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The Project Manager as Salesperson

One of my own mentors told me a very long time ago, “You don’t like selling? Too bad ‘cause you’re either you’re either gonna be selling to them or they’ll be selling to you.”

There is a disdain for salespeople among many who think of themselves in more of an engineering context. However, my experience in the project management industry has shown my mentor’s comments to be more often true than not. As project managers we are going to need to sell our story often and in many different ways. Here are just a few project management sales opportunities:

Selling Yourself as the Project Manager

Audience: The PMO, Senior Management and/or the Client
Before the project even begins, you’ll need to convince someone that you’re the right person for the job. Do you have the experience for this kind of project? Do you have a resume of the skills and particular contribution you can make if they put you in charge? What about the resources you’ll need when you take on the job? Are you ready to make a pitch to management for the particular tools, or assistance, or people you might require? This is your chance to sell that idea to management!

Selling the Proposal for Approval

Audience: The Steering Committee
You’ve got the project but is it a project yet? If your organization does project portfolio management, then perhaps not. Many organizations use a stage-gating system that starts before projects get very far. Are you ready to make the case for your proposal to become a project? Have you got a business case that lists the Return on Investment, the Strategic Alignment of the goals of this project with those of the organization? Do you know how your proposal compares to others you may be up against? How can you make your project look like the most attractive to the steering committee that needs to approve it.

While we’re talking about this kind of salesmanship, we should add the same for each and every stage-gate that the project will encounter. You’ll need to present more than a bar chart to get your project through the gate and into the next stage, and that may mean preparing materials and a presentation to show why you’re ready to move to the next level at each review.

Selling the Budget

Audience: Senior Management
Ok, you’ve got the project, but do you have the resources? This is one of the most fundamental challenges for project managers and a remarkable percentage of project managers aren’t ready to make a case for the money they need. Are you? Do you have the backup research to say why you need each and every penny that’s in your budget? How about a trade-off spreadsheet of less money equals less features equals less return on investment? It’s an easy tool to understand and very few project managers think of doing it. I’ll put selling the scope of the project and the timeline into this same category although you might have to make separate pitches for each.

Selling the Project for Resourcing

Audience: Potential team members and Team/Department Leaders
It’s a miracle! You’ve sold management on your project and you’ve got the money you asked for and a schedule you can live with. Now who will actually do the project? Can you attract the best team members? Can you lobby the key skilled resources you’ll need? How about the team leaders who might be in charge of those resources? Have you thought of how you’ll pitch it to them to get that particularly key resource? What’s in it for them? Why will your project need that person and how will that help the organization as a whole?

Selling any Variance or Change Management

Audience: The Client
As you’ll know if you’ve read any of my articles in the past, my favorite project management quote is from Napoleon Bonaparte who said “A battle plan lasts until contact with the enemy.” That’s almost always true on a project. When you do get some variance or there is a request for a change of scope, are you ready to pitch the idea to make the change to the client? Perhaps what would be best is pitching the client to not make the change. Do you have the materials, the logic, the presentation slides and the story that’s easy to understand and ready to deliver? Perhaps it’s a time-to-market vs. feature-rich trade-off analysis. Whatever it is, it’ll need to be easy to graph and easy to absorb.

Selling the End-Product

Audience: The Client and/or End Users
Hurray! Your project is finished. Or so you think. I can’t tell you how many project managers get to the end of the project only to find the client reluctant to accept what was created. “But we made what you asked for,” says the project manager. The client doesn’t see it that way and the project manager isn’t ready to sell the end result to the client. Are you? Have you been getting the client ready for what they’re about to receive? Have you got materials that you can provide for sign-off, for the benefits that they’re about to get? I’ll include here selling Phase 2 of the project because it often happens at client sign-off.

Selling Yourself as the Project Manager for the Next Project

Audience: The PMO and/or Senior Management
Finally, when the project is over are you ready to sell management on how great a job you did so you can get onto the next great project? Did you collect data along the way of what you accomplished as a project manager and how you made a difference? A lessons-learned document that gets widely distributed is a great tool for this. Share your lessons with others but don’t forget to point out the things that worked along with what didn’t. It’s a wonderful opportunity to explain the system you created or the tools you shared with other team members.

