Spot the warning signs. Avoid project emergencies.

If problems are popping up unexpectedly around your company’s projects, products, and people, those, my friends, are red flags. Missing them is tantamount to an acid bath for your organization. We’ve got you covered.

Sales


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Business developer can’t adequately describe any red flags in leads

Your business developer should be well versed in reciting the ABCs of client risks and rewards. If your business developer can’t recognize obvious warnings when speaking with a new lead, it’s time for some PM support.

The fix

Try having a sit down with your sales team and workshop some red flags together and how they might impact the entire project. At the very least, ask to be brought into all second calls with sales leads so you can ask open-ended questions while jotting down all the flags you notice so you can chat with your business developer about them after the call. Bring up past examples of how red flags impacted projects and profitability.

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Business developer can’t determine if the lead aligns with your organization’s goals or mission.

Watch out: to effectively vet incoming leads, your business developer should implicitly know the organization’s mission and goals and know whether or not that sales lead aligns with them.

The fix

It might be time to do a group sit down and clarify where the company is headed, and what the minimum requirements to work with your org should be.

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Business developer doesn’t bring in the PM after the first or second call to help vet the incoming lead.

If you as the PM only find out about a project the day it hits, your team needs to tighten up its handoffs.

The fix

We highly recommend bringing in a PM (or similar role) early in the sales process to help vet incoming projects and leads to prevent scope inaccuracies, timeline conflicts, and unnecessary risk.

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The business developer diminishes or overturns the PM’s or team’s concerns about the client or project

As a PM, your job is to sniff out risks that could help or hurt your project. If your business developer won’t take your or your team’s concerns seriously, this is a pretty serious operational breakdown in trust and communication. Despite the fact that people think sales is just about the close, it should be about a good close with a good client.

The fix

The more you can talk through how the sales process and PM role work together to help strengthen good leads and suss out bad ones, the better your org’s chance of survival. Talk to your team and business developer about the risks and benefits of working together if you feel like you can and if not, seek some allies who can help you table that conversation. If it leads nowhere, your org is probably more focused on growth than sustainability and might be a candle in the wind.

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The business developer doesn’t clarify timeline, scope, budget, or stakeholder details within the first call with the lead.

The sooner your business developer has the opportunity to vet incoming leads, the better. Delays in finding out fundamental information drag out the sales process and lead to miscommunications that have a huge impact on the project.

The fix

If your team doesn’t have this core information before a project starts, go back to the sales person and ask for another call with the client to clarify the details. Come prepared with any constraints that might impact the project timeline, budget, or complexity. It’s also smart to have a nonverbal way to communicate with your business developer during the call so as not to undermine them but still to prevent any snap decisions (like a sign for yes or no or a system of doodles). Keep being a loveable hardass. It pays off.

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The business developer or owner tells the team to just make the project work because ‘we need the business.’

Um, this is not good. The pipeline is dry and desperation has sunk its teeth into your leadership’s heart.

The fix

Outline the risks and consequences of taking on this work and find out if there’s any work you can drum up out of existing clients (current ones are always a lower energy barrier than starting fresh). Hopefully, it’s temporary but if these awful but necessary projects become a regular thing, it might be time to brainstorm some new business ideas together as a team to drum up some additional business (as well as solidify a new direction that might differentiate your organization). Like work breeds like work, so if you take on one sick client, more will probably follow.

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The business developer refuses to talk about potential risks with clients and stakeholders.

If your business developer is too afraid or averse to talking about risks and red flags with clients it could undermine your project and lead to a ballooning scope and massive client management issues.

The fix

Find out if there’s anything specific causing your business developer’s discomfort and share a few of these scripts to help ease the conversation. If nothing changes, raise your concerns in the open and find your allies at work who can help reinforce ideas for better communication. It’s a collective effort to button up your processes and reduce incoming risk, and a strong business developer can do a ton to offload this work for the PM. Make sure that your business developer has a solid list of red flags available to reference as new leads come in the door and bring the PM in early to help vet them.

