to ensure all critical dates are met. The schedule is very important to ensure that the proposal is delivered to the customer on time.
Here are suggested steps to put into a schedule of proposal activities:
- Gather background data
- Develop proposal strategy
- Develop proposal plan with a list of tasks to be done
- Meet all proposal team members to explain the subject and requirements
- Assign tasks to team members
- Write a framework for the proposal
- Review writings and integrate
- Review complete proposal
- Edit proposal and prepare in final form
- Obtain approval and feedback from senior management
- Produce and prepare final copies
- Deliver and present to the customer
In our experience, proposal team members are frequently pressed because they lack time, so proposal editing tasks are always needed to detect any mistakes.
Proposals usually address three areas for the customer. These areas address:
- What are you going to do?
- How are you going to manage it?
- How much will it cost?
The main components to be considered are (depending on the magnitude of the project those components may be integrated in only one document or in three separated documents):
Executive Summary: highlight key aspects of the proposal, similar to a Project Objectives Statement, that says what, why, how, and how much is being done.
Technical: description of the work to be accomplished and the procedures used to do the work.
Management: what is the proposed method to manage this project work and the necessary information required to establish credibility.
Pricing: proposed bid price and proposed terms and conditions.
Technical Component of the Proposal
This component is concerned with the actual details of what is being proposed. The usual topics included are:
- Statement of the problem
- Technical discussion
- Project plan
- Task statement
Management Component of the Proposal
This component is concerned with the actual details of what is being proposed for managing the project. The usual topics included are:
- Project management
- Organization history
- Administrative information
- Past experience
Pricing Component of the Proposal
This component is concerned with the details of the costs for the project and the proposed contractual terms and conditions. The usual topics included are:
- Pricing summary
- Supporting details
- Terms and conditions
- Cost estimating techniques used
The Problem to Solve
The most important aspect of any proposal is to identify and understand the problem that the customer is asking to be solved. Presenting your understanding of the problem and what is proposed to solve the problem is critical to being able to convince the customer that you fully comprehend their concerns and that your proposal is the best one. Descriptions of problems usually involve:
- Nature of the problem
- History of the problem
- Characteristics of the optimal solution
- Alternative solutions considered
- Solution or approach selected
The description of the problem and the approach to solve it is the process to convince customers that you are capable of addressing their situation. This area needs to be well stated both factually and convincingly to assure the customer that your proposal is the one to select. Identifying the wrong problem or providing subjective opinion will not convince the customer that your proposal gives the best solution.
The complete project manager needs to develop skills regarding sales presentations. Although some project managers have a natural ability to present, most of them need to get training and acquire some experiences. A mentor in these cases is really effective. Proposal presentations are always different, and special efforts are required to adapt them to the customer environment, organization, and situation. It requires time…and courage. A key critical aspect is for the proposal presenter to transmit enthusiasm to the customer and to build confidence and trust (Bucero, A. (2013 May). You will influence better if you understand people. Project Connections Blog.). To increase your chances of success, sequence your presentation to follow the decisions of the customer. This is exactly how professional salespeople orchestrate their sales calls. As the buyer/seller relationship grows, the relationship becomes one of the differentiating factors that lead to more successful outcomes. Those skills need practice, passion, persistence, and patience because they cannot be gained overnight.
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 serve customers and present to customers what they really need.
Building a convincing proposal is a disciplined process that follows a general format with three components: technical, management, and pricing. The format provides the structure in which to describe your ability to meet the customer's needs for a product or service. Completing the format to accurately communicate your capabilities and desire to perform the work is in the details. We believe winning proposals are written by competent professionals and a motivated team. Know that you are continuously in sales cycles throughout project life cycles. Be not a victim of lost sales or opportunities. Embrace the sales process as the means to secure necessary commitments in a genuine manner worthy of a complete project manager.
Bucero, A. (2013). You will influence better if you understand people. Project Connections Blog. Retrieved from www.projectconnections.com
Englund, R. L., & Bucero, A. (2012). The complete project manager: Integrating people, organizational, and technical skills. Tysons Corner, VA: Management Concepts Press.
Graham, R. J., & Englund, R. L. (2004). Creating an environment for successful projects. (2nd ed.). San Francisco: Jossey Bass Publishers.
This material has been reproduced with the permission of the copyright owner. Unauthorized reproduction of this material is strictly prohibited. For permission to reproduce this material, please contact PMI or any listed author.
© 2014, Alfonso Bucero, MSc, PMP, PMI-RMP, PMI Fellow
Originally published as a part of the 2014 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Dubai, UAE