On the surface, sales and project management have little in common. The goal for salespeople is to walk prospects through the sales process and make sure they emerge as customers at the other end; whereas project managers’ goal is to direct the creation of new products.
If you dig a layer deeper, however, you’ll realize that the core function of these two jobs boils down to the same thing: managing people. Both jobs revolve around figuring out how to be more efficient and influence behavior.
To be a project manager, you have to be good at setting expectations, staying disciplined, motivating people, meeting deadlines, and facilitating action — sound familiar? That’s because top performing sales reps project-manage their opportunities.
So what are the 5 most important lessons salespeople should take from project managers to be more efficient, predictable, and productive? Read on to find out.
1. Work Backwards
If you were to take a 101 course on how to be a project manager, you’d start by learning how to avoid two cardinal sins.
1. Never set arbitrary deadlines that don’t have a long term goal
2. Never set a long term deadline without intermediary steps
Sales reps make these two mistakes all the time by setting arbitrary close dates and failing to create a plan for closing a deal within that time period.
These two mistakes lead to inaccurate forecasts, missed bookings goals, and very angry Sales VPs. To avoid committing either of these two sins, you should start to work backwards.
Start with the date that you want to close the deal, and then work with your prospect to create a roadmap that will get you there. What needs to happen for the deal to close in time? Who needs to be involved? What are you responsible for delivering, and what is your prospect responsible for?
By working backwards, you create a realistic timeline that fits within your sales process and equips you with action items to check off and measure concrete progress on the opportunity.
2. Perform Checkups
A tenant of effective project management is to regularly check in with team members to identify blockers that could prevent them from delivering their work on time. The goal of these conversations is to dig below the surface to understand how much progress someone has made on a project and identify exactly how you can help them to solve the issues holding them back.
An important caveat for these checkups is that they should not have too much formal structure. A casual conversation starting with “how are things?” can reveal much more about how to help remove a blocker than a formal performance review would.
On the flip side, it’s important that you continue to deliver value when you check in — nothing is more annoying than a manager who nags constantly without helping remove blockers, and sales reps who constantly “just check in” aren’t far behind.
To check up effectively, make sure that you:
1. Don’t wait for a deadline to check in (by the time you’ve hit the deadline, it’s too late to help)
2. Identify a concrete problem you can help to solve ahead of time
3. Have the solution ready
As long as you can satisfy each of those three criteria, you will effectively uncover and resolve blockers to making a deal, and perform more consistently as a result.
3. Use Soft Power
“Soft power” in sales is generally referred to as “rapport”. Regardless of what you call it, the key to developing it is to earn respect. There’s a misconception that to be a successful salesperson, you have to be able to get people to like you, but that’s not exactly true.
Sure, prospects will spend more time on the phone with you if they like you and perhaps share more information with you, but they will only act if they believe you can deliver. The key to building rapport is to show prospects that you are knowledgeable, trustworthy, and trying to act in their best interest.
It’s far more important to show prospects that you can help them than it is to get them to like you. This means you always have to provide a clear path to value each time you make an ask of your prospect. End each ask with, “If you do ‘X’, it will get us to ‘Y’”.
As long as you demonstrate value with each interaction you have with your prospect, you can set an agenda and enforce it without resorting to nagging. Sales reps who expect prospects to do something simply because they are “good guys” and “have good rapport” are doomed to failure.
4. Stay Organized
Organization is the secret sauce in every recipe for success. If you hope to complete a project or close a deal, you have to make an agenda and be disciplined enough to follow it.
The challenge is eliminating distractions — not distractions in the sense of TV or noisy co-workers, but rather smaller side projects that pull you away from the most important task that needs to be accomplished.
For salespeople, these tasks often take the form of unripe opportunities. Whatever time you spend moving the needle on one opportunity is time lost from another, so prioritizing the right opportunities is a huge part of hitting your number.
The two steps to staying organized are to set a path to the long term goal by working backwards (as discussed in step 1), and develop a system that keeps you focused specifically on the tasks that will get your most important work over the goal line.
This system might rely on tools that automate repetitive tasks and force you to stay disciplined, or it might be a more robust sales process that makes it very easy to prioritize deals in your pipeline.
5. Manage Expectations
This last tip for selling like a project manager is the most difficult for most sales reps to swallow — it boils down to losing quickly.
Tenacity is one of the core virtues of sales, so reps get into the habit of working opportunities until the last possible minute, hoping to breathe life into them and pull off a miracle. This is a terrible habit to get into.
Sales is all about setting the right expectations, and you can’t do that if you treat every opportunity the same and work them all into the 11th hour. If you notice something going awry with an opportunity you are working, best practice is to reevaluate the close date ASAP.
It’s better to let your manager know early on that you’re running into trouble. This helps the VP to forecast more accurately, gives your manager a chance to help diagnose the problem to support you, and most importantly, frees up your time to work on other opportunities.
There are ways to be tenacious while also being realistic. If you have an opportunity that you think has a high chance of closing but is a high risk to push into the next month, notify your manager about it as soon as possible and move it out of your pipeline. You can keep it alive by working it offline (or, even better, use a drip campaign).
As long as your offline work doesn’t interfere with sourcing new opportunities or closing higher priority deals, this approach paints a realistic picture for your VP and helps you to maintain a healthy pipeline at the same time.
At its core, sales is the craft of influencing behavior. Selling like a project manager helps you to structure your interactions with prospects so that you can guide them in the direction that they need to take. By mastering these 5 core skills, you will sell more efficiently, your performance will be more predictable, and you won’t ever face an end-of-month panic again.