When (and how) to involve your PMs in the sales process

Written by: Karl Sakas

Should you involve your agency’s project managers in the sales process? Yes, definitely!

For most agencies, the hard part is balancing when and how to involve your PMs in sales.

  • Too soon? You’re taking PMs away from billable work, for a sales deal that might not even move forward.
  • Too late? The salesperson is likely to over-promise and undercharge… creating problems later for clients, coworkers, and you as the owner.

Like Goldilocks stealing the bears’ porridge, you want to get this “just right.”

Let’s look at when and how to involve PMs in sales at your agency. For this article, I’ll assume you have at    least one dedicated PM, at least one dedicated salesperson, and zero dedicated account managers—but you might have an entire team of PMs and/or salespeople. (If you do sales as an owner of the agency, watch out… more on that at the end.)

In a future article, I’ll dig even deeper—I’ll share a list of agency-specific factors that drive the “when” and “how” questions. Subscribe to my email newsletter to hear when that goes live.

Why you should involve PMs in your agency’s sales process

Involving your PMs in the sales process is about creating balance, to ensure that you’re selling work that’s both profitable and realistic.

Salespeople need help

In hiring at your agency, you can expect a mix of positives and negatives—even from New Rope candidates. Consider the profile of a typical salesperson—high people skills, plus high urgency. (In DiSC, that’s “D+i”: Dominance+Influence).

  • The “ideal salesperson” profile has many plusses. Most salespeople are enthusiastic, building relationships to enlist prospects to become clients. They’re driven and competitive, wanting to hit (or exceed) their numbers. Prospects tend to like them—and are happy to spend money with your agency because of the relationship the salesperson built with them.
  • The “ideal salesperson” profile has some minuses, too. Most salespeople are not highly detail-oriented, and their desire to please others can lead them to make promises that are difficult for the agency to fulfill. Further, salespeople may not fully understand the nuances of everything they’re selling, which leads to client misunderstandings. And their desire to hit their numbers can lead to taking some shortcuts… or cutting prices without cutting the scope.

Great salespeople are rarely great PMs… and that’s OK.

PMs need help, too

The ideal project manager tends to have the opposite of the ideal salesperson profile. (In DiSC, PMs tend to be high “C” or “C+D” or “C+D”—that is, Conscientiousness and Dominance.)

That is, the PM is focused on details and concrete reality, sometimes to the point that they miss upsell possibilities, or that your clients feel the Competence but not the Warmth. Great PMs tend not to be great salespeople… and that’s OK.

When your project managers are involved in the sales process, you get the best of both worlds—the salesperson’s enthusiasm and desire to win people over, and the PM’s focus on ensuring what you sell is profitable and feasible.

What goes wrong when you don’t involve PMs in the sales process

Here are some things that tend to happen when agencies don’t involve their PMs in the sales process, from my experience as an employee and an agency consultant:

  1. Under-pricing: Because salespeople tend to be people-pleasers who want to make their quota, salespeople have an incentive to under-price deals. When the PM’s involving in pricing, they save the salesperson from themselves.
  2. Over-promising: Since they want people to like them, salespeople tend to make promises… including promises that the agency can’t fulfill. Other times, the promises are realistic… but not for the budget the client chose.
  3. Mis-scoping: Some under-pricing is unintentional, if the salespeople didn’t ask the right questions. Project managers have a superpower for imagining what could go wrong… which helps them dig into the client’s stated and unstated assumptions. This can help you build guardrails about what is and isn’t included, including warnings about risks.
  4. Missed details: It’s normal for salespeople to talk about possibilities during the sales process… but not everything makes it into the final budget. Your PM can take the lead on building the list of “sales exclusions” for the Statement of Work (SOW), highlighting what’s not included. This can include caveats if you’re doing Agile or other flexible-scope work, where you don’t want to make formal promises about what’s included.
  5. Misunderstandings: Sometimes prospects will mention something is important, and forget about it until later. PMs are great at capturing points like that, so that there are fewer misunderstandings later.
  6. Discontinuity: If the client doesn’t meet their account manager and/or PM during the sales process, they’re often surprised to learn their new “buddy” (the salesperson) won’t be their contact during the engagement they just agreed to do. That surprise doesn’t help client satisfaction.

