One of the toughest, but most mission-critical, responsibilities of a project manager is to get people excited about the project before there is anything to show. We ask potential champions to engage and connect with something that isn’t yet real — something that exists as a concept only. Once they “buy in” and become enthusiastic, they can rally the support of their colleagues, help to pull together project funding and open the doors to key SMEs and gatekeepers. But how can we inspire support for a non-existent finished product?
In my early days as an instructional developer for a large consulting firm, one of our best sales reps explained the situation to me: “You realize, don’t you, that we’re just selling poof-balls and mumbly-dust!? We come in with our 25-page proposal that is really nothing but ink characters on paper and we ask them to sign a $100,000 contract. And we ask them to trust that we’ll make something real and useful from that collection of pages. To tell you the truth, I’m amazed we’re able to sell any projects at all!”
Poof-Balls and Mumbly Dust!
And he was right! Closing sales required gargantuan leaps of faith on the part of our potential clients. And since most of the client decision-makers were smart business people, we had to figure out how to move beyond the “poof-balls and mumbly dust” and help them make a meaningful connection with our “castles in the air.” So how did we do it?
The truth is, it didn’t involve any alchemy or sleight of hand. We simply did what food sellers, car dealers, book publishers and real estate people had been doing successfully for years: We found a way to let them sample what we were hoping to sell them. The result is that they didn’t need to make a huge leap of faith. Instead, they could come to understand, up close and personally, what we had planned for them. And this reduced the perceived risk (the risk of their betting on the unknown) so they could relax and make their “go or no go” decision more easily.
Here are a few ways we helped them sample our proposed solutions:
- Show them a portion of a similar finished product that we produced for another client.
- Connect them with an enthusiastic user who was successfully working with a similar finished product.
- Create a customized mockup using a small portion of their proprietary content.
- Run a small prototype training session that employed the key elements of the proposed solution so they could feel the course flow and dynamics that would be involved.
You Gotta Make It Real!
Like a food seller giving samples in the grocery store, a car dealer giving test drives, a book publisher giving away the first chapter of a book or a real estate developer walking potential buyers through a model unit, we “made it real.” Often this deeper level of knowing helped us flush out objections so they could be addressed and quickly laid to rest. Sometimes we were able to stimulate a constructive dialogue about how to enhance our proposed solution so that it would better fit their needs. In the end, they came to “know” what they were getting into before they signed the contract. And, through this knowing, they would often develop their own enthusiasm, becoming internal evangelists for the project and making our sales effort all the easier.
A Clear, Compelling Target: Come and Get It!
Some say that it was President Kennedy’s vision of a mission to the moon that in 1961 inspired a generation of US scientists and engineers to develop breakthrough aerospace materials and methods that had never before existed. Indeed, JFK is credited with harnessing the talents of hundreds of thousands of people whose focused efforts achieved the July 1969 moon landing.
While there’s no doubt about Kennedy’s power to inspire, I like to think that it was also the moon itself, peering down at us from 239,000 miles away — taunting us — daring us to take that leap across the spatial void that ultimately “made it real” for all those scientists and engineers. And once this silvery-white target was burned into their mind’s eye, there was no stopping them.
So what about you? What do you need to “make real” for your team or your sponsor in order to trigger their enthusiastic engagement? How can you give them a spicy taste of the future you want them to build? As all the best sales reps know, if you want to inspire passion, you’ll need to go beyond words and make it real!