How to sell your best product
Customer satisfaction becomes a key topic for all projects, beyond the traditional project assessment metrics such as budget spending or scheduling accuracy. A smile on your customer's face is something you should aim for, in addition to all the “on track” metrics in your project. As a good project manager, you always deliver what your customers are asking you to deliver and not necessarily what they really want and expect. You have to understand and balance their needs and wants and help them to better recognize and value your work and your skills. People will always act based on their perceptions, and their perceptions are based on how they view you. It is up to you to present the situation so they can get the right picture.
We all agree that the success of a project relies also on how well you communicate with your stakeholders. If you manage to set their expectations at the right level, they will understand your progress and, ultimately, success or failure. Do whatever it takes to eliminate the element of surprise and invest heavily in transmitting the right information, in the right format or frequency, to the right audience. You'll need to research different communication techniques and evaluate different forms of formal and informal communication. Your target is to become a trusted advisor and the most credible source of information for your stakeholders.
In a project, you use many other resources in addition to your team members. You actually use your human resources to acquire, manage, and consume other resources, which makes people the most important and delicate resource you have to manage in your project. For this, you'll need to step outside your project boundaries and manage the other people with whom you interact: customers, managers, sponsors, and so forth. You cannot do a better job at managing your project unless you are doing a great job of managing your people.
Everything is for Sale: Truer than Ever Before
We all hate people who claim that! How can everything be for sale? Isn't anything sacred anymore? Have we become so shallow that we put a price on everything? Well…yes, we price everything! But, let's not confuse pricing with money. The two are very distinct. Pricing has more to do with measuring and valuing things so we can take the appropriate approach. It's true that most of the time we use money as currency to commensurate and express the value. In project management, we need to ask ourselves: What is the price for our customer's satisfaction? Unfortunately for us, that satisfaction is not expressed in any known currency; usually it takes a bit more than being on time and within budget to make the customer happy.
Let's imagine that we're at the mall and have just purchased a much desired object. The fact that we finally own this object doesn't always guarantee our happiness. It might have been the cashier's sad face when she sold us the product that prevented us from being happy, or the 15-minute wait in line we had to endure. We didn't just want the product; we also wanted the high-quality service that was supposed to come along with it. Meanwhile, the poor manufacturer thinks his product is going to make us happy when, in fact, it doesn't, just because someone at the store forgot to smile at us.
Let's translate this into project management and pretend that you, the project manager, are that sad store employee. You delivered what was expected of you, but your customer was unhappy. You could argue that it is not your fault the poor guy was expecting an extra smile. It wasn't even mentioned in the requirement, and you are right! You have done what was required of you, but you totally neglected what was expected of you. And that little difference between requirement and expectation makes all the difference.
You should become trained to spot the expectation, and to do that, you need to search for that price that will rewrite your entire requirements list. Some retailer went even further and institutionalised that by training their employees to smile at customers. Of course, this looks artificial but you cannot complain about not getting a smile at the counter. At least they tried; they made an effort. They paid a price for your happiness. Yes, your customer happiness is indeed for sale. You just need to find what the price is and get the money or whatever it takes to buy it. There's no shame at all if you think of it as a transaction. The tricky part is to learn what is expected of you and to be natural at that, and then you will smile without any prior training of internal regulation.
So, What is Your Product?
To be able to sell something, you have to have a product. Your product, as a project manager, is your project. This should be an interesting exercise: to think of your project as a product that needs to be sold. It is not in our nature to think that way, because projects are already bought. You don't work on your project and then at the end you go looking for customers who will buy your project. The project is already sold at the initiation and you received the money to do the work. So, then, why bother with more than just the requirements, right? Why go the extra mile because the customer already gave us the project? I am willing to bet that if we would finance the project from our own money and the customer would only pay at the end, if he or she is happy, the whole project management practice would look a lot different. Because then we would have to care a lot about the customer and struggle to make him or her happy. We would do whatever it takes to see the customer satisfied because we need his or her money.
