Monday, August 27, 2012

The Project Manager as Team Leader

Most projects require a team approach. Therein lies both a tremendous opportunity and a substantial challenge. The upside of the team approach is undeniable. By drawing on the varied talents, experiences, and perspectives of the project team, you maximize your potential for delivering a successful project. But the challenge of getting people to work together effectively also presents the risk of problems along the way.

In most firms, the project manager assumes primary responsibility for leading the project team, and for promoting the synergism that can result from teamwork. Unfortunately, many PMs are more comfortable focusing on the technical and administrative aspects of project management, neglecting their responsibilities as team leader. Perhaps it's helpful to clarify what's really involved in effectively leading a team. Let me suggest the following:

Provide clear direction to the team. As PM, you are the primary link between the client and the team. Thus you are the conduit through which critical information flows about what the client wants and expects. This also involves helping team members understand overarching project goals, as well as the details of their individual work assignments. Key responsibilities in providing direction are:
  • Communicate client needs and expectations to the team
  • Clearly articulate project goals and requirements
  • Define standards, procedures, methods, and internal expectations
  • Make individual work assignments clear
Maintain frequent, effective communication. Teamwork depends on communication. When teamwork breaks down, it is almost always due in large part to communication problems. Thus you should see that all parties are communicating adequately, enabling everyone to understand their respective roles and responsibilities (you might be surprised how often, in my experience, this isn't clear to the team). You should also keep the team informed of project progress and changes. Key communication responsibilities include:
  • Keep lines of communication open through regular meetings, emails, one-on-one conversations, etc.
  • Actively solicit regular feedback from team members
  • Promptly inform the team of any significant changes or developments
  • Make yourself routinely accessible to the team
Promote a collaborative environment. Collaboration produces synergy, where the results of combined effort exceed the sum of individual contributions. You should regularly engage the team in strategy definition, crucial decisions, problem solving, and helping one another. One suggestion is to periodically provide opportunities for the team to work together in a common space (e.g., a conference room). This physical interaction can remarkably improve collaboration. Other suggestions:
  • Allow team members to define their own assignments where practical
  • Engage the team in all important decisions and in problem solving
  • Schedule brainstorming sessions at critical project junctures
  • Take steps to promote better interactions between different disciplines
Motivate top performance from team members. Motivated employees are more productive and service-minded—keys to a successful project. PMs too often ignore their responsibility for motivating those on their team to do their best and keep improving over time. As PM, you should work with department heads or disciplinary leaders to ensure that you're working together in bringing out the full potential of the staff that you share. This includes:
  • Take time to learn what motivates individual team members
  • Offer frequent praise and encouragement (positive reinforcement) for good work
  • Address performance problems promptly and fairly
  • Stay involved with and interested in the team on a continual basis

Monday, August 20, 2012

Cold Calling or Offering Value?

Most technical professionals are uncomfortable making cold calls and that's understandable, because we all hate receiving them. Think clients are any different?

Cold calls are an unwelcome interruption. A University of North Carolina study found that 80% of corporate decision makers absolutely will not buy in response to a cold call. Aggravation with telemarketers calling our homes led to passage of the federal Do-Not-Call Improvement Act in 2007. 

Yet many still advocate cold calling as an effective lead generation tactic for professional services. The respected Wellesley Hills Group conducted a survey that identified cold calling as the second-most productive way, after referrals, to generate new leads. How is this so? They advocate an approach to cold calling that's significantly different from how most sellers do it.

Traditional cold calling is a numbers game. Call enough people and a few are likely to buy. It's the classic product push. Without taking time to understand customer needs, the salesperson indiscriminately offers the product or service to whoever is on the call list. Of course, there's a well-rehearsed sales pitch, and usually pressure to make a quick decision.

