Everybody sells!--selling skills for project managers

Manager, MTD Products


When people think of sales, they often envision the slick used car salesman in a plaid jacket. Professionals in other disciplines look at selling as a somewhat less than ethical profession. What you may not realize is that we are ALL in sales! As a professional project manager, at times you’ll be called to convince someone to ‘buy’ what you are selling. In fact, you probably have been involved in selling and you didn’t know it. You may be selling a project to an executive committee, a training plan to your boss, a job assignment to a potential team member, or convincing a line manager to give you a resource. Your ability to sell will, at times, determine your ability to deliver your project successfully. You may also at some point be selling yourself in an interview or the services of your company to potential clients. There are many opportunities as a project manager to apply sales techniques to your everyday activities. This session will teach you the sales and marketing skills every project manager needs to succeed.

It is highly likely that your typical project manager has little in the way of selling skills or formal selling education. Why is that? If we look at the traditional areas where using project management have been popular, sales hasn’t been one of them. Most of us have backgrounds in other disciplines. Construction, manufacturing, and information technology are just a few of the areas where project management has flourished. Typically, people from these areas and project manager types in general, have not had much exposure to selling. You may be an ace at running a project plan or managing risk. You may have tremendous knowledge in a functional area such as engineering or information technology. If you lack the ability to convince others to do what you wish, you will have a difficult time being successful.

Why are Selling Skills important to the Project Manager?

Project Managers use Selling Skills in many situations

You many not have realized it, but you have probably used selling skills already. The latest edition of A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide) does mention sales and marketing skills as extensions related to the consulting profession; yet selling is a key skill for project managers that are not in consulting. Some examples of situations where a project manager might use selling skills would be:

  1. Convincing executive management to approve your projects
  2. Convincing line managers to provide resources
  3. Convincing people to work on a task on your project plan
  4. Convincing vendors to do something for you
  5. Selling the scope of your project to stakeholders
  6. Convincing management during gate reviews to allow you to proceed to the next phase of your project
  7. Convincing stakeholders that changes are not in scope
  8. Convincing management to provide additional time/money/talent for your project
  9. Convincing people to accept your project’s deliverables

In each of these situations, someone probably had to do some selling. Sometimes, it’s an easy sell. Certainly a few readers can recall situations where it was extremely difficult.

You may even find yourself with the unenvied task of trying to sell your management on why using project management principals are better than a ‘just do it’ mentality. As a professional project manager, this is probably the noblest use of these skills. We all should be doing whatever we can to advance the use of project management techniques for the betterment of our profession, our organizations, and our country. Project management can be instrumental in maintaining and strengthening our competitive advantage in the world.

Your ability to sell impacts your ability to be successful

Project managers are responsible for executing projects to completion. Projects are generally expected to be completed within time, cost, and quality constraints. You must do many of the things listed above, and more, to be able to successfully complete projects. For example, when an executive comes to you with scope changes you may need to convince him that these changes should be included in a post-implementation enhancement release. If you are unable to do so, you may be required to include these changes and still make your implementation deadline. As you probably can guess, this can lead to missing your deadline. If this isn’t bad enough, it may also result in quality problems. Overloading your project team members can result in cutting corners and outright mistakes. Hopefully, this wasn’t the case with the project that built the bridges on the interstate you travel to work each day on, or in the project that was completed to install the payroll system at your place of work. This is just one example of how you can make or break your project depending on how well you are able to influence a stakeholder on a decision or issue.

Many project managers work for firms that sell your services as part of what is delivered to the customer. If you are in a business that provides services to customers, you may have been involved in the business development process for your company. Consulting, construction, web development, and marketing research are some examples of such firms. In these types of business, and in others, your skills and abilities are part of what they are buying. Customers want a talented and qualified project manager that is going to deliver the project within their parameters. Knowing some selling techniques will definitely assist you in working with the sales people of your firm to close deals.

All this can have an impact on your personal success. As you hone your selling skills, you should see benefits in dealing with the people involved in your projects. This should result in more successful projects and happy sponsors or clients. This can translate in to being considered for increasing levels or responsibility. If you are in a service firm, if you are making clients happy, while making a sufficient profit for the firm, you will be a valuable asset to the firm. So knowing how to sell should have a positive impact on your personal success in your current organization. If all else fails, you can use your selling skills to great success in obtaining a better job elsewhere! When interviewing for a new job you are selling the product that you know the most about; YOU.