OK, so you’re sold on including your project managers in the sales process (or sooner than you do today)… but when?

Timing: How do you know it’s not too soon or too late in the sales process?

Back to Goldilocks and “just right”—you have a balancing act ahead. At a high level, consider:

  • Too early in the sales process: PMs should skip the first-round sales screening, what I call an “Exploratory Call.” I’d also skip being involved until the salesperson has talked to each client stakeholder at least once, or at least has received a completed sales pre-qualification survey from them. Your salesperson needs to have tried to fast-fail the sales prospect. It’s too early (and you’re not qualifying prospects well enough) if your proposal-to-win rate is less than 50%.
  • Just right in the sales process: If the prospect survives the initial round (or two) of fast-failure, bring in the PM as it’s time to define a scope (or to set initial expectations on an Agile engagement). Consider having the PM at the proposal presentation. They might not always need to meet the client team before then, but the PM should read all the intake materials. If you’re doing technically-complex work, you’ll want the PM involved sooner.
  • Too late in the sales process: The kickoff call—or after the kickoff call—is too late to introduce the PM. And “never” would be worse.

Wait, where does all this free time magically come from? Read on!

How do we create time for PMs to help with sales?

Start by assuming that your PM needs to spend time on sales support or “sales engineering.” How much time? Probably 10-20%, depending on your sales volume.

That’s part of why I assume that PMs bill only 50% of their time—instead of 75-80% of their time like a designer, developer, or other Subject Matter Expert. In addition to non-billable sales support, PMs are building internal processes and facing the low-productivity consequences of task-switching.

Make it safe for PMs to reserve “heads down time” blocks in their schedule, where they evaluate sales opportunities to scope-out the work. If your PMs have 8+ projects at once, they won’t be able to do this… which is another reason not to overload your PMs anyway.

What about account managers (AMs) being involved in new sales?

Yes, your account managers should be involved in new business. Ideally, your prospective clients meet their designated AM before the kickoff meeting.

But an AM’s natural profile tends to be closer to a salesperson; AMs are typically more about relationship-building and upsells than about managing details (although plenty of AMs have had to get good at details.)

If your agency combines the AM/PM role into a single position, watch out for mistakes—when you grow beyond 8-12 people, that’s a bad idea; I recommend you specialize.

How do we pay for having PMs non-billable in the sales process?

If your PMs have a “50% billable” target, you’re already paying for PMs to spend time on non-billable activities like sales support.

Track the time, to see where it’s going. Some agencies bill for the time in the resulting proposal, as “Requirements Definition” or just PM itself. Others intentionally don’t bill for it, but may include a “fee waived” line-item.

If it feels like you’re not charging enough to cover PMs working on sales… charge more. As we’ve established, you need to have PMs involved in sales, to prevent preventable problems… so this is now a cost of doing business. Here’s my advice on how to raise prices for current clients, and how to find higher-paying new clients.

Effort: How do you know it’s not too much time or too little time?

It’s all relative. If your net profit margins are consistently within my benchmark range (20-30%), you’re probably doing fine across the board. If your net profit margins are less than 20%, you probably have profit leaks.

Consider how PMs are spending their time. If they’re spending more than 20% of their time on sales support, consider whether you need to reduce their project workload. If your PMs have enough time to do the proposal scoping, but not to actually fulfill what they just scoped… that tends to become problematic (because you’ll need to stick another PM with someone else’s assumptions).

Should we ever dedicate a project manager 100% to sales support?

I would avoid making a PM “100% sales support only.” When a PM scopes a project they’ll need to fulfill, they tend to be more careful than if it’s something they know they’ll pass to someone else.

