The Complex Sale: Not a Transaction But a Project

Cynthia Spraggs

By Cynthia Spraggs, Senior Manager, Sales Program Support PMO for Cisco Systems, Inc.

An international retailer faced a pressing need: to build more traffic through its doors. At first look, it might not be easy for a network solutions provider such as Cisco to help the retailer reach that goal. But solution selling includes coming up with solutions, and so we did.

We showed the retailer how a chain of in-store photo labs, interconnected so that a child’s birthday photos could be “sent” to distant relatives by being printed at a store convenient to them, would generate traffic in both stores.

Implementing this, of course, was a huge undertaking, involving a high-bandwidth network, equipment installation, training and a host of other elements that all had to work together. It required keeping a team of 25 people on track.

This is an example of the kind of complex sale we increasingly are seeing today. Most of the sales world long ago moved from the idea of selling “widgets” to providing solutions to needs. Now, get ready to take the next giant step in managing the large, complex sale—not as a transaction, but as a project.

What’s Different About a Project?

Project management has emerged as a discipline or profession on its own over the last decade or so, out of the IT world. Many project managers (PMs) are high-end temporary workers, engaged for months at a time through the project life, then moving on. The PM determines what needs to be done, breaks it into steps, assigns resources and a timeline to each step, and de-bottlenecks the process as needed.

That sounds like what happens in a complex sale—a long period of researching the customer’s need involving many different skill sets, followed by implementation. The actual “sale” is almost a non-event.

Most top salespeople, able to build this level of business, treasure their independence—being responsible for results, not face time in the office. They want the freedom to spend a Wednesday afternoon at a driving range—provided, of course, that they are also willing to work through a weekend to develop a proposal for Monday morning. And they most particularly do not want “Management” looking over their shoulder.

While a highly successful salesperson may have some project management abilities, it’s likely not their strength. They are best deployed doing what they love doing—building relationships with prospective and current customers, looking for problems and opportunities, and crafting solutions. They likely will want to stay involved in implementation even if just to make sure the customer receives good service, but putting them in charge of a complex project is not a good use of their skills.

It does not make sense to assign a top salesperson earning $400,000 (and worth it) to do work that could be done, better, by someone being paid about a tenth of that.

Enter the “Sales Project Specialist”

Experience has shown that it often also does not make sense to assign a traditional PM, who likely is accustomed to one project at a time, over a period measured in months or years. These people sometimes do not thrive in an environment that involves shorter timeframes measured in weeks, with multiple projects at any one time.

This leads us to a new role, developed for managing a complex, solutions-oriented sale: the sales project specialist, or SPS.

This is someone who manages the implementation process—ensures that there is an effective plan in place, that the steps in it make logical sense, that the right resources (whether human or material) are available, and that it all works out. The work requires someone who is:

  • Able to work independently, in many cases outside the office, frequently from home
  • Comfortable in a virtual team environment, in which individuals move in and out of ad-hoc teams as needed, and many of them never meet each other in person
  • Proficient at multi-tasking, able to keep multiple projects moving smoothly
  • Able to write well and clearly
  • Accomplished in the tools needed for the remote work environment—videoconferencing, central project databases, e-mail, and the like.

Often, the best SPS recruits come from outside the traditional PM environment. They are people who have demonstrated their abilities to keep their heads in a fast-changing environment. One of our best hires came from the movie industry (no surprise since a movie is a project). Several are stay-at-home parents who have business backgrounds, and have honed their multi-tasking and time-management skills through juggling the work involved in caring for small children.

Many of our SPS’s work part-time and like it that way, particularly as they have considerable control over when they do the work. They are OK with 10 hours of work one week, 20 the next.

We also look for people who need and want the work. Many of them live in Atlantic Canada provinces such as Nova Scotia, where the quality of life is high, with strong communities, but opportunities for interesting work—or any work—are limited. We find good SPS’s in small towns, particularly in the surfing town of Lawrencetown on Nova Scotia’s Atlantic Ocean coast. We can source talented, educated resources for 40 percent less than a major U.S. city.

While some of the SPS’s have ambitions to move up the career track to a more senior role, many of them like their lives just as they are. They can stay in their home community where they can walk to do their shopping, and where they know their neighbors. They have work that is more interesting and rewarding, and pays more, than working at a local big-box retailer or coffee shop.

They also have the feeling that their work is valuable, that they’re part of a team—and this is a powerful motivator.

Cynthia Spraggs is senior manager, Sales Program Support PMO for Cisco Systems, Inc., based in Chester, Nova Scotia, Canada. Contact her at or