Selling Skills for Project Managers

Planning for your selling opportunities

Why do people buy?

People buy things because they have come to a realization that there is some benefit in doing so. They have asked the age old question; “What’s in it for me?”. One might think that they buy something because it has features that the buyer desires. For example, a sun roof in a automobile is a feature. You could say that one of the reasons I chose my current vehicle is because it has a sun roof. You, of course, would be wrong. The sun roof is not a reason for buying. Instead, the benefits that the sun roof provides are what are important. Those benefits might be letting the sun shine in, and allowing air to flow into the car on warm spring days, to name a few. So to sell someone on something, you need to help them get to the point where they know that there is a positive benefit to them. The benefit to delaying the start of your project isn’t that the right resource is available in 3 weeks. The benefit is that by having that resource available, you have a higher probability of completing within time constraints, and the deliverables will be of a higher quality.

Selling intangibles

Many things, like services and ideas, are intangible items. They can’t really be taken in with your senses. Selling something tangible, like an vehicle, is often easier. For example, when buying an automobile, you will often be invited to set behind the wheel, or take it on a test drive. This is all about allowing you to experience the attributes of the product. With intangibles, this is impossible. So if you are selling an intangible, you need to attempt to make it concrete. For example, if you want to convince management that the project will go much better if you spend time creating a detailed analysis document, you need to somehow show them the benefit. In this example, you might want to show them a sample analysis document, pointing out the important aspects of the document. You would tell them what benefits were attained in a previous project from doing this. In this way, you have made an abstract concept more concrete.

Understanding the types of people you may encounter

No one is exactly the same. Everyone you come into contact with has been created uniquely. It’s what makes this an interesting planet to live on. Unfortunately, this makes selling a little more difficult. Understanding the differences in the types of people you are dealing with can assist you in determining how to sell to them. The authors of a book called Guerrilla Selling identify several types of personalities you may come in contact with in business (Gallagher, Wilson & Levinson., 1992, pp.45-63). Those types are as follows:

Amorals – These persons act with very little morality. There is no right or wrong, just self-gratification. These people don’t fit well into society. Luckily, you rarely run into them in the work world.

Egos – Egos view themselves as the center of their universe. They are very self-centered. Everything they own has to be better than everyone else. They are concerned with doing activities at work that make themselves look good. They will often invent problems to solve in order to be the hero that solves them. They see themselves as “God’s gift to the organization”.

Pleasers – These types are helpful and compliant. They like doing good things and care about others. They want to be liked by everyone. Often it is hard to get them to make a decision because they don’t want to offend anyone.

Authorities – Authorities are into logic and rules. They believe that we can get along if everyone plays fair. They can become rigid and intolerant. They put a lot of weight into expert advice.

Principles – These types accept themselves as worthwhile members of society and genuinely want to do good to help others. They believe that there are universal truths and are accepting of the differences in others.

Responsibles – Responsibles realize that their happiness doesn’t result in some outside factor. They are responsible for their own destinies. They understand how to share and understand that their life, home, job, world is only as good as they are willing to make it.

Universals – These types are people that have empowered themselves and others so they can reach their goals. They have reached their highest potential as a human being. They are joyful people. You are not likely to encounter this personality type.

In your day to day activities, you will most often run into Ego, Pleaser, and Authority personality types. The others are much rarer. If you gain an understanding of these personality types, and determine what type your buyer is, you will have a better idea of how to sell to them. For example, if selling to the ego buyer, you need to realize that status is important and it’s important for them to win. He or she is going to expect that what you are selling them will give them a competitive edge. Don’t talk about other customers with them, they you to treat them like they are the only person on earth. They also want to deal with other “high rollers” like themselves, so you need to dress and act the part. These are just some examples of characteristics of this personality type. The point is, if you realize the type you are dealing with, you can plan your course of attach accordingly.

