A Shakespearean Tale of Sales and Project Management

A sad mask and a happy mask

Gather around, everyone! Let me tell you a story about what happens when the sales team in a largish web agency doesn’t fully communicate with their project management team. It’s not quite Shakespearean – not everyone dies in the end – but it’s still pretty tragic.

Meet the cast

On one side we have the sales team. Their job is to sell stuff – lots of it. Typically, they do this by putting together an attractive combination of features, timeline, and price. Left to their own devices, they will probably do a really good job of this. Good for you, sales team! Big bonuses for everyone!

On the other side is the project management team. These talented and extremely good-looking people are working their Gantt charts to the bone to make sure that the team delivers the right product, on time and on budget. Keep working those Gantt charts, PMs!

Somewhere in the middle is the project team. They actually create what the sales team has sold. The project managers whip them with barbed wire to keep them motivated. Those poor suckers!

Hark! A Conflict!

Alas, there are conflicts that arise. They occur whenever our cast of characters do not fully communicate with each other during the sales process.

Here’s what happens:

  1. The sales team writes up a proposal based on historical best guesses and general optimism.
  2. The delighted client quickly signs the contract before anyone has time to change their mind.
  3. The finalized proposal goes to the project manager, who freaks out because they can’t possibly meet the proposed deadlines – they have other project commitments. He or she will likely upend a desk at this point.
  4. Finally, the project team are given their assignments. They immediately recognize that they can’t possibly create the agreed-upon features on time and on budget. Those poor suckers!

As frustrating as this is for everyone, the client ultimately suffers the most. Deadlines are missed, budgets are blown, and the final product does not quite match what was promised. Everybody walks away unhappy.

Turning Tragedy to Comedy

Here are the steps we take to prevent those dreaded unhappy endings. Disclaimer: This process only works on projects of a certain scale. On smaller jobs, we employ less rigorous methods.

  1. Pre-evaluation

    First things first, we determine if it’s something we even want to consider. To help guide this decision, we answer a set of pre-defined questions:

    • Does it fall into our budget comfort zone?
    • Is it a good match with our areas of expertise?
    • Do we like the people we’ll be working with?

    This can seem pretty obvious, but we’ve found it useful to stop and think about these things before simply writing up estimates for every opportunity that knocks.

  2. Business case

    If the project passes this first test, the salesperson writes up a short document called a business case that outlines the background of the project, high-level budget and timelines, potential risks, etc. It’s designed to be short, but still give a good idea of what’s what. Then it’s distributed to an evaluation board, which typically involves the salesperson, the big bosses and reps from each of our functional teams (creative, development, IT, and project management).
  3. Team evaluation

    Next, everybody gets together to discuss issues and give specific input. For example, the development team may identify something that is technically impossible, or the Project Management Office might point out that we don’t have the right people available until next month. Equally important is the full team buys in. The team evaluation allows everyone to get on board with the project at the beginning rather than having it imposed on them later on.

  4. Proposal

    After working through any changes or recommendations from the evaluation board, the sales team can now write up the proposal. Fortunately, some of the work for this has already been completed in the business case. Other sections, however – scope, budget and timeline in particular – need to be refined. We do this by talking directly to those best qualified to provide that info: the people who will be doing the actual work. To help guide this process, we provide a spreadsheet that includes descriptions of the tasks, dependencies, risks, and time estimates.

    It’s worth noting that getting accurate estimates from a variety of different people is tricky. We use the PERT method, which allows each person to give worst, most likely and best-case scenarios for each task. It really helps.

    In the end, not only do we have much more accurate descriptions and estimates, but everyone involved feels an added level of commitment and accountability.

  5. Delivery

    Finally, the proposal goes to the client. It’s detailed, accurate and realistic. If we’re awarded the contract, we can all rest easy knowing that we haven’t sold the client on something that can’t be delivered as promised.

Epilogue

Isn’t that a better ending? The project team is on board, comfortable with their tasks and the time they have to work. The project managers can sleep at night, with dreams of achievable budgets and realistic timelines. At last the sales team can walk the halls without fear of verbal abuse. Hugs all around!

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