But, let's return to our product for a second. The term project is very complex and to say that your product is your project sounds rather vague. There are a couple of things that can be singled out as items to be sold. First is your team; actually it is your team's performance. As we all know, a project is also a unique opportunity for people to shine and get noticed by senior executives. Of course, not all of them are good at mastering this art of promoting themselves, but here is where the project manager acting as a salesperson should step in. If the individuals are not aware of this opportunity, and seldom they aren't, because they are too busy with deadlines to be focusing on anything else, then the project manager should be the one who does all the selling. Everybody agrees that if the project is a success then the whole team should take the credit. And, indeed, the project manager should make sure everybody gets noticed outside the project. Taking credit for a good project performance and being rewarded for a job well done goes beyond project boundaries. It tells the whole organization about your skills and achievements and it puts you next in line for the next promotion. A good project manager is one who acts with generosity and puts the team first and makes sure they get recognized and rewarded. By selling his team, he is also selling himself. He was the one who made it all happen and because of him the team succeeded.
Modesty and generosity about your team performance get you to the top, because everybody loves a leader who empowers his or her team and turns people into achievers, but this is not always obvious. And because you cannot point to yourself, you can always use your team's achievements to speak on your behalf. If your team wins, not only does the credit extends to you also as a project manager, but you get important points as a leader, a position well desired by many in this industry. The second item on your shelf consists of the deliverables your project is supposed to produce. It's those little things that we can use to showcase our ability to get things done. Let's say, for example, that you have a 12-month project and you only have one milestone in the middle of the project. That said, you have only two opportunities to show your progress and achievements, which might not be enough and might even keep you hidden from those whose opinion and appreciation you seek. In this case, you need to build your product portfolio. Set up a list of intermediate deliverables that make sense to your stakeholders and make them aware that they exist. The easiest way to achieve this is by sending them unsolicited reports. Now, we all know that unsolicited means bad, but let's face it, people are throwing information at us because it is in their best interest for us to be aware. Do you really need to know the latest discoveries in cavity-protection technologies to be able to buy toothpaste? Of course not! But some people thought you should know this information before shopping for new toothpaste, and it actually works! Next thing you know, you are standing in front of a shelf full of toothpastes and wondering how somebody could create so many types of toothpaste. And, then, right in the middle of the stack, you spot the one that was advertised on TV and guarantees 24-hour protection against cavities. You don't really believe that it actually does that but it's the only one familiar to you, and your human nature, which is afraid of the unknown, tells you that this is the right toothpaste for you. You forget about all the other types of toothpaste and buy the one that was advertised.
They Are All Your Customers
We call them stakeholders, audiences, and managers but, in the end, they are all customers. Basic marketing teaches us about segmentation and addressing each audience segment with the proper message. We seldom forget that and send out our project reports full of in-depth data to whom it might concern. We need to divide our audience into segments, based on their interests in and influence on the project, but we also need to split them by the amount of attention they're giving to the project. Let's consider a CEO, for example. If we're running a big project, then the CEO will definitely want to stay involved. But, in so many cases, the information we offer about project performance is immersed in specific details and indicators that we completely lost contact with our audience. We sometimes use our specific language and metrics and jargon to make others believe we are in control. When you convince others you know your job, they will tend to presume you are good at it. But let's not fool anybody: knowing a job is one thing and being good at it is something else! You can read a book and get the right terminology and you will successfully convince novices that you are an expert. But to be a good professional requires speaking several business languages, (e.g., finance) and being proficient in translating and adapting. Very few CEOs are capable of understanding what earned value really means,, and even fewer care about the poor work performance of some employee five levels below them in the corporate hierarchy. But they care about trends, overall performance, top achievers, impact on profit and loss, and relations with stakeholders outside of the organization.
When talking to people outside of your project team, you need to prepare your documents, information, and speech. Once you divide your audience into segments you need to understand those segments. Business literature advocates the care for customer needs and worries. But rarely do people act based on their needs, because they are professionals and they all want to look good in their performance reviews. So, instead of trying to understand their needs, what if we looked at the criteria they are evaluated on? If I know my boss is going to judge my performance on the job based on how successfully I have reduced the costs, then the only thing I am going to be interested in is how to cut the costs. Assuming this role, when I look at any project performance report, in fact I am looking for opportunities to cut costs, which translates into firing people, renegotiating contracts, or even shutting projects down. If the project manager would have invested some time understanding the metrics I am measured on, he would most probably make some changes in the way he presents his project report. This doesn't seem too complicated, does it? If you want to protect your resources from being cut and you know that this is my only interest in your project, I bet you would be very careful with the information you share with me. On the other hand, not sharing any information about the project because you are afraid of what others will do with it is also wrong. If I want to reduce the costs, I am going to do it anyway and without the right information I might cut costs in the wrong places.
