How Strategic Should Your Account People Be?

This question comes up frequently. Say that you’re a tightly positioned marketing firm but that your service offerings for that vertical or that demographic or that type of business are broad. Should an account person be capable of speaking intelligently about each of your offerings? Do you need different SMEs for each service line? Would your clients even pay for that? How do you make sure that your front-line client interactions aren’t getting lost in translation?

While there is no simple answer to these questions, there are some clear guidelines around the fringes. As you solve this for your particular firm, keep these principles in mind:

  1. No client interaction should occur without including the account manager. In those settings, sometimes an account person is leading the discussion and sometimes they step back after introducing the SME, but they are always in the loop.
  2. We should not shield other employees from the client. So when we argue for the client manager’s role, we’re arguing for what they are responsible for, not for who interfaces with the client. It’s frequently critical to have a researcher, writer, designer, UX person, media planner, or creative director meet with the client in person. But they are never