In our business, obviously, we're not trying to make a sale over the phone, only to make an appointment. That doesn't mean the client is any happier to hear from us. Often we're resorting to our own version of the product push—"I'd like to introduce you to our firm." We may know little about the client's needs, which makes the cold call seem similarly indiscriminate. And no request for the client's precious time is insignificant, yet a quick decision to meet with us is expected.

There's a better way! A good place to start is to simply apply the Golden Rule. If you don't appreciate receiving cold calls, how would you prefer that a service provider make the initial contact with you? I've not only pondered that question, but asked professional service buyers what they thought. Here are some steps that have proven effective for me and my A/E firm clients over the years:

Don't call until you've identified an opportunity to help. These days, there's no excuse for calling a prospective client entirely cold. Through your network or the internet, surely you can determine a need or problem where you can offer assistance. This positions you to move beyond the usual product push and to directly address an opportunity to help the client.

Offer your entree in exchange for the client's time. What I call your entree is something of value—usually information or advice—that offers a fair return for the client's time. Don't try to schedule a sales call without it! Sure, you can usually get the appointment without an entree. But is the client looking forward to meeting with you
? Probably not. A key objective in offering your entree is to create a positive expectation by the client about the upcoming meeting. Trust me, it makes a big difference in how well the meeting goes.

A typical entree looks something like this: You read that a municipality is dealing with a serious drainage problem. The most logical solution involves building a retention structure in a popular city park. Yet this option is wildly unpopular with residents, whose understanding of the project has been distorted in part by local news coverage. 

You call the public works director for that municipality and tell him that your firm worked with another city facing a similar predicament. They employed a creative process for engaging citizens in planning for the project, which ultimately turned most opponents into supporters. This enabled the project to be constructed next to an elementary school playground, saving 40% over the cost of the next most viable alternative.

You offer to share how this other municipality successfully dealt with this very similar situation. The public works director enthusiastically indicates his interest, and says that he will be inviting others to that meeting as well. Sound better than the typical introductory sales call?

Balance asking questions and offering insight and information. It's easy to overdo it in either direction. Early in the sales process, you lack detailed information about the client and their needs, so the temptation is to ask a lot of questions. That's not value for the client. At the other extreme, you may become so engaged in sharing your entree that you forget to ask questions that illuminate the client's needs. That limits your ability to offer additional help. Best way to balance the two? Plan your sales call in advance.

Don't overstay your welcome. To avoid this, I suggest asking for only 20-30 minutes of the client's time. That obviously doesn't give you much time to cover everything you might like to in that first meeting. But usually the meeting will run longer—at the client's request. Here's how it works: When the agreed-upon meeting duration is reached, you say something like, "Well, the 30 minutes I requested is up. I want to respect your time. But if you'd like to discuss this further, I'm happy to, either now or at a later time." In virtually every case I have used this approach, the client has requested that we keep talking, which you would expect if you're providing something of value.

Be sure to establish the basis for the next meeting. I'll be honest, offering an entree for every sales call is challenging, and it often gets harder after the first meeting. That's why in planning your sales call you want to identify potential entrees for a subsequent meeting. Then when meeting with the client, you want to mutually determine a reason to meet again. For example, you say: "Let me take a closer look at the two options we discussed and do some preliminary cost estimates. How about we get together in two to three weeks to talk about what I find. Would that work for you?"

I gave up traditional cold calling years ago and have never looked back. That doesn't mean I don't make initial calls to clients, of course. But now I do so with something to offer. Here's a basic summary of the differences between the two approaches:
  • The typical cold call is motivated primarily by your needs; offering your entree is motivated by the client's needs
  • The typical cold call focuses on selling your firm; offering your entree focuses on serving the client
  • The typical cold call starts by requesting the client's time; offering your entree gives something of value in return
  • In getting the appointment, you might assume the client's interest; but offering your entree usually enables you to confirm that interest
  • Most technical professionals hate cold calling; offering your entree is a natural extension of what they do best

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Is Solution Selling Dead?