You could argue that it's difficult to know all the metrics that your stakeholders are measured on and there are two successive methods used to learn that. The first is rather formal; the other needs more diplomacy and networking skills. Every job has an official job description, which includes information on how success is measured. If you don't find any information about the performance measurement, you will definitely find information about the activities the person holding that position is supposed to perform, knowing that you can later build a set of indicators that characterize and measure those activities. You can ask for these job descriptions directly from the person you want to know or from your HR department. If, for some reason, they don't share that information with you, a simple search on the Internet should give you enough information to get an idea. The second method completes the first in the sense that you have to connect on a more personal level with the person you're interested in. Invest time in building relationships with your colleagues and they will open up to you. Work on gaining their trust and they will feel free to share more insights about the challenges of their work.
The relationship you have developed with your audience defines the ways you communicate with them, including frequency, format, or tone. You may want to offer information in a more informal manner to people not officially involved in the project. Or, in other cases, you may want to stick to the essentials or a top-level view when addressing senior executives. It's been commonly accepted that it is okay to spend up to 90% of project management time to communicate, but in reality, we take communication for granted. We build the reports as detailed as possible and distribute them to everybody. Too often, this is one-way communication, which leaves us in a blur when it comes to how efficient the communication really was. A good communication strategy should also include feedback and we should constantly search for a reply to whatever we're saying. If we are sending a report to senior management and nobody reads it, this is very valuable feedback. Sending data doesn't mean communication. You are communicating with your audience if they are receiving your message, read and understand it, and provide you with constructive feedback. It is your job, not theirs, to make sure they read it. You need them to be aware of your project achievements and your team's performance. Real life has proven that waiting to get noticed is the wrong strategy. People don't have the time or the focus to review your performance and decide whether you are a good or bad professional. Instead, they rely on shortcuts like symbols, impressions, or status to draw their conclusions. In business, one of the biggest assets you own, sometimes bigger than what is on your resume, is what people think of you. A top CEO who thinks highly of you can mean ten years of experience, so you need to help that CEO come to this conclusion. When communicating to executives, whether in writing or orally, you must keep in mind the elevator pitch. Sometimes, ten seconds are all you can get and it's up to you to sell your whole project, team, and deliverables in those ten seconds.
A Couple of Sales Techniques
Salespeople are famous for being ruthless and stubborn; they pursue their objectives and never rest until the client has signed the agreement of sale. We look at salespeople and we see high achievers, people we envy because they get things done, and they seem to do it so easily so we can't help but wonder if they have a special technique. Let's take a look at how they do it in sales. We'll review two simple techniques that can be used in project management with the same benefits. The first technique concerns territory planning and, just like salespeople, we'll look at our potential customers and figure out ways to address them. Second, we'll take a closer look at account management, which should provide an inside look on how you can build trust and close relationships with your customers, both internal and external.
Territory planning is a set of actions associated with each segment, which ultimately leads to sales. The plan is very detailed and covers a lot of very specific metrics. Consequently, in project management, we also need to build a set of actions addressed toward every segment or individual we target. Current standards in project management address the stakeholders through several processes but they are limited to distributing the information and making sure we're not missing anything. This is a more compliance-oriented approach and is meant to avoiding errors more than bringing considerable value to stakeholders. The sales approach is more customer oriented and more open to the needs, problems, and expectations the customers don't express and aren't even aware of. Territory planning looks at a customer and tries to identify what the maximum output is that we can get from that customer. When we look at a project stakeholder, we limit our interaction only to what that person must know about the project—not what we can get from that person but what that person must get from the project. Let's imagine for a second how a good salesperson would interact with an important stakeholder. He would try to convince him that this is the best team that could ever be in charge of the project and they would insist that they will do their best to keep the customer satisfied. And, if there's anything else the customer wants, he shouldn't hesitate asking for it. If you re-think this in terms of project management, the situation looks pretty different. Probably we would start with the complaint that we couldn't get the right resources in place, and because we don't have the right skills in the team, we start to introduce the idea that the project may not actually succeed. We take all the necessary measures to make sure the customer doesn't ask for anything else and even discourage any intention of further collaboration, because we know too well what a nightmare a change request can be. There's a different paradigm in sales that shifts the focus from the short-term, very specific projects to a more mid or long-term approach that fosters a better relationship with the sponsors or customers. Of course, this doesn't mean that we shouldn't focus on the project and on the short-term activities and deadlines, but we should do this, bearing in mind that once the project is finished, we may have another chance to work with the same people. And maybe these people will be making some decisions somewhere in the future based on how you conducted the current project.
