Turning Your Account Executives Into Great Project Managers

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by Anna Cockell

Over the past several decades, the sales profession has undergone a huge shift, and 2020 has accelerated this change across industries.

Sales is no longer a game of who can pick the best bottle of wine or secure the most exclusive tickets for clients–the abrupt halt to travel and in-person meetings ushered this shift even more quickly, but this was a trend before the world responded to the threat of COVID-19. Now more than ever, buyers are focused on security, compliance regulations like GDPR, and have become incredibly informed about the products they are evaluating before ever speaking to a salesperson. The expectations for scalability, a polished and functional UI, and the company’s approach to innovation are unparalleled.

With many companies foreseeing a slow return to business travel and office re-openings, and many being more flexible with remote, distributed teams, the trend away from in-person meetings is likely to stay. In this new landscape, great account executives know that they must act like project managers to succeed. They know their buyers are savvy and they plan accordingly–never simply relying on chance or their own charisma to close deals.

The Selling Toolkit

Poor project management in any role leads to inefficiency and confusion. In sales, it leads to lost revenue and a terrible customer experience. Observe the best salespeople at most companies and you’ll start to see a pattern: they follow a process for every single deal. While some details will change, the standard elements are:

  1. Start by deeply understanding the customer’s needs
  2. Guide customers through the buying process. Combine the knowledge of the product’s value with the understanding of the customer‘s needs
  3. Never do it alone. Know which internal stakeholders should be involved and when (i.e. when to involve their manager, finance, sales engineers, etc.)

When salespeople approach deals strategically, it allows them to confidently act as a trusted advisor and execute efficiently, leading to strong customer relationships and the ability to deliver more revenue.

Make a blueprint

Don’t let a lack of rigor and process kill your deals. One way to ensure success across a sales team is to unify the process. Whether you’re an individual salesperson, a sales leader, or on the sales operations team, each role has a part to play when creating this unified process.

Here is an example of a process a rep would follow to strategically guide their deals:

  1. Discovery: A thorough discovery process is the foundation. From here, the rep will find out what is motivating the buyer, the potential size of the deal, and who else from the reps’ own team might need to be involved. For example: if the buyer is highly motivated and the deal is large but they want to include an executive from their company on the next call, the rep knows to invite their own manager to the call and be prepared for higher-level conversations and questions.
  2. Demo: Before the evaluation of a product starts, the rep is likely to present a demo to the buyer. Based on the discovery conversations they’ve had previously this will be tailored to the value that will resonate most with that customer. The rep may also loop in a sales engineer to be present and prep them for potential technical questions the customer will have.
  3. Evaluation: Ready to dive into the product, the customer is carefully walked through the evaluation by a rep who understands what they need to focus on to realize the value of the product and commit to purchasing. This may include regular check-in calls, emails to encourage specific steps in the product, or even involving a customer success manager to help with the initial set up and answer questions.
  4. Negotiation: The rep knows what the customer found valuable throughout the evaluation, understands their budget and their buying process. The rep has brought in the finance team and their manager to discuss and approve any special terms or conditions. Discounts are approved before they create an order form and send it to the customer for their signature.
  5. Closing the deal: There are no surprises at the end of the deal because the rep has an understanding of the customer’s needs as well as their own internal requirements, and have guided the buyer through the process with ease and confidence.

At each step, the account executive is juggling internal partners like their manager, a sales engineer, and finance, as well as the customer, their buying process, and any other stakeholders involved in the purchase. Not to mention, the rep is working multiple deals at one time and must keep these pieces in place for all of them. Approaching sales like a project manager is key to help them stay on top of their customers, and ensure a seamless experience.

Tips and guidance

Establishing that salespeople are project managers starts from Day One. When a new person joins a sales team, it’s not only important to learn about the products and tools but they should also be taught best practices for project managing their deals. Don’t neglect the existing team either–in addition to teaching new salespeople, provide regular, ongoing training opportunities to reinforce the process, and share best practices among the existing team.

Account executives:

If you have established your own successful process, share with your teammates! This will help refine your process, uplevel the rest of the team, and encourage others to share their best practices, too. If your company has an established sales methodology and process, sharing the ways you’ve personalized it will help to demonstrate how it can be tweaked or leveraged in unique ways. If there is no existing process, yours could be used as the starting point.

Sales operations, managers, and sales leaders:

Recognize account executives as project managers and establish a team culture around this. Also, give the sales team a solid blueprint to follow via clear and consistent sales processes, and learn from the people who are most successful at implementing it.

By equipping each team member with the mindset of a great project manager, the entire sales team will perform better, resulting in an improved customer experience and more revenue.

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