Project managers and sales


The traditional notions that a project manager is responsible for managing the deliverables to the client and an account manager is responsible for developing business are becoming obsolete. Technical experts are more and more becoming an integral part of the sales process. Some organizations are going so far as to give project managers specific sales quotas.

Thus, the lines between account managers and project managers are becoming blurred. What are the implications of this trend for the technical experts?

I first became aware of this tendency in 1992, while serving as a director of a university-based management development center and working with a local manufacturer that produced low-tech plastic containers. The manufacturer designed containers to move the product from warehouse to client site and back. Because of the nature of the product, clients were becoming heavily involved in production-floor efficiency and just-in-time delivery. Unfortunately the manufacturer's mature sales force lacked the background to master the new complexities of a Japanese-style production floor.

As it became clear that the new environment required the skills and knowledge that engineers brought to the table, the existing sales force was phased out and engineers were hired to do the actual selling.

As this example suggests, both the products and the environment are becoming so complex that organizations must increasingly rely on technical experts to translate this complexity to the client. But there is another equally compelling reason that technical experts are becoming more involved in the sales process: a competitive, global business environment is forcing organizations to work smarter.

To work smarter, innovative organizations are isolating the most critical outcomes in an organization and then viewing those outcomes as a process that cuts across functions. This means that if profitability is a key outcome for a business, then an effective selling function is a key process. And everyone in the supplier organization needs to be working hand-in-glove as a team.

To carry this one step further, the project manager's in-depth knowledge of the client organization puts the project manager in the best position to identify problems and opportunities. Most project managers have the client's trust and, unlike salespeople, they are perceived by the client as operating without a hidden agenda. This reduces any natural antagonism on the part of the client.

The emphasis on profitability and teamwork within the selling function also dovetails with a more strategic approach to the organization's product and service offerings. This starts with the basic assumption that a customer-driven sales orientation has a high cost associated with satisfying the needs of a single client. A more strategic approach provides clients with a unique solution set that can be amortized over many clients.

Obviously a strategic approach is the preferred solution. Properly executed, a strategic approach leads to higher profits and better focus. It enables the seller to switch from cost-plus pricing to a value-based pricing strategy. Instead of attaching a profit above costs, value-based pricing is based on the impact of your solution in the client's organization. To be successful, the selling organization must understand the needs and strategic intent of the buying organization. This reinforces the need for the input of the project manager, who already has the knowledge and confidence of the client organization.

Selling is the ability to create solutions that improve a client organization's effectiveness— and project managers are the technical experts best positioned to provide those solutions.

Another important reason to involve the project manager in the sales process is that most innovation comes from responding to needs outside the current client base. It stands to reason that if project managers are involved in creating new business in existing accounts, account managers are freer to pursue new business leads. And this is also the area where account managers can have the greatest impact.

If all this sounds simple, it's not. The technical expert is not always ready to embrace the concept of selling. In fact, project managers have often sabotaged their own organization in the misguided notion that they are being an advocate for the client; in effect, fueling the flames of a client's perception that the account manager is an outsider with an agenda that is not in the client's interest. This behavior, usually due to a fundamental distrust of the sales function, is exacerbated by the view that the account manager lacks the technical knowledge required to provide an adequate solution. Resistance to selling may also be fueled by a project manager's lack of a personal “win.” This includes issues such as not being properly compensated for new business development or seeing a proposed project as the most recent version of Mission Impossible.

As a result of all this resistance, organizations often send mixed messages to project managers. For example, it is not uncommon for an organization to set sales quotas for project managers and then do nothing for several months to reinforce this expectation. It is also not uncommon for management to flip-flop between creating quotas and developing a technical track where there is no expectation to sell. This lack of clear direction creates murky expectations and confusion for everyone. One of the issues, of course, is that the attributes required to sell are different from the attributes of a solid technical expert in the sense that selling requires anticipating needs whereas engineering responds to specific requirements.

Apart from the resistance technical experts may have to selling and the difference in attitude required, many technical experts simply do not know how to network or how to identify new business opportunities. In working with groups that share this difficulty, it is very helpful to identify some concrete steps that project managers can take to create networking opportunities. It is also helpful to identify specific ways in which they can observe the environment and learn more about the challenges and orientation of the client. They can then begin to recognize new business opportunities.

While the concept of selling is threatening to many with a technical orientation, it presents a tremendous opportunity for personal growth and development for those who embrace it. Selling is not just pushing a product. Selling is, at its core, the ability to create solutions that improve organizational effectiveness in the client organization. It involves highly effective interpersonal communications, a skill that can be transferred back to the project management environment. It also provides an opportunity for the client organization to receive the valuable perspective of the technical expert who is in a unique position to provide the best solution.

The other upside of a trend toward increasing complexity is a growing recognition that the technical expert is so valuable that the organization must provide an environment that allows individuals the flexibility to move into other functional areas of the organization. For example, many organizations encourage technical support engineers to move into sales if they are so inclined. This is somewhat ironic since the resistance to this kind of internal career move originated with the basic concern that technical people were the most difficult to replace; consequently, lateral moves were discouraged in most businesses. Today's new flexibility is fueled by a concern that technical people may go elsewhere if the organization stands in the way of encouraging individuals to grow and take risks.

The trend that I first became aware of in 1992 continues. Many organizations are moving from a cost-containment Total Quality Management focus to a wealth-creation, relationship-building orientation. Essentially this means that instead of doing anything and everything the client wants, organizations are looking closely at what makes sense to offer, and at eliminating unprofitable, low-value approaches to gaining business. They are also viewing the sales function as a team process. Including project managers in this function makes sense for several reasons: They are closest to the client. They have the most product knowledge. They are in the best position to identify new business opportunities.

If sales is failing to provide the best solution, the technical expert is invaluable in effecting a correction; that is, of course, assuming the account manager and the project manager are working as a team and presenting a united front to the client. If they are, the technical expert/sales approach can result in a greater “win” for both client and seller. ■

Elaine Schneider is president of Sales Path in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her firm specializes in helping technical professionals develop effective sales behaviors. Prior to Sales Path, Elaine was a director at the Center for Management at Xavier University

PM Network •November 1995



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