The second tool we can borrow from sales is account management, which basically translates into keeping close to the customers so we can squeeze whatever we can from them. Account management is assigning the right resources to cover all possible known and unknown desires of a customer. In project management we run away from words like “desire” or we try to fit it into clear requirements. Spending more time with the customers or stakeholders makes it easier to predict their actions and change of heart in the future. If we would spend more time with the stakeholders, not only would their behavior become more predictable, but they would trust us more. If the stakeholder or the customer is a stranger to you, they will treat you accordingly. They will ask things and expect you to deliver without any concern for you or your ability to deliver. But if you become their partner, they will check with you every time they need something. You can even reach a level of trust that will make them validate with you the request before asking you to implement it. In project management we consider socializing with clients to be a waste of time. If there one thing that salespeople can teach us is that sometimes the return of the time invested can be higher than we ever thought it would be. In sales, there is a very useful exercise called “account planning,” which is a part of account management. Account planning looks at the total revenue a salesperson can make from one account during a certain period of time, which sometimes can even take three years—and this from a salesperson who has a monthly quota and is being reviewed monthly and quarterly. They understood that you needed to build relationships and trust in order to get what you want.
You are Managing Talents, Not People!
The human resources literature is full of examples and ideas on how to manage people, and since leadership has become a new buzzword, new books have been written on how to get people to do things without even managing them. Traditional project management regards human resources as simple resources that have certain availability, a set of skills, and a cost associated with their use. It totally overlooks the human aspect, which makes all the difference. People are emotional, energetic, happy, depressed, and so on. Now, depending on the type of personality you are, this can be either good or bad. It's good, because people can bring energy to the project and when everything goes bad they can bring it back to life. If people are properly motivated, they can put in some extra effort to go through some tough times, which every project encounters from time to time. They can bring new and brilliant ideas into the project, thus solving existing problems or issues. Bringing new ideas is actually a positive thing but those who are more pessimistic would take the negative approach. Those who take this path always associate new ideas with risk and alternative methods with unnecessary change requests. They will fear that human moods and feelings will affect project performance and believe it's because of the people that projects fail. Regardless of which side you are on, you must admit it: people are not machines and they will act accordingly.
The key to good people management is to accept that you cannot and should not plan human performance. Although human work is scheduled, more and more people tend to keep their schedules, you need to bring out the creativity and passion that only people can provide. For too long, we have been preoccupied with delivering on time that we forgot to try to do things differently. We have become very good implementers of plans and have stopped searching for improvements and alternative ways of doing things. We started to work as machines and we are getting closer and closer to their performance, and still so many projects still flop. Maybe projects don't need people trying to perform as machines but rather people instead of machines.
A good people manager doesn't manage people, because that would simply mean that he or she will be managing their time and skill allocation, which, let's face it, is not rocket science. Even the simplest project management software program can allocate resources and measure performance. A good people manager should manage talents. By focusing on the soft, human side of people you can unlock and leverage unlimited potential that could benefit your project. A schedule software program can over allocate people to work during weekends and cause them great dissatisfaction and anger. A great leader can over allocate people to work during weekends and make them feel proud and happy to contribute to a project's success. It takes experience and patience to discover that special thing that makes people go the extra mile. But, once you discover it, you will be amazed at the force and impact it brings to your project, and knowing this, you can then reassure your sponsor that you have the best possible team working on the project.
Managing people and talents is a two-way process. Usually we refer to people management when we talk about subordinates or direct reports, but that also applies to managing your superior levels of management. We think they are different but, in fact, they are just like us. They want to get noticed, rewarded, and promoted just like everybody else. You should play the card of opportunity and show them how your project can help them in their endeavors. We talked earlier about understanding your manager's metrics and needs; now we will focus on them as individuals. If a manager oversees several projects, he or she will use any opportunity provided by these projects to advance in his or her career. Usually it is a manager who looks at your project and tries to figure out how he or she can benefit. What if we reversed that and approached them with a version of the reality that was specially built to answer their interest? We practically serve them our project and make them buy it because it helps them in their careers. Think of your project as ammunition for them. Rephrase your project performance in one sentence that they can add to their resumes. And if you manage to get your project referenced on a top executive resume that means you have succeeded and you sold your project, team, and achievement.