Beyond losing their sense of “ownership,” a sales-only PM will tend to get fuzzy on nuances of implementation, since they’re no longer responsible for “shipping” what they scoped or otherwise planned.

What else should we think about for sales support (aka “sales engineering”)?

There are plenty of other things to consider. Here are a few.

Can a PM veto a salesperson on the final scope and budget?

As between AMs and PMs, you ideally have a good degree of professional “tension” between PMs and salespeople. That is, the salesperson wants to include more at a lower-ish price, and the PM wants to include less at a higher-ish prices. (Your salesperson wants a higher commission, of course… but they also want the deal to close.)

You need to decide which role approves final pricing at your agency. In the early days, it’s you as the owner. As you grow, it might be the Director of Project Management or the COO, for client engagements of a certain size. In a smaller agency, it’s certainly the PM over the salesperson… although small agencies often have an owner as the salesperson. More on that (and the problems to expect) below.

What if your PMs don’t want to be involved in sales?

Reality: If you’re a PM at an agency, you need to be involved in sales. Most PMs understand that they’re less likely to have problems later if they helped plan the deal.

If a PM is uncomfortable because they’re uncomfortable with sales or selling in the first place, it’s important that they understand you’re not expecting them to be the salesperson. Indeed, they’re helping your agency ensure the agency puts the client’s interest at heart, by committing to do the work the client needs for the price the client chooses to pay.

Take some time to dig into your PM’s concerns. Odds are good that you can address the concern… but you need to ask and then actively listen.

Exceptions: Are there times we can skip involving a PM?

If your agency sells solely productized services, you can probably skip involving a PM in the sales process. But every so often, you’ll want to have a PM walk the salesperson through different combinations, so that the salesperson knows to “raise their hand” when something unusual comes along.

If you’re doing Agile, sprint-based work… you might be able to bring a PM into the process later. But be careful; you don’t want the salesperson to make the client think they’re guaranteed to get XYZ deliverable by the Nth sprint.

What about involving highly-billable SMEs in sales engineering?

Sometimes you need Subject Matter Experts (SMEs) involved in sales support. But you have to find a balance on that; it’s hard for them to bill 75-80% when they’re always in sales conversations. See my article on juggling multiple roles.

What if an agency owner is the one doing sales?

If the agency owner (you?) is doing sales, be careful! You’ll have a tendency to minimize your PMs’ concerns about scope and budget, because you want to make the sale.

Watch out! If minimizing turns into dismissiveness (or outright steamrolling), your PMs will stop sharing their concerns. This is bad, because now no one is counter-balancing your desire to grow revenues. And that’s unfortunate, because PMs are focused on profitability, which is ultimately more important than revenue growth alone.

Does any of this sound familiar? Consider how to reset how you work with your team, whether by yourself or with the help of an executive coach.

Factors to help you customize this at your agency

From what I’ve shared, you’ll likely have a good idea of where PMs fit into your agency’s sales process. Odds are good that it’s sooner than you typically involve your PMs today… or perhaps it involves a shift in how they help.

Still not quite sure? In a future article, I’ll share a list of agency-specific factors that drive the “when” and “how” questions. Subscribe to my email newsletter to hear when that goes live. In the meantime, start upgrading your sales process—including how you involve your PMs—to start improving things today!

In the meantime, send your team to my Agency PM 101 training. The on-demand training won’t take someone from intern to Senior Project Manager—but they’ll get actionable tips to help you prevent problems immediately.

Question: How do you involve your agency’s PMs in the sales process?

Book Cover: "Work Less, Earn More" by Karl Sakas

Frustrated with project management?

Struggling to ensure projects are completed on time and under budget?

It’s time to reduce the overwhelm—for you and the rest of the team.

In my Agency PM 101 training, I’ll walk you step-by-step through everything you need to know to successfully tame the chaos of agency life. Start running projects more smoothly, delivering them more profitably, and finishing on time.