Bridging the gap between sales and project management: Issue 2 of 6

The transition process: from sales to project setup

Selling and setting up profitable projects

As promised, this is the first instalment of our mini-series on Bridging the gap between sales and project management.

Issue 1: Assess your client & project alignment
Issue 2: From sales to project setup
Issue 3: Stakeholder types and their quirks
Issue 4: Stakeholder alignment
Issue 5: Tips for stakeholder onboarding
Issue 6: Wrap-up & resources

Let’s dig in:


Holy Magnus, you’ve just reeled in a whopper of a good lead. Of course, it’s magnificent but how should you vet this giant goldfish? And once you vet it, how do you book and set up the resulting project it morphs into? This transition phase is all about getting the right info and clarifying expectations up front to reduce team and process debt (the buildup of confusion or inconsistencies that lead to long-term repercussive effects like delays and overages). For a team, it’s the breakdowns in those damn transitions and gaps that are the killer—often more than the project phases or cycles themselves. Stay put for a couple helpful hints on how to get better alignment between sales and the start of your project.

The project, the product

I’m going to offer up some unconventional wisdom while you’re perched here with me. I don’t think many people put it this way and I know some will skewer me re: the traditional difference between product and project management. Pause your paws with that skewer. This is a spoonful of lateral thinking. If you’re a service shop (i.e., you sell services or build products for others), you have two things to think about…

The product: aka, the thing you build or make or do with your team.

And the project: the stakeholders, environment, personalities, hidden agendas, goals, marketing and sales objectives, and outcomes that frame and define your new client partner relationship which all wrap around that product (don’t forget your own team’s quirks and subtleties either, Captain).

Because humans are not robots, most of our project complexity comes from misalignment or a lack of clarity around the human needs on our projects. If you know how to talk about those and convey them to your team up front, you can do a good job assessing the project. And naturally, when you do a good job assessing the project, you can do an even better job of assessing the product you all showed up to build in the first place. Both of these initial assessments happen during and after that first sales call as you gather the basics and continue throughout the duration. Close the gaps, clear the path.

PS: I’m using ‘sales’ here as an overarching term to cover the gamut of business development, accounts, and contract closers. Substitute the word that makes the most sense to your business.

How PMs help vet leads

Your PM and sales folks should work closely together during the sales cycle. Here’s a quick summary of how a PM can support the sales process.

  • Catching any nasty or obvious red flags missed during or immediately following the initial sales call (depending on the salesperson’s comfort with vetting project related complexity and the frequency of leads).
  • Asking open-ended questions to uncover any more subtle or devious red flags that might inadvertently impact other projects or the team (e.g., stakeholders schedule holidays before their designated launch).
  • Supporting sales in developing criteria or checklists to help vet incoming leads.
  • Consulting with sales to review constraints, risks, and assessing team capacity and resource qualifications after the first sales meeting.
  • Discussing ideas with sales about how to turn prospect-related risk into trade-offs or mutual benefits (e.g., white labelling or licensing deliverables, consulting instead of implementation, building in education and onboarding into the budget).
  • Supporting or writing scope requirements and vetting Statements of Work (psst: we’d recommend a discovery before you do any scope and price firming).
  • Being a loveable hardass and resisting projects or clients that take your shop further away from its own business goals. Desperation is a funny beast: it can lower our defence response and sabotage us more deeply—PMs have great stink detectors by nature.

Embrace the fog

We often do a good job of asking the foundational questions about the problem to solve, time constraints, and available budget to help vet an initial lead for fit. But there’s an incongruity. We seem to focus more heavily on vetting the product itself: its features, business capability, market fit, ROI, and audience needs. The project part begins as a thick grey fog and gets thicker if you avoid it. The fog is the part that also tells you if you should build the product in the first place. Most shops do a decent job of flagging major issues like a jerky client attitude or unclear goals, but it’s the things that emerge between handoffs that often knock you sideways.

Often, teams miss assessing this project part because it’s hard to vet something you can’t see, especially when the vetting can be more gut feel than numbers, and when you have to do it quickly to sell the project. When silos exist and sales, PM, and team folk don’t talk during transitions, this grey fog darkens to acid rain and begins burning holes in the product itself. Sometimes, there’s no product left to build at all: just the soggy remains. Project failure.

Fog isn’t bad in itself: it’s an opportunity for exploration. It takes time to get to know the people you work with and for. For example, there are stakeholder goals, project goals, and client business goals—involving the PM early means investigating all of the above and avoiding bad translations that rain on your project parade.