You Are Your Reputation!
People are not going to remember all the diplomas you have or schools you graduated from; they will merely remember your work history or past employers. But they will remember you by the adjectives they associate with you. You can be smart, hard-working, smiling, and nice, but you can also be lazy, arrogant, and scary or stupid. The word they associate with your name is what you bring along and in many situations that one word can get you on board for a new project or eliminated from the team. How does that work? Let's imagine you just delivered a project way over time and budget, and because the people you had weren't exactly the brightest, you failed because of them. You build your report to present to senior management and in it you state that the failure is not your fault—it is your team's fault! To everybody in the organization you will be someone who can't take responsibility, which is much worse than not being able to manage your project team. Chances are you will never get a project again unless nobody else is available. You have your reputation! A reputation, good or bad, is built over years and it takes a lot of work to get that adjective associated with your name. The bad part is that no matter how hard you worked to build it, you can lose it very quickly. It only takes one failed project to reset all the hard work.
When you create your reputation, the only things you have are your past experiences and achievements. What you need to do is share them with as many people as possible. Build your project portfolio and, for each project, create a sentence by which different stakeholders will know you. You can be the guy who just saved half a million dollars for the CFO, the leader who inspires young talent, or the committed type who always delivers. Most of the time, you don't get to choose your reputation—it creates itself with every new project you work on and it follows you and grows stronger and stronger. What helps is for you to realize who you are and start promoting yourself accordingly. There is nothing wrong with assisting your reputation as long as it's true. If you realize that you are good with numbers maybe you should focus on great financial reporting and cost control. This way, the next time someone has a project highly challenged from the financial point of view, the job will be yours. Reputation should be earned and not artificially created. You want your reputation to be the conclusion or the result of your work, not the slogan. And, most important, it has to come from others. Instead of claiming you are good at a specific topic, you should wait for them to ask you to elaborate on the things they heard about you. If they haven't heard of you before maybe you should do a better job at promoting your results. As a project manager, you never promote yourself. But, luckily for you, you have enough things that can serve as testimony. You have your team that can share information about you as a manager, leader, and person. You have your activities and deliverables that can tell about your scheduling and resource management skills. You have your sponsors who can endorse you because you gave them what they wanted. Let them speak on your behalf. They are more credible and, if they really liked working with you, they will be more than happy to tell the story. Of course, that also holds true for unsatisfied colleagues and managers who most probably will not keep their bad opinions just to themselves.
As a project manager, your metrics are pretty simple. Maybe your sponsor added something else in addition to the triple constraint, but you have a very clear picture on how success looks for you and how your performance is being measured. To fully take advantage of your interactions with your stakeholders, you need to build a different scorecard. A different set of metrics that will help you monitor if you are doing a good job at selling yourself. You can use silly indicators like how many times your boss told you, “great job, well done!” If you have ten meetings with your boss, you should plan to have at least seven “great jobs” to consider yourself successful. Or even crazier metrics like if you want to quit your job in the middle of the project, how much money would your boss offer you to stay? It's very important that you think this way, because this will help you make connections beyond your project boundaries. Your ultimate goal is to sell yourself, to develop a career, get promoted, increase your salary,, and so forth. Your goal is not your current project's success—that's just a means to an end, and an opportunity you must use to build your references.
Let Them Buy You!
We have talked a lot about selling: Selling yourself as a project manager, selling your people, and selling your results. And, indeed, in the first step this is what we should be doing. Going after the stakeholders and convincing them of our abilities and skills. Using our experiences and achievements, we might be able to do that. When you see a smiling face, you know you have made a successful sale—they bought you and whatever you were selling them. You want to do that because you want to be the one they call when they need a professional, because you want them to want you!
What is even more interesting is them coming after you. You pitch your expertise to senior managers, you build your reputation, and you become a role model and a reference in your field. Next, is enjoying the fame and waiting for others to come to you. If your record history is impeccable and you have managed to convince everybody how good you are, you will become sought after. They will go looking for you because they want you on the job and they will even ask you what they have to do for the privilege of working with you.
© 2012, Florian Ivan
Originally published as a part of 2012 PMI Global Congress Proceedings – Marseille, France