Harvard Business Review recently published an article bearing the provocative title "The End of Solution Sales." The authors are not the first to make such a pronouncement. A quick Google search reveals several articles and blog posts making a similar argument. In their view, customers today are too sophisticated, too smart, and too well informed to rely on salespeople to help solve their problems.

Or even so-called consultants. When I entered this business thirty-some years ago, clients were more dependent on advice from their A/E service providers. We provided critical support as both consultants and designers. In subsequent years, our consulting role has waned as clients solved more problems in house and turned to us simply to implement the solutions they had in mind. Not surprisingly, this trend has corresponded with the growing complaint in our ranks that design services are becoming increasingly commoditized.

But I wonder, in our industry at least, whether the apparent demise of solution selling has as much to do with us as with our clients. Did prospective clients start rejecting our counsel, or did we stop offering it? The HBR article provides a clue. The key, the authors write, is to get involved with clients before the problem or need has been fully defined. Help the client diagnose the problem and its business implications, identify viable alternatives, and jointly develop the best practical solution.

That's not new advice. It's largely a matter of timing. If you engage the client after the need and solution have been defined—and certainly after the RFP has been released—there is little left to discuss other than the details of fulfillment. That's a sure path to commodity selling. I suspect that the purported death of solution selling has more to do with longer sales cycles and sellers showing up late to the game than clients no longer valuing our advice.

That's not to suggest that clients aren't more sophisticated and sources of information aren't more readily available. It is indeed harder than ever to create special value for clients, especially if you rely only on your technical service offerings. Clients today want more comprehensive solutions that deliver business results. Anything less is likely to be viewed as a commodity purchase.

So how can you retain your role as a valued solution provider during the sales process? A few suggestions:

Understand your client's business. This is a real challenge for many A/E firms that have little market focus. While there are advantages to serving multiple markets in a sluggish economy, it limits the value you can deliver to clients—unless you have highly specialized expertise that is not commonly available. To be a valued solution provider, you need to connect your technical services to achieving business results. That's possible only when you understand your client's business.

Help clients uncover hidden needs and opportunities. The more familiar clients become with the problems you solve and the solutions you offer, the less valuable they are. That's inherent in the product/service life cycle. You enhance the value of your services when you're able to uncover needs or opportunities that the client has overlooked or doesn't really understand. This includes better defining the implications—business, operational, personal—of the technical problems your firm specializes in solving.

Become a trusted advisor. Building trust is critical to moving beyond commodity selling. The first step is putting the client's interests before your own. Focus on helping instead of just selling your services. You obviously need to have insights and expertise that the client lacks. And you need to be able to connect that expertise to business outcomes, as noted above. Finally, you need to be diligent in finding the best answers you can. If clients can find the information and insights they need on their own, why do they need you?

Collaborate across disciplines. Many A/E firms have multiple disciplines under one roof, but struggle to effectively integrate them in developing comprehensive client solutions. It's a problem in project delivery, but even more acute during the sales process (evident in the common difficulties of cross selling). To succeed at solution selling, you need strengthen cross-disciplinary collaboration, even if this involves going outside the firm. Just as you want to engage clients early, it's advantageous to build your team early and demonstrate the benefits of that collaboration to the client.

I'm not ready to accept that solution selling is passé, because if you're not selling solutions as a professional service provider, what are you selling? Perhaps this is where the commoditization trend in our industry starts—during the sales process. Our failure to serve prospective clients through help and advice instead of just selling to them devalues what we do. It also drives clients to seek solutions on their own.

If we can't be better informed, equipped, and helpful in the areas of our own expertise than clients are, then we can hardly complain about being viewed as a commodity, can we?

Monday, August 6, 2012

Managing the Sales Funnel: Updated

I wrote on this topic almost four years ago to the day, and it remains one of my most popular posts. Since that original post, my version of the Sales Funnel has evolved somewhat. So as long as people are still reading about it, I thought it made sense to provide an update.