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The contract requires multiple rounds of haggling or major revisions before it begins.

Heads up: the bigger your clients are, the bigger their legal team and expectations. This is alright so long as your org is designed to endure lengthier sales processes and has a kickass lawyer who can navigate the legalese. The red flags come when there’s quibbling over the finest contract details. It can be indicative of your lead’s lack of trust or transparency.

The fix

You better be mutually aligned with your client or this could be a real doozy.

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The lead is a favour or demand from internal stakeholders and doesn’t meet the minimum scope, goals, or budget requirements.

Ever have an owner or teammate slip in a project because they know the lead? Yup, it happens—and it can set an expectation for lower budgets, faster turnarounds, and increased expectations. This is tough on a team because their hands are usually tied.

The fix

If the lead will hurt the team, profits, or company accountability, document this in writing and bring it back to your owner/teammate with a clear outline of the risks involved. Be very clear with the client lead about scope exclusions. If the project starts to slide or the client goes AWOL, see if you can bring in your owner/teammate in early to help manage expectations. Tell your owner/teammate you need their help and describe how this client project makes it very hard on the team to do great work.

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The people doing the work aren’t helping to scope it.

A big no-no. There is nothing more dangerous than someone who doesn’t touch the work planning and communicating to a client how long it will take or how much it will cost. Owners and business developers will typically underestimate the scope and have more optimistic bias about how long it would take them to complete it.

The fix

Rely on your team to help nail down a high-level estimate and schedule range when new projects come in and make sure you’re considering how any red flags will impact your numbers. The people doing the work are the best predictors of its density.

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The prospective client asks for a discount before the first engagement.

That’s not how you roll. Or it shouldn’t be. Discounting work up front sends the message that you’re desperate for the sale rather than confident in the close. It also sets up an expectation for future discounts.

The fix

Whenever a prospective client asks for an upfront cost break, make sure you’re only saying yes if you know the client will be in for a long-term relationship and don’t discount the first project, discount the second—lightly.

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The prospective client has no money or is a not-for-profit who wants free work.

Listen, it’s a good thing to give back to the community, but unfortunately, unless you’re covered by grants or government funding, it can put your org in a dangerous position when you take on free or very low budget work.

The fix

If you’re going to go pro bono, be sure that the clients needs and goals align with your own and that you can financially afford to take the client on. It’s also a good idea to set more rigorous contract terms that can cinch scope and timelines since pro bono clients tend to be the ones who need the most support.

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The prospective client has very strong ideas about what they’re looking for AND how it needs to look.

Danger bay. If your lead thinks they know exactly what they’re looking for and how you should do it, they’ll likely be picky, need more time to make decisions, and they’ll tack on scope with additional change requests.

The fix

Be up front and ask this client how open they are to deviate from their ideas. If they don’t respect the business case or user research and didn’t hire your org for its processes as well as its outputs, it might be time to hit the high road and walk away.

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The prospective client is rude, demeaning, or distrustful.

The fix

Do not work with this client.

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The sales and project teams do not have a clear handoff process for closing sales and starting the project.

If your sales and project teams don’t have a clear handover built into your process, it’s the worst kind of telephone: a dead one.

The fix

To avoid surprises in scope, timelines, and features, make sure you’re buttoned up. Gather project related questions from your team and bring them to sales, or even better, have sales brief the team well before kickoff and don’t stop the meeting till everyone’s questions are answered.

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The sales person completes full proposals for uncertain leads.

Proposals take a lot of work, and if you don’t know whether a lead will close, it can be a wasted effort. If you notice your sales person writing proposals for every uncertain project lead, your org is fishing too hard for the chance at a bite.

The fix

Keep your communications informal and your notes short until you know if your lead wants to move forward and take the next step. They’ll appreciate your org’s candour, and your sale person will appreciate the extra half day of time that materializes when saying no to uncertain proposals.

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