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Sales As A Special Case Of Project Management

by David Brock on June 15th, 2011

It seems all professions have their own languages, short hand, and ways of communicating that is a complete mystery to everyone else.  Recently, I was meeting with people in the Healthcare Industry (not doctors), and my head was spinning trying to keep up with the conversation.  Likewise, I had a discussion with some Semiconductor Process Engineers, and I didn’t have the “secret decoder ring,” so I was struggling to add value to the conversation.  (All this argues for business acumen training for sales people–but that’s a different post.)

In sales we have the same shorthand, we talk about selling processes, the sales cycle, funnels, pipelines, qualified prospects, and all sorts of things.  Sometimes I think we make it even more complicated to add a mystique to what we do.

This point became very clear in a conversation with a very talented executive.  He had recently take much broader responsibilities–not only running operations but running the sales organization.  He was struggling to really understand the sales organization and how to drive performance–appropriately, he started honing in on the selling process.

In talking about the sales process and helping him understand it as a tool to understanding performance — both at an opportunity level and pipeline level, we started talking about project management.

On the operations side (they are a mid sized systems integrator), they had a very strong project management process in place.  They had great discipline in looking at every client engagement–he told me, without this project management process, we would not meet the commitments we’ve made to our customers, we would not meet our target dates, and we would not be able to manage our resources in a manner to be profitable on the job.  The project management process is the cornerstone to their ability to deliver on their commitments profitably.

We talked about the project management process.  It had milestones and phases, it had critical activities identified, resource requirements, roles, responsibilities, key metrics, objectives and goals–for the project itself and for each major phase.  He was extremely comfortable in talking about project management and very talented in coaching his people in sharpening their execution of the project plans.

I suggested, why don’t you look at selling and the sales process like a specialized case of project management?  He looked at me as though I had two heads until we started walking through the sales process.  We started looking at their different stages–prospecting, qualifying, discovery, proposal, closing, implementation.  I asked him to think of those as milestones or phases that you go through in a project. We started walking through the activities and outcomes they had defined for each phase of their sales process-translating those to the same concepts he used in project management, we started looking at the metrics.  He got more excited as we went through the conversation–the whole mystique of the sales process and funnel was removed–he said “Disciplined selling is nothing more than good project management–it’s identifying a goal, identifying all the activities and resources, aligning the interests of everyone involved in executing your project plan!”

He’s absolutely right–Our sales process and the customer’s buying process is very much like a project plan.  The sales person acts as a project manager–developing the plan, aligning the resources (customer, partner, and company),and providing leadership in executing the plan.  Many of the skills, disciplines, and approaches that we use in effective project management can easily be applied to sales.

Non sales people can much more easily understand the importance of the sales process and how to manage it by thinking of it as a form of project management.  Sales people can improve their skills in executing the sales process by learning a little about project management–perhaps thinking of projects they have managed, reading a good book on project management.  Sales people can more effectively engage people from their organizations to support them, by positioning the sales effort in project and project management terms.

Are you thinking of your sales strategies and sales process as projects?  Are you managing them with the same discipline that projects are managed?  Try it, you’ll find your results will improve.

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9 Comments
  1. I totally agree with Sales as special case of Project Management. I would agree that sales or CRM should be part of Project Management for creating cross sell and upsell opportunities as 80% of the business comes from 20% of existing customers for any organization.

    • Thanks for the comment Anand. CRM is a form of a project management tool. I was focusing more on the process/activity of selling as being a form of project management–this can be applied to current customers, for cross and up sell and to new customers as well. Thanks for joining the conversation. Regards, Dave

  2. Paul Janke permalink

    I have worked as a Strategic Account Executive for a large, international technology corporation. I created a repeatable, multiple step process that made me one of the top sales executives for 15+ years. Through a series of events, I transitioned into a professional project management position for a leading company in the healthcare field.

    As a project manager I have achieved remarkable success.

    With the brief overview of my skills, I have earned the professional opinion to say, “The company that integrates project management into their sales cycle will gain a significant competitive advantage.”

    As an example, how many sales professionals consider a feasibility and risk analysis prior to engaging a prospect? When have sales executives developed a sales project plan based on schedules that incorporate business fluctuations and ROI? Selling professionals can and should incorporate the checks and balances required to run a multimillion dollar project. On the other hand, what if their top competitor incorporates project management skills into the sales process, first?