Pre-flight check-in

Once you vet that lead and can move forward, make sure project leads ask and answer a few core questions. Often a quick chat between PM and sales will suffice before roping in the team for a proper handover:

  • Did the client prospect ‘pass’ the stink test? Should we work with them?
  • Did the client point of contact provide written approval on a contract or other document? If not, get that.
  • Do the client and your org each have a copy of this signed document? No? Make sure you do.
  • Did sales get a down payment or at least some sort of guarantee (like a letter of intent) for project start? No? Get one.
  • Did the sales identify a clear single point of contact? No? Ask them to.
  • Did sales communicate to the client that the project manager would be reaching out? No? Ask them to introduce the PM.
  • Is this project lined up with your goals and does it fit nicely into the top right quadrant of your client matrix? No? Reread last week’s newsletter.

Get the project basics

We recommend you, the project lead, get involved as early as the second sales meeting or sooner to help vet incoming projects. If you can’t, at the very least, make sure to find out basic information about the project and client (and its risks) if you don’t already have it. This is pivotal. We recommend you and your project team sit down with sales at this point for crystal clear transmission.

  • Who is the client? What’s their background?
  • Who are the other stakeholders? How much time do they need for reviews?
  • What is the project? The product? What are its goals?
  • What are the known risks? Any subtle ones?
  • How big or complex is this project?
  • Have we ever done anything like this? How did it go?
  • Are we writing the content? No? Then who should be?
  • What are the possible project roles we need (e.g., design, front-end/back-end development, content)?
  • Is the client providing any humans who will be doing implementation or strategy work on the project? Does this offset any resources your team needs to provide?
  • Are there any hard launches to consider? Multiple launches? Betas?
  • What is the anticipated budget? Is it fixed? Flexible?

Choose a start month

Without diving into the deep seams of resourcing and scheduling (something we cover in depth during our apprenticeship program), you should also be able to communicate a rough start month for the project. How? Here are some basic tips:

  • Look at how much work is in the shop and how much is in the pipeline. You want to aim to have three to six months worth of project work lined up for optimal revenue forecasting.
  • What is the soonest you could start and how long will you and your team be booked in weeks or months?
  • Look at the size of current projects in the shop and their relative progress and estimate the likelihood they will finish on time based on comparative data (e.g., large projects may take six months to two years, small projects may take one week to three months, and medium-sized might slip right in the middle).
  • Little projects can drag as much as big ones even though that’s naughty. By default, build in a buffer between project starts if you can: it gives the team time to transition and allows for a bit of project drag (delays).
  • When in doubt, ask your salesperson or your team for clarity.

Secure the team

Who’s going to work on the project? Look at your current list of talent and assess their skills and availability for upcoming projects. Then reach out and ask them to be a part of a project handover (a meeting with you, your team, and sales where you absorb the knowns and poke into the unknowns of the project). Here are the basic questions you need to find out before booking someone for a project:

  • Do they have the skills for the job? If you’re not sure, take a look at their past work.
  • How many projects are they currently on? Do they have room to take on another soon? Any vacation coming up? Ask them.
  • Are they full time or part time? Can they commit to a long-term project?
  • Are they employees or contractors? Employees cost less, but contractors are often available to fill shorter gaps or projects with tighter timelines.
  • Do they look tired and do they need a change of a pace? (Maybe a break or a new type of project is in order).
  • Are they excited about the project? If possible, don’t pair people with projects they can’t get excited about (within reason: this ain’t Disneyland).
  • Do they work well with the others on the team? You don’t want Jane and Jim working together if they hiss at each other (mind you, they probably shouldn’t be working at your org either).

Do a handover meeting

It’s extremely important that you schedule a formal ‘download’ of all the information that’s been sitting in your salesperson’s brain since they first interacted with the client. This is a unique time for you and your team to ask direct questions about the knowns so you can frame the unknowns and ask about things like:

  • Stakeholder qualities and quirks
  • Rogue stakeholders or third parties who need to be involved (remember this likely impacts your budget and timeline)
  • Unique constraints and challenges
  • Available resources
  • Gaps in understanding
  • Gaps in requirements or technology or goals

We recommend estimate in and set aside a percentage of the total project duration to complete a project handover meeting (e.g., a half day for a six-month project, a day or two for a twelve-month—check your past project data to confirm, though). The meeting length is less important. Your meeting is over when there are no more questions.

Setup the project

Once you’ve got a project safely past the contract and handover stages, your PM can set it up. Here are a few important steps.

  • Set up the project environment and tools.
  • Welcome and onboard the client with a tone-setting message and helpful documentation.
  • Set the formal pace and tone of the project.
  • Schedule the official start and book a short pre-kickoff to check in with the client before doing a formal kickoff with all stakeholders.

There’s more to it, but this ain’t an encyclopedia, Brown. We’ll share more details with you if you join the program, but until then, this is a good list to get you started.

Ultimately, your sales-to-project start transition is the biggest opportunity during the project to use your power to guide, align, and define it. Don’t waste that chance. Seal up the gaps, bring in the PM right away, and become adept at understanding how the project environment sits around and influences the product you make.

Up next

Keep your peepers on your inbox. Next week we’ll be covering different stakeholder types and their quirks so you can vet your power in the process.

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