Planning the meeting

When meeting with someone and that you intend to sell something to you need to plan the meeting. Amazingly, many people set up meetings and then “wing it on the fly”. Planning the meeting may take some time, but it will make your meeting much more productive. Set an agenda and, by all means, determine what your objective is for the meeting. Is your objective to attain approval to proceed with the next phase of your project? Or maybe, it’s to get three additional people assigned to your team. Write down what your objective is. You need to think about whom you are meeting with and what type of personality they have. Determine what the benefits are of what you are proposing. You need to think out what they might say. Think about what objections they may come up with, and formulate how you will deal with these objections. Develop your strategy for the meeting. This should be formulated based upon your objective, the nature of the situation, and the person you are meeting with. With planning, you have a better chance of getting to where you want to be at the end of the meeting. Many professional sales organizations actually have a template sales call plan that is required for each meeting. You may wish to formulate your own template.

In the meeting

First impressions

At the beginning of the meeting, be certain to greet each person involved. Do introductions if the participants don’t know each other already. This seems fairly obvious, but haven’t we all been in meetings where this hasn’t been done? Make eye contact with people as you greet them. Make certain you know who is there and what their position is. Often, you will already know this, but you never know who someone is going to bring along to the meeting.

Building Rapport

You build rapport by knowing the person you’re dealing with. If appropriate, ask them something about what they are responsible for or something about their personal life. For example, if you are dealing with the head of the Sales Department and you know they’ve had a hard time getting enough of the Yellow SuperWidgets, then ask how it’s coming with their supply problem. Or you might ask about the weekend trip they said they were going on last week. This tactic shows that you are not all business and you really do care about the other party as a person.

Delivering the presentation

Now it’s time to deliver your presentation. You will most likely want to present the problem or need, and then show how what you are selling solves the problem or fulfils the need. The magnitude of the presentation will be governed by the size of the group and the enormity of what you are discussing. For example, if you are speaking to a large group, you may want to display a series of slides on a projector. If you are speaking one on one to someone, print out your sides, put them in a notebook, and flip through them as you speak. You will be confident, because you prepared accordingly.

Active listening

If you are going to be successful in selling to anyone you will have to learn how to practice active listening. Active listening is a process where you focus intently upon what someone is saying. Many times, people are too busy formulating their next statement to truly listen to someone. You must attempt to remove that from you mind and just simply listen to the person. Then, the next step to active listening is to repeat back to them in your own words what you’ve just heard. For example, after you’ve been told what the budget constraints for a project are you might say to someone:

“So if I understand you correctly, you are saying that the funding available for this project is exactly $800,000. Is that correct?”

Of course, you didn’t interrupt the person and waited until the right time to respond. By using active listening you are forced to really listen and you confirm that you understand what’s been said. Take notes of what’s been said also. You never know when you are going to have to refer to this later.

Trial closes

A trial close is a great technique for determining if the customer is ready to close the deal and if anything is standing in the way of making the sale. What you are doing is testing the waters with your prospect. With the trial close, you will ask a question or series of questions which allows the prospect to indicate that they are highly interested in what you are selling them. Let’s look at an example. You are managing a project that has a pretty firm deadline. You’ve been trying to convince your project sponsor that inclusion of certain additional features should be postponed to a future enhancement release. He initially had wanted them included in this implementation. You’ve been discussing the situation with him/her and feel like they are coming around to your way of thinking. An example of a test close would be:

“Do you want feature X included in release 2, release 3, or some later release?”

There a few answers to this question. They could tell you they want it in release 2, or 3, or some future release. It’s unlikely, but they could say that they want to drop the requirement. The other thing they might say is that they want it included in the first release. Not what you wanted to hear, is it? If the answer indicates anything except the current release you know that he/she has virtually bought into what you are selling. The sponsor has just indicated that delaying that feature is going to be just fine with them. This indicates that you should proceed with actually closing the deal. If they tell you that they want it in the current release, you need to find out why.

Here are some other examples of trial close questions you might use:

  1. Wouldn’t proceeding with this project aid in our company’s efforts to reduce costs?
  2. It looks like you really like this. Is that true?
  3. Can you see how allowing me to manage the day to day project details will result in better efficiencies? Can you see how it would help us to be more effective if we just meet weekly to discuss status? Do you agree that it helps free up your time to do other important activities?
  4. Do you agree that writing up a formal change request will ensure that we know exactly what changes you want?
  5. Can you see how including this feature will cause us to miss this hard deadline?
  6. Would working on this portal project give you skills that will help you to attain your career goals?

