How Project Managers Can Wear a Business Development Hat
Ryan Schaefer, Former Senior Project Manager
Project Managers are typically overseeing work, keeping up a steady stream of communication, and working to build a relationship with clients. That’s a natural entry point for pitching and closing future business.
If you’ve been immersed in agency life your whole career like I have, you know there is a lot of pressure on business development and account management teams to keep money coming in to weather the natural ebbs and flows of client-based business models. For any company, particularly a growing one, a significant portion of your work can come from expanding existing engagements with current clients and by word of mouth. The first step for this tried-and-true system is to knock your current projects out of the park to build trust and bolster your reputation.
As a Project Manager, your main job consists of doing exactly that. It’s time consuming and requires you to be nimble, personable, diligent, and organized (among other things). But it’s also important to be comfortable with the fact that you’re a de facto mouthpiece for your company. You’re the one overseeing the work, keeping up a steady stream of communication, and ultimately, working to build a relationship with your clients. That’s a natural entry point to facilitating, pitching, and closing future business. And you can provide a unique perspective on it since you’ve been living and breathing the work.
While business development relies on good project management in most agencies, there are a few things PMs need to do to shift their mindsets to be even more forward-thinking. Below are some considerations if you’re looking to play in the business development game.
Make inroads with the right client-side contacts.
Often, your main point person on the client side isn’t the decision maker for hiring or re-hiring vendors. You’ll probably see them in stakeholder meetings and hear their thoughts or feedback filtered down through your primary client contact. But it’s often not an organic process to build a relationship with these decision makers, given their somewhat limited presence. You have to be proactive and strategic.
This can take a couple different forms: either you can have the BD person or Account Manager maintain that relationship by regularly checking with the stakeholder on project progress, how the team is feeling on pacing and communication, and evaluating what everyone is doing well and could be doing better. Simultaneously, the PM should work behind-the-scenes to provide all the necessary information to enable these ongoing discussions. That way, there’s a dedicated channel to bring up expansion of work and it won’t seem forced or unnatural.
Or, the PM can look for opportunities to get in front of this person regularly. Whether that takes the form of design reviews, demos, research findings, or presentations for any other deliverables, it’s helpful for them to see these first hand and in context, rather than it filtering up internally in a less formal way. This can be a double-edged sword; sometimes, a higher-level executive can have stronger opinions or not have quite as much domain knowledge about the project to be able to provide actionable feedback. That’s okay—the important part is they get to see the great work your team is doing.
Go in person.
During kickoffs, mid-project milestones, handoffs, or something in between, look for opportunities to bring your team to meet the client in person. It’s much easier to feel a connection with someone if you can speak face-to-face, rather than just interacting with a floating head on a webcam. When you’re there, dress smart, sit up straight, and speak confidently. All those old adages still apply, even though you’re not at the risk of being grounded anymore.
If your agency provides end-to-end services, let the client know.
It’s better to be sure here than to assume your client knows you offer a suite of other services. This requires a subtle touch; you can’t just blurt out all the impressive things you could do if you had more budget. Instead, look for ways to position your work in a holistic way. This could mean you understand that product work should align perfectly with branding work, you know that user testing is vital to IA mapping and user flows, you only recommend making data-informed decisions, or something similar.
Being able to speak to these things in an educated way achieves the same results, but with a little more tact.
One of the most reassuring things for clients is feeling like they’re aware of everything at every stage of the project. At the end of the day, every person you’re in contact with has a boss, and they have to be prepared to answer questions from them about how the project is going, show off documentation or designs, or answer any questions associated with budget and timeline. Make sure they feel like they can do all that.
Additionally, it’s very useful if you can position your team as an extension of the client team. After all, everyone is working toward the same goal: a great end product. You’re better served to turn that “vendor” role into a “partnership” if you’re collaborating openly and maintaining transparency with your client team.
Lean into what is most important for the client.
If you’re coming into the project prepared with research or data (or even just answers to a quick client survey), you’ll have a good idea of what their most important areas of focus are, both as a business and for visitors on their website, app, or product. Are they looking to increase newsletter signups? Donations? Purchases? Know what the goals of their digital properties are and how that fits into their business model. If you do this thoroughly, you’ll be well-positioned to make recommendations that serve this purpose, which will let the client know they’re being heard and understood. That goes a long way.
This isn’t all you can do to augment your PM role with a business development mindset. This process will become easier the longer you work in digital, the more comfortable you become speaking for your agency, the more time you spend in the weeds of projects, and the more you start to build a name for yourself. It’s not easy, but these are some very real skills you need to adopt and hone. Project Managers are well-suited to excel here; so relax, enjoy it, and go bring in some business.