Five ways sales professionals can make projects successful

Rita Mulcahy, PMP

If you ask a project manager to describe the people that have the most adverse effect on their projects, sales professionals often top the list. Interestingly, if you ask sales and marketing professionals the same question, project managers often top the list. Sales professionals complain that project managers simply cannot get the job done. Project managers complain that sales professionals sell work that cannot be done.

This paper is the result of my experiences over the past five years listening to my project management students complaining about sales professionals, and my own background working on over a billion dollars worth of projects that involved hundreds of sales professionals. After being part of such discussions with thousands of students, I realized that I have acquired an unbelievable amount of experience from both sales and marketing professionals and project managers. This experience is compiled in this paper. I would like to present a solution for one side of the argument by describing five ways that sales professionals can help to make projects successful.

Let the Project Manager Create the Project Cost and Time Estimates

When asked what sales and marketing can do to help projects, there is always one answer that literally flies out of a project manager's mouth: “Get them to not agree to a price or schedule without first talking to us!” This is not just a minor problem, but one of the primary reasons projects fail.

If you think about it simply, the sales professionals bring in the work and the project managers plan and organize it and then make sure it gets done. If sales professionals sell a project that the project managers cannot deliver, no one wins.

An important rule of estimating is that those who are doing the work should create the estimate. This helps to ensure that the estimate will be as accurate as possible. In a recent instance, a project manager was assigned a large hardware/software installation project for a major client. Sales professionals had already told the client that the work could be done in seven months. When the project manager was assigned the project, they realized it would require at least 12 months to complete. The project manager and the team were told to “make it work” and “use overtime to handle it.” This was the third time the team had been given such advice.

The team had a lot of options but because of past history, they were so fed up that the entire team accepted an offer from another company and left the project. This might be a severe example, but it points to a growing trend. As the profession of project management gains recognition in the marketplace, the issue of unrealistic deadlines and budgets is fast becoming a major discussion item.

In the above case, the project manager was viewed only as an implementer. Because of their reputation, they were also considered complainers. Project managers are not just implementers; they are also the planners and organizers of the project. Since they are held responsible for the project's success, they should also have control over it. With responsibility should come control.

Since a project manager is responsible for the successful completion of the project, they must be able to estimate and create a project plan. Therefore, project managers are required to know how to organize and estimate a project, create a detailed project plan, and then manage the project within that plan. In successfully planning and estimating a project, project managers have the tools of work breakdown structure, project charter, network diagramming, and risk management at their disposal. The role of estimating rests with the project manager and the team, not with sales and marketing.

Some sales and marketing professionals would object and say: “We create 20 proposals in order to win one project. It is not practical to interrupt project managers and expect them to respond to proposals for work that might not be won!”A solution that a few companies are instituting is to create the proposal with the assistance of A senior project manager who is different from THE project manager. They are using a senior project manager in the proposal process and then turning the project over to the project manager who will manage the project if they are awarded the proposal. The high level plan and estimates created by A senior project manager are turned over to THE actual project manager. The actual project manager can then use the work of the senior project manager to plan and organize the project in greater detail while maintaining realistic estimates.

Look for Risks

There are many aspects of the project where sales professionals are uniquely situated to help.

In the very beginning of a project, a project manager will informally begin looking for risks—good and bad things that can happen on the project that may prevent their project's success. The formal risk identification process begins early in the planning phase when the team and the project manager actively look for risks. Sales professionals have a unique role here!

Commonly a project is sold and then turned over to a project manager. In one recent instance, a project manager began the risk identification process and quickly discovered some troubling facts. To clarify these facts, they decided to talk to the sales professionals for the project.

“I noticed that the scope of work for this project is unusually brief,” the project manager said. “Is anything unusual going on with this customer?”

Once the discussion began, the sales professionals proceeded to explain some of the unusual things they had noticed during visits to the customer. They described how they were kept waiting for over two hours, and being at meetings where all the necessary people were not even present. The project manager was able to connect the sales professionals' information with other information they had accumulated in order to discover that the customer was expecting dramatic changes to the project because a new vice president was being hired. As a result, the company was able to avoid major problems and what could easily have been a 13% cost overrun!

Sales professionals are in a unique position to identify risks on a project because they have a chance to interact with different customer contacts and view the project in its formulation stage at the customer site. This exposure is extremely relevant. Combined with their own experience dealing with other customers, sales professionals can see risks that no one else can.

In every one of the companies I worked and spoke with while preparing this paper, I did not find any sales professionals who were actively and formally pursuing risk identification. Interestingly, in the companies I have worked with who are trained in project management and understand the implications of risk identification, they immediately say: “That is a great idea! Why didn't we think about it before?” Many implement such a plan immediately. The story above is just one result.