You are going to frame your questions in such a way that they can say “yes” to your little question, and thus, you are preparing them to say “yes” to the whole deal.

Dealing with objections

What do you do when the person you are dealing with brings up a reason for not buying what you are selling? In other words, they have a reason to say “NO”. To many, the word “NO” is a bad thing. You need to make certain that hearing this, doesn’t rattle you. By telling you “NO” they are giving you another opportunity to find out what their objection is. The worst thing would be if they just sat there and said nothing. Instead, they are telling you that there is some reason they don’t want to go along with what you are proposing. You’ve been given a chance to clear the path of obstacles as they relate to what you are proposing.

How do you deal with these objections? In Tom Hopkins’s How to Master the Art of Selling (1982) he suggests the following technique (p.190):

Don’t argue – This will cause most people to dig in their heels. You most certainly will not get what you want if you argue. You may win the argument, but nobody is going to buy what you are selling.

Don’t attack the person – When you handle their objection, be sensitive to their feelings. Separate the person from their objection. They are just stating an area where they need more information. Clarify without making it personal.

Lead them to answer their own objections – They need to come to their own conclusion about the objection. Help them to get there.

Listen to the objection, use your active listening skills to clarify, and address the objection. One basic technique to use is to agree that it’s normal to be concerned, but then address the objection. For example, if a sponsor balks at the cost of expert external resources you might say the following:

“I understand your concern. I, like you, want to control costs and ensure that we are spending our cash wisely. If we had this expertise in-house, I’d be the first in line to use them, but they don’t exist. If we want this project to be completed successfully, we need to consider getting the right resources that can help us get there. These people are really experts and they have helped company X do exactly what we are doing right now.”.

With this technique, we have “come around to the other side of the table”. We state that we understand, and we are both on the same team, wanting basically the same thing. Then we tell them the benefits of using these expert resources. Once you have addressed the objection, you need to confirm the answer. Ask them something similar to “That’s the answer you are looking for, isn’t it?”.

Closing the “Deal”

If you are at the point where you feel like you have dealt with all the objections, and your attempts at using the trial close have gone well, it’s probably time to close the sale. Many sales professionals develop a sense for when to close. Over time, you will probably also gain a sense for the right time to do so. Don’t be afraid to move ahead and ask for what you want. Many times people are afraid to do so. If you don’t ask, then there is no reason for anyone to buy. If you need a signature on something, have the paperwork ready to sign.

Once the person you are dealing with has said “YES”, it’s time to STOP SELLING. You need to go into SOLD mode. For example, say you are attempting to convince someone that they need to send members of your team to training on some technology. You get to the point where the person you are dealing with says “Yes, I will send these people to training”. Don’t continue to tell them all the wonderful benefits that they will attain by sending these people to training. If you do, you open up the possibility that they may hear something that spurs them to ask another question. You run the risk that it is a question that you don’t have then answer for, and then they could retract their “YES”.

Following Up

You’ve just closed your deal, but now is not the time to rest. You want to solidify what was just agreed to. This may mean following up with an email stating the outcome of your meeting. It may mean following up with a written document. Whatever needs to be done, make it happen. You don’t want any “buyers’ remorse” to kill your deal. You want a record of what was agreed to. It’s easy for someone to forget what the deal was without a written record. Also, don’t for get to say “Thank You” to your decision maker in writing also. Then carry out what was agreed to.


You don’t have to be a professional salesperson to be good at selling. Now is the time to start on your journey toward better selling techniques. There are classes you can take and a wealth of books you can use for self-study. It is true that “Everybody Sells”. You will undoubtedly find that knowing how to sell will benefit you throughout your project management career.


Gallagher, W.K., Wilson, O.R. & Levinson, J.C. (1992) Guerrilla Selling, New York, NY: Houghton Mifflin. Hopkins, T. (1982). How to Master the Art of Selling, Scottsdale, AZ: Champion Press.

©2006 Robert M Zebarac
Originally published as part of 2006 PMI Global Congress – Seattle Washington



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