    • Thanks for the great comment Paul. These skills will be critical to all sales professionals in the future. Regards, Dave

  3. Dave, thanks for the excellent post. I’ve been trying to frame the sales process as a project for a while now in order to support the sales team and the difficulty I have is that part of what you’ve called resources (more specifically the customer) have their own pace, own priorities that not necessarily aligns with your objective. Very often they have objectives that go beyond the ones they’ve opened for discussion with you, which also contributes for lack of alignment. In other words, you cannot control them but monitor and this fact makes our project plan derail very quickly. What is your suggestion to overcome this challenge?

    • Daniel, Great Question! It happens all the time. Some of it, we can do a lot about, some there aren’t great solutions. Here are some ideas:

      1. We’ve got to make sure the customer sense of urgency on “our” project is as great as ours. It’s something they are committed to doing and they view as critical to achieving. Things that indicate this is they are assigning resources, they are committing time, they have a schedule for implementation–which drives the schedule for buying. Until they have those thing in place, it’s virtually impossible to move forward. It’s “our project” not theirs. Using project management terminology, we know the customer has a high sense of urgency when they have a sponsor, a project manager, they’ve established project goals/objectives, milestones. Once they have that, we can sync ours up with them.
      2. Sometimes we are a component of a much bigger project plan. For example, we may be selling factory equipment, but they are building a whole factory, with many assembly lines, etc. So we represent a component of their project plan. The trick then, is to become an important or high priority component. Sometimes we’re the biggest part. Sometimes they can’t go further until they get our part of the project done. Those are all helpful–to the degree we can create that perception in the customer’s minds, then we are better positioned.
      3. Sometimes, however, we are just a small component of that project. They have other higher priority things, or things that have to be accomplished first. In that case, there’s not a whole lot that we can do, other than to make sure our part of the project goes flawlessly.

      Hope that’s helpful, it’s a fantastic question!

  4. Joe permalink

    Truthfully, this is all wrong.
    By the reasoning here everything is a project.
    Getting gas.
    Buying groceries.
    Sales is not a project.
    It is a process.
    Project management is an engineering/manufacturing tool.

    I guess when you run out of potential clients you expand definitions of your product to trick people into buying it.

    Not buying it.

    • Joe: Thanks for the comment. Let me try to clarify. Sales is a process (actually a set of processes), just as manufacturing, engineering, etc are made up of various processes. Project management is a set of tools and techniques that enables us to manage and execute the processes more effectively. For example, in project management we establish a goal and target date (e.g. release a product to market by a date or close a deal by a date). There are a number of activities and milestones critical to achieving the goal. In engineering we may have a milestone or phase review process, in selling those might be qualification, discovery, proposal, closing. Project management tools and techniques help us identify the critical steps/activities, manage/report on them, identify problems, resources, etc. Sales has the same type of things, perhaps a little more specialized for the goals we are trying to achieve.

      Project management provides a rich array of tools and techniques that can be applied to whatever we want and go far beyond engineering and manufacturing. Project management techniques are applied in virtually every area of business–for example, I’m involved in helping an organization develop a new strategic plan–we are applying project management tools to help us manage a project that is being conducted around the globe. In another situation, we’re involved in a corporate turn around, again we are applying project management techniques in that effort.

      We can apply project management techniques to things we do at home. I’ve just completed a “honey do” project—building a deck in our back yard to help complete that (didn’t apply the full rigor, but it helped make sure I had everything in place and ready to complete the deck on time. And yes, we could apply it to buying groceries or getting gas, if we chose to. The tools for project management can be applied to anything—but from a pragmatic point of view, we probably go through that rigor of using them in higher risk, more complex project.

      I wrote the article, originally, to help non sales professionals better understand that success in sales requires a disciplined approach to developing, managing, and executing the process. Too often, non sales executives get confused by the fancy words we toss around, so the project management concept is a way to simplify and help them better understand what sales is really about.

      The ironic thing is once people understand this and know how to apply it, they don’t need our services 😉

      Hope this clarifies things. Thanks for the comment.

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