In other companies—those not trained in project management—they shrugged off the suggestions as inconsequential. They continue to experience problems today that they attribute to other, incorrect reasons.

Sales professionals' duties should be refined to include a formal risk gathering process that can be coordinated with the project manager's risk efforts. Some areas to consider are:

•   What is the perceived priority of the project to the customer versus the stated priority?

•   Are there other projects or initiatives at the customer site that may influence the project?

•   How in line is the project to the customer's departmental and corporate objectives?

•   What is the skill level of key customer people?

•   Realistically speaking, how much money and time may be available from the customer for the project?

•   How specifically will politics effect the project?

•   What is the level of customer knowledge on the project?

•   Does the customer know project management?

•   Do they have a project charter and a real project manager in charge?

•   Are there any cultural issues that might impact the project?

Look for Hidden Objectives

Hidden objectives are the most troublesome aspect of many projects. Teams members have them, project managers have them, and certainly the customer has them. Realizing that it is necessary to look for hidden objectives is a unique skill that some of the best project managers possess.

Have you ever seen a project delivered to the customer and the customer was not happy? In a recent situation, a project manager worked very hard to make the project successful. They contacted the customer frequently to inform them of the project's progress, they held extra meetings to clarify the scope of work, and they even made sure they knew in what form the customer wanted the final deliverables. Yet the customer decided NOT to use their services on the next project. Later, at a professional association meeting, the project manager ran into someone else from the company. When the project manager introduced himself, the contact said: “I have heard about your company, you take over when we use your services. You get in your clients' faces.”

What went wrong? You could pass off the situation to a poor match between customer and company, but this company did not. The project manager was so disturbed by the comment that they investigated. Through subtle conversations, he found that the real problem was not his actions but the fact that the project had very little priority for the customer. In fact, the very reason the project was undertaken in the first place was to make the problem go away so the customer did not have to deal with it. The customer contact would have preferred that the project be handed over and never seen again until completion. This hidden objective was never discovered because it was slightly hidden by the customer contact's action. They believed that one had to be assertive in dealing with outside suppliers. This was mistaken for interest even though the project was not “successful.”

Could this have been avoided? This story shows the importance of hidden objectives. But do hidden objectives really need to remain hidden? Sales professionals have a unique ability to help the project by uncovering and clearly relating to the project manager hidden objectives. This is a tough still to acquire but the coordination of sales professionals and project managers will make such efforts much easier. Hidden objectives to investigate include the following:

•   The customer contact, their boss and their company. These hidden objectives can all be very different.

•   Your own company's hidden objectives (e.g., this project is not intended to make very much money but to win the next project)

•   People in the customer's organization who:

• Do not want the project or a part of the project to be done

• Want the project to be different than it is

• Wanted to be the project manager for the project

• Did not want your company selected

•   Are different depending on the part of the project in question

Remember that hidden objectives are easier to uncover than you might think. Simply:

•   Observe what is going on

•   Talk to secretaries and receptionists

•   Ask leading questions (e.g., “When this project is completed, what do you expect will have happened?”)

•   Ask direct questions (e.g., “Can you tell me what are the hidden objectives on this project? Can you tell me who might have hidden objectives on this project in the contract?”).

Collect Background Data

In the very beginning of a project, a project manager will also look for background data on the project. This is a major effort and can yield data that can help to improve the project planning process and prevent many problems. Background data is used to understand, plan, and control the project. It can be collected, compiled, and given to the project team to improve their understanding of the project. Sales professionals also have a unique role here.

More and more frequently I see sales professionals attending project management classes. “I want to better understand what the project manager does and maybe gain a few pointers for myself.” Isn't that great! During one such class we were talking about the importance of collecting background data when a project manager described a particular need of theirs. “Now that you mention it,” they said, “it would help me tremendously if I could get my hands on the original system configuration drawings for the customer's systems.” With a meek look on their face, the sales professional in the room said: “That is something that would help you? I have had those drawings in my office for four months!” After reviewing the drawings, the project manager realized that they had made a few incorrect assumptions. They later estimated that the lack of such information had cost them a two-month delay on the project.

Sales professionals are uniquely qualified to collect such background data on the project. Depending on the project, such data can include:

•   Customer organizational charts

•   Original drawings of the system or components

•   Any customer correspondence describing the problem or project

•   Pictures of the work area, existing systems

•   Copies of systems manuals and procedures

•   Documentation from previous projects that affected or may have affected the current project

•   Copies of the project contract

•   Copies of the contract for any prime or subcontractor

•   Copies of the full scope of work for the project, if your project is a subcontract

•   Copies of the customer's charter and work breakdown structure

•   Any past history between your company and the customer

•   Copies of any applicable standards or regulations

•   A complete scope of work for the project.