Many view the Sales Funnel as merely a simple way to illustrate the sales process. But I've found it to be an effective tool for organizing, evaluating, and tracking a firm's business development efforts. Each stage of the funnel represents a different set of activities—and a correspondingly different set of necessary skills.

There are many variations of the Sales Funnel out there, most of them more complex than mine (aren't business graphics supposed to simplify things?). From my perspective, there are four basic stages of the sales process:

Stage 1: Prospecting. These are the activities designed to identify potential clients, uncover sales leads, and qualify prospects. A key aspect of this stage is choosing the right clients.

Stage 2: Cultivating. Once you've qualified the lead and confirmed your interest in working with the client, the next set of activities involves building a relationship with the client and uncovering needs and expectations.

Stage 3: Positioning. After you've established trust and defined what the client really wants, you shift the emphasis to demonstrating your firm's ability to distinctly meet those needs. It's important to show how your solution not only addresses technical issues but delivers business value.

Stage 4: Closing. These are the activities—including your proposal and shortlist interview—that help the client determine your firm is the best choice. Generally, the closing stage begins with the release of the RFP or RFQ.

Okay, nothing new here. Many firms follow essentially the same four-stage sales process. But fewer firms use the Sales Funnel to organize and assess their business development effort. This is where I find it particularly helpful. I use the Sales Funnel to frame the following questions:
  • How effective is your "sales force" at each stage of the sales process?
  • Does your firm commit the appropriate amount of time to each stage?
  • Do you have the right people in the right roles at each stage of the process?
There's a lot to consider with each of these diagnostic questions. Let's focus on just a few of the common issues:

How effective? One of the basic realities of any kind of funnel is that what comes out of the bottom depends on what you put in at the top. The biggest challenge for most firms is generating enough leads to adequately fill the funnel. Most technical professionals hate cold calling and "working the crowd" at networking events. But there are other, usually more effective, ways to generate leads.

Networking among established relationships, including existing and past clients, is productive when you make this activity mutually beneficial. You can also generate leads through effective marketing, although few firms in our business have mastered this. Bottom line: You need to be reasonably effective at each stage of the funnel to be successful overall.

Enough time? No matter how competent your sales strategy, you won't get far unless you commit enough time to it. Many firms attempt to develop new business with leftover time. That means their seller-doers often don't spend much time selling as long as they're busy "doing." You know where that leads, especially in a soft economy such as this one.

A better approach is to budget people's time for business development and manage those commitments just like you do on projects. In fact, I encourage tracking "sales utilization." Using one's allotted time doesn't necessarily mean it's time well spent, of course, but that's still better than waiting "until I can find the time."

Let me marry the first two questions to make an important point. When firms don't invest enough time above and in the middle of the funnel, they often deceive themselves by chasing a lot of RFP opportunities that they have no real chance of winning. That's like cramming stuff in the funnel, trying to go straight from prospecting to closing without adequately cultivating the relationship and positioning your firm. Not only does it rarely work, but it ties up valuable business development time that could be better spent elsewhere. Unfortunately, there are few shortcuts to sales success.

Right roles? As you might expect, the most common complaint I hear is, "We don't have enough people who are comfortable above the funnel." But that claim often presumes that the only people who can be productive above the funnel are extroverts, who reportedly comprise a minority in our profession. Consultant Ford Harding surveyed over 100 highly successful sellers of professional services and found that there wasn't one pervasive personality type, nor one approach that worked for all. 

The secret is to fit the right people to the right roles. Some may enjoy socializing with prospective clients, others excel at building relationships with existing clients. Some are better at problem solving, some at developing winning strategies. Still others can contribute by writing articles or doing internet research. 

The Sales Funnel helps remind us that selling isn't nearly so monolithic an endeavor as many in our business think. There are many complementary roles and responsibilities, so that almost anyone can contribute if you fit the task and approach to their strengths. Use the Sales Funnel as a framework to facilitate this process—and to evaluate the results.