How Becoming a Project Manager Made Me a Better Sales Professional

Computer monitor on desk

This is the first post of a two-part series. Next time, I will share how I use my sales experience to make myself a better project manager.

A few years ago, right after I got my PMP, a recruiter told me that sales was the only career path she knew that wouldn’t benefit from having that credential. I personally thought that was the biggest load of bulls*&! I had ever heard. I didn’t end up working with that recruiter but I do hope she reads this before continuing to preach that gospel.

What is a project?

So, lets start at the beginning – A project is defined by Project Management Institute (PMI) as a temporary endeavor undertaken to create a unique product, service or result. And what is a sale? A sale is the process in which a person or company persuades another person or company to exchange their resources (money) for another product or service.

In project management, we follow 5 distinct phases, Initiation, Planning, Executing, Monitoring and Controlling, and Closing. A good project manager has a process for guiding his or her projects through each phase, documenting milestones, logging risks and issues, and reporting to stakeholders throughout.

This process is not unlike sales, where we guide a buyer through a funnel that begins with awareness, moves to interest, then the decision and ultimately the action. Along the way a sales professional will share content, communicate with the buyer via email, on the phone or in person and will document milestones and update stakeholders (the buyer, their sales VP, product team etc) along the way. The salesperson will also close the sale and provide resources to make sure the transaction is successful and invite the buyer to make additional purchases in the future.

How are sales and project management skills related?

So how are these two processes related and what skills does a project manager possess that if mastered can help make you a good sales person?


A good project manager will make sure that their team is a aligned to a project charter and a project plan. The project manager make sure that everyone understands the goals of the project and how the work they’re doing supports the overarching goals. No matter how large or small of a role a team member plays in the project, he or she needs to understand why they are doing what they are doing and get the work done on time within scope.

In sales, a salesperson has to coordinate resources both inside their organization as well as in the potential buyers organization. From ensuring that they buyer understands how the product or service works to ensuring that the internal resources are aligned or operationalize what was sold and provide support. That means communicating with a lot of people and planning next steps as deals move quickly through the sales process. If a deal gets stuck somewhere, the salesperson needs to quickly figure out what happened and how to fix it. Not unlike a project that has gotten off schedule or is running over budget!

Trusted Advisor

In many cases, members of a project team don’t report to the project manager. This means the project manager needs to find a way to inspire (hopefully) or compel (if inspiration doesn’t work) each member of the project team to complete their work on time and within scope.

As a salesperson, you are also a trusted advisor. Just like project resources don’t always report directly to the project manager, internal resources don’t report to the salesperson. Additionally, a good salesperson has a deep understanding of their clients roles, challenges and industry and can help guide a client through the buying process. By bringing industry insight and experience to their customers, a salesperson is often viewed as a trusted advisor.

Superior listening skills

As a project manager you are always listening to ensure the ‘health’ of the project. A good project runs within scope and budget and project team members have the time and tools to do their jobs. Creating an environment where this is possible requires a lot of listening. The project manager is listening as the team reviews the scope and charter to ensure it is realistic. They are listening as the client explains their vision to ensure the project will deliver. They are also listening as the team discusses the work – looking for any tension or risk to the project. And finally they are listening as issues arise, to get ahead of them and remove any blockers.

A great salesperson is also always listening and learning. They are listening to their clients describe challenges they have, they are listening to objections so that they can overcome them. They are also listening for alignment – a good salesperson makes sure everyone understands what they are buying and how it works to avoid buyers remorse or mismanaging expectations in the future.

Root Cause Analysis

When something goes wrong in a project (and it happens in almost every project) the project manager performs what is known as a root cause analysis. Root cause analysis goes beyond just “putting out a fire”. It involves getting to the root of the problem to understand what really happened, why it happened and how it happened so it won’t happen again. For example, I was project managing some HTML5 banner builds for a client. One set of projects in particular kept being sent back with errors in contrast and sizing in the animation. My developer would fix the issue but every time we did, the client came back with more issues. Finally, the developer was able to explain to me that there was an issue in the design file he had gotten from the client’s designer that was causing the problems my client was reporting. We were able to sit with the designer and explain how to fix the files. This solved the problem for the foreseeable future and saved my developer many hours of fixing issues.