Help Ensure a Finalized Scope of Work

One of the biggest problems with projects is change. Not all change is bad, but much of it is unnecessary or could be made earlier in the project to lower its impact. Change is such a big problem that it is the second major area that project mangers complain about, after unrealistic time and cost requirements. Here again, the sales professionals have a very unique role to play in making a big difference in the success of the project.

A clear and complete scope of work is one of the most important things to have before the project begins. I love to tell the following story in project management classes. “Imagine a project for which you are given only 60% of the scope of work and yet told that you must provide a fixed price to complete the project” I ask: “Could you be successful in that situation?” Students, especially those with many years of experience, always laugh. They are dumbfounded when I inform them that such habits are common practice in the construction industry. It is amazing what we put up with on projects.

Not having a clear and complete scope of work before the project begins is like telling someone to get in a car and drive. “Where?” they will ask. “Oh, just drive and I will tell you where you are going in two hours.” Could they have any possibility of driving in the right direction? How much time would they waste? Could they have spent the time better elsewhere? And maybe more importantly, how much more did the project cost?

How can sales help?

•   Inform the customer why having a complete scope of work is important.

•   Inform the customer of the impacts if changes are made to the scope of work. Tell them a story from your own experience but make sure they know that a change in scope will change the time or cost of the project.

•   Ask what specific areas of the scope of work are unfinished.

•  Ask the customer if there is anyone who does not agree with the scope of work and then try to speak to them. Give the name of that person to the project manager for their investigation during the project.

•   Ask the customer if they have the time and cost budgets to accommodate changes. (Hint, hint, changes will cost them.)

•   List the major items that are not included in the scope of work in the contract.

•   Walk through the scope of work line-by-line to discover inconsistencies, clarifications, and missing items.

•   If you are involved while the customer is determining the scope of work, make sure they know the work breakdown structure tool and how it can help them clearly determine their scope of work.

•   Do a work breakdown structure with them.

•   Show them a copy of what is considered a good scope of work.

•   Break their needs into three levels: must haves, wants, and would likes. This will enable the project manager to juggle priorities better when changes are made.

•   Have a project manager review the scope of work for completeness and clarity before you price the work.

Help With Selling the Up-Front Time Necessary to Adequately Plan the Project (OK, I Couldn't Help Adding One Extra Idea!)

When a project begins, most customers look for results right away. The pressure to begin “working” can be unbearable. Trained project managers are aware of the critical activities that must be done that constitute “work” but are not deliverables. This includes planning the project

“I don't want to pay for people to sit around and talk about my project,” customers will say. “I will only pay for actual work!” A sales professional who is uninformed about project management, the tools that are used, and the benefits of project management is not able to address such customer comments and may even agree with them. It is not true that ignorance is bliss.

There is a movement in project management to promote the benefits of planning (and the benefits of project management for that matter) but there are few real statistics. One that I like to quote comes from the book The Mythical Man Month by Brooks:

“As a fraction of the total project time, planning consumes about 1/3, coding consumes 1/6, component test consumes 1/4, and system test consumes 1/4. Thus, if a project estimate is made based on the expected coding time, in reality this will usually represent only about 17% of the entire project time rather than the 80 to 90% commonly assumed" The Mythical Man Month—Brooks.

Others statistics come from various sources and my own experience and emphasize just how much focus there should be on planning the project before beginning the work:

•   Analysis and design must equal 40% to 65% of the project efforts.

•   60% of the effort should be expended before any coding starts. Collect your own statistics and present them to the customer.

One company has actually gone as far as saying to their customers: “We manage projects using the international standards of project management. Our efforts on this project will include project planning and project management techniques. If you do not like it use someone else!” Believe it or not, they have been extraordinarily successful!

Other Items to Consider

Be a Part of the Team—In all my years working with sales professionals, I have noticed that they are rarely considered part of the project team. They manage the sales and marketing end of a project. Then, if the proposal is accepted, they turn it over to the project manager. They have little contact before or after the turnover with the other members of the project team.

The project team should contain a sales and marketing professional. Their role is to coordinate with the client and watch for changes and any other activities that may affect the client or the project. In this role, the sales and marketing professional can provide a connection to the customer that no one else can offer.

Understand Project Management—especially the areas of work breakdown structure, estimating techniques and risk management.


The most interesting thing about what sales and marketing professionals can do to make the project more successful is the answer. All you need to do is ask the question, the answers are right there in the project manager's mind. When you talk to sales and marketing professionals about how you can help them, why not tell them how they can help you?

I would like to thank all the sales professionals and project managers I have personally worked with or had the pleasure of having in class over the years. If only they knew what they started … please feel free to share your ideas with me by e-mail at [email protected].

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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