The case for sales reps as project managers

Main illustration: Beth Walrond

Most startups, particularly in the B2B space, start to gain traction by selling their product to other startups or smaller firms with less demanding purchasing processes.

But as you grow and your sales team begins targeting bigger customers, Account Executives need to refine their project management skills to close deals.

We’ve written before about the benefits of allowing salespeople to own their accounts after a deal is closed. When AEs are the customer’s constant point of contact throughout the sales process, they are uniquely able to ensure customers are set up for success.

Traditionally, big-name SaaS companies bring in Project Managers during the sales process, usually under the umbrella of a Professional Services team, in the hopes of increasing deal close rates. But the value of such teams is still out for debate. In fact, there is compelling data to suggest that SaaS companies who require professional services tend to have lower gross margins than those who don’t, with few breaking even. So instead of throwing good money after bad, the real value lies in teaching your sales reps to effectively project manage their deals.

Cutting AEs out of the project management process isn’t the answer

Project Managers are usually brought into the sales process to manage technical evaluation, as well as implementation, of a product. Although the AE and Project Manager assigned to an account have the same goal – create a successful, high-value customer – their allegiances are not always in sync.

A project manager is the internal advocate for your company, while the salesperson should be the customer’s advocate. This makes sense when you consider that the Project Manager’s primary contact is with the engineering and product teams, not with external customers.

Signing a contract is just one step in a much larger process.

A skilled Project Manager works with a customer to explicitly define their goals for this project, confirm how they plan to measure success, and establish the steps leading up to launch. Exceptional AEs need to manage their sales process in a similar vein.

At Intercom, our AEs don’t think in terms of short-term goals like getting a huge logo deal closed. They know they will be managing this customer long after the deal is signed, so it’s in their best interest to really understand what the customer hopes to accomplish with our products. This allows the AE to map out the evaluation and implementation sales stages within the context of the customer’s broader goals.

Our AEs see signing a contract as just one step in a much larger process that starts by establishing the need our products will address, navigating the customer’s internal procurement process, ensuring there are no technical limitations to a successful launch, and more. Bringing an outside Project Manager up to speed requires an investment from your AEs and the prospective customer. It also greatly increases the likelihood the goals the customer outlined to the AE get lost in translation between multiple points of contact. For this myriad of reasons, Project Managers have a hard time navigating these critical stages of the sales process more effectively than an AE.

How to bring project management principles into the sales process

  1. Start off discovery calls by asking the right questions. Identify the problem a customer is looking to solve, what the ideal solution would look like, and what their timeline is to have something in place.
  2. Work backwards from the customer’s goal. Whenever possible reinforce what the customer hopes to achieve with your product. This helps build trust and credibility by ensuring all parties are speaking the same language and that you all agree on the expected impact of the project.
  3. Establish a clear understanding of what your product can and can’t do. A key reason our sales reps can effectively manage their deals is that our products are not customizable. Few products are truly plug and play, but your sales team should be able to clearly articulate use cases where your product will meet or exceed expectations – and also those cases where it won’t.
  4. Summarize the evaluation and buying process from start to finish. The customer needs to confirm there are no missing steps. Nothing is worse than having your deal sidelined at the last minute by a review process you weren’t aware existed (hellllooo security audit).
  5. Manage your time appropriately. Your sales team should have the bandwidth to make large customers a priority. When the evaluation and buying process requires a change to the customer’s existing processes, commitment from multiple parts of the org, or some up front integration work, the AE will need to evaluate if it’s worth their time to project manage this sales process. To hedge against unrealistic expectations, be upfront with the customer about what kind of resources you’ll be able to commit to a particular project.
  6. Maintain motivation and engagement with your internal champion and point of contact. They’re your lifeline into the inner workings of the company – don’t forget to build them into an ally. Make sure you understand what they stand to gain from a successful implementation of your product and how you can help them achieve their personal goals. Whenever possible try to make them look good – they’ll likely return the favor.

Having your AEs guide clients through the buying process using project management techniques not only increases the probability of them closing a big deal, it results in customers who are more likely to know what they bought and have a clear path to finding value in your products.

If your company is serious about selling to bigger customers, your sales team should be prepared to navigate additional hurdles and requirements. When you look at the alternatives, having your AEs project manage their larger deals is the best option for both your customers and your bottom line.