The same techniques apply in sales. When a client says no, the salesperson can also perform a root cause analysis to understand why. For example, when selling CRM’s to small or medium local business a client says no because they don’t have the budget to implement the system, train their sales team and keep up with technology. As a salesperson, you can understand the root cause of their no is that they feel they don’t have the budget or the resources to implement the system and have it be adopted by the sales team. Since you understand why they’re saying no, you can ask them if it is okay to bring your implementation manager in to meet them before they officially pass on your product. Your implementation manager takes your client through your company’s robust implementation, training and adoption resources and plan. Your client asks you to review the budget and timeline one more time and then decides to sign! This is because you understood the cause of their NO and you were able to show them a better way forward that they did not see before.

Time Management

Project managers are tasked with completing a project in a designated time frame. A project could last a day, a week or even several years depending on the scope. In digital marketing, a project manager may work with the same client for years on a retainer. This means the project manager will be responsible for working with the client to execute many projects that help them advance their business goals. The project manager will then need to communicate timelines and scope with the client consistently. If the project manager doesn’t complete either enough work or the right work in the designated time frame, he or she will not help the client achieve their goals and hit milestone’s for growth on time.

Additionally, the project manager needs to be a great estimator. He or she needs to understand how long it takes a project team member to do their job. This means leaving some cushion for when life happens – someone gets sick, someone goes on vacation or needs to take the afternoon away from project work to attend a doctor’s appointment or school function. If a task will take my developer 8 hours (a typical business day) to complete a task, I will always try to allow about 2.5 business days. This is because in an agency setting a developer will usually work with a few clients at a time and he or she can’t always get an 8 hour time block that isn’t interrupted by an urgent need, meeting or other business. By allowing 2.5 days or business hours (assuming again an 8 hour day) my developer has time to complete the task and perform a solid QA and testing on what they’ve built. Usually we’re able to turn things around faster but the extra day and a half helps ensure we’re able to underpromise and overdeliver.

A salesperson needs to also be an excellent time manager. He or she will usually have an annual sales goal and other key performance indicators that they need to meet to achieve their quota and attain all of the commissions and bonuses that are part of their compensation plans.

For example, let’s you need to sell $120,000 in advertising this year and have at least 6 in-person meetings each week, attend 4-6 networking events per month, and join one professional association. How do you do this? Let’s start with the sales volume. $120,000 is $10,000 per month. To keep it really simple if your average sale is a $5,000 package, you need to sell two packages per month. If you only sell one package in a month, the next month you’ll need to sell three. This sounds less intimidating, right? Obviously, if you sell smaller packages, you will need to sell a few more and larger packages a few less!

Now for the KPIs. If you need to meet with 4-6 prospects every week in person you can work to schedule these meetings a week or two in advance. Each week you’ll add more meetings to the calendar so that you always have enough. Shoot to schedule 7 or 8 meetings per week with the understanding that on occasion an emergency, rescheduling, or other cancellation will pop up. This way, even if that happens you should still achieve this KPI more often than not. If you are able to take at least two of these meetings per month and turn them into sales – you’re very well on your way to achieving your sales goals too!

So that you aren’t wasting your time, ask prospects in these meetings about the networking events they attend and see if you can join them. This way you are able to continue to build your relationship with your prospect outside of your meeting and potentially meet others who have similar interests and needs. If you do this right, at the networking event you will meet new people to set up meetings with. See? No time is wasted!

Finally, in addition to all of this meeting and networking, a salesperson needs to create proposals, follow up on them, prepare contracts for signature, document their efforts in a CRM, provide reports to company leaders, forecast and budget, and participate in feedback sessions to refine product or service offerings. Is your head spinning yet? A good salesperson’s isn’t because they know how to manage their time and get it all done!

This was a very long winded way to say that while sales and project management seem like wildly different disciplines there are some skills both use. There are a lot of lessons from my project management training and experience that I use when working in business development. Stay tuned for part two of this series where I will talk about the skills I have learned as a salesperson that make me a stronger project manager!

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