Regardless of what part of the project management cycle you’re in, the chances that you’ll need to do some sales work as a project manager are almost inevitable. Do you have the tools and the skills? Here are a few that I often find lacking when I interview potential project managers and even independent consult ants:

Presentation Software

Whether it’s the ubiquitous PowerPoint or other presentation software I’m always stunned at the horrible quality of slide presentations. Projected presentations are a fact of life. If you don’t have the graphics and design skills to make your own unique templates, look for some online. There are thousands of free templates and a low-cost investment in PresentationPro or other template warehouse is worth its weight in gold. While I’m talking about presentations, learn not just how to use your presentation software but also some basic functionality of graphics software such as PaintShop Pro so you can capture and insert corporate logos or screen shots or pictures of the project.

Public Speaking

I spent about 10 solid years of being trained in public speaking and while that’s more than most people do, I talk to an incredible number of project managers who’ve spent no time at all. If you can’t speak in front of a small or even mid-sized group, you’re always going to be handicapped as a project manager. There are great training courses that are not tremendously expensive. Join Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie or just look online but get a professional to give you some basic speaking and voice lessons!

Word Processing Skills and Document Writing

A project manager has to be able to write a proposal or business analysis report. Expecting that the spell and grammar checker on your word processor will do all the work for you is a fantasy. I see a remarkable number of documents that are terribly formatted, poorly written and just plain hard to understand. If writing is not your thing, you can sign up for a business writing class at your local college. And, for goodness’ sake, learn the basics of your word processing package!

Even for skilled project managers, there are a few sales tools that you might not often think of but that can be invaluable. Here are just a few that I see project managers collect very infrequently but that are incredibly impressive when used appropriately:

Data Collected along the Way

Project managers who collect data along the way always do better at presenting it. If you are thinking ahead to your next presentation then the more empirical data you have available, the more convincing you’ll be when making your sales pitch are.

Competitive Advantage

It is inevitable that, when you are selling one of the opportunities described above, the people to whom you are presenting will be looking at what you’re presenting in the context of alternatives. It’s very powerful to have thought in advance of what those alternatives are so you can present the competitive advantages. You don’t need to talk about the alternatives such as other projects. But, you can still talk about those aspects of your project that would compare well against others.

Competitive Benefits

Aside from advantages, one perspective that even trained sales people often forget are the competitive benefits. If you think of not just the advantages of your project over another, but also the benefits that the organization will realize in your proposal vs. another, you’ll already be head and shoulders above whoever else is presenting.


There are so many free survey sites such as Zoomerang online but so few project managers use them. I’ve seen experienced project managers leap ahead by collecting survey results. The surveys might be for feature comparisons, interface element selections, timing or prioritization by clients or users. I saw a fabulous survey done once just for icon selection within a software project. Surveys don’t take a huge amount of effort but their results can make a very big impression!

Whatever the project, you are bound to run into some situation where you’ll need to become a project manager salesperson. Learning the sales tools and skills even at an elementary level can make the difference between a successful project and one that’s less so.

So – get out there and do some selling!


Chris Vandersluis is the founder and president of HMS Software based in Montreal, Canada. He has an economics degree from Montreal’s McGill University and over 22 years experience in the automation of project control systems. He is a long-standing member of both the Project Management Institute (PMI) and the American Association of Cost Engineers (AACE) and is the founder of the Montreal Chapter of the Microsoft Project Association. Mr. Vandersluis has been published in numerous publications including Fortune Magazine, Heavy Construction News, the Ivey Business Journal, PMI’s PMNetwork and Computing Canada. Mr. Vandersluis has been part of the Microsoft Enterprise Project Management Partner Advisory Council since 2003. He teaches Advanced Project Management at McGill University’s Executive Institute. He can be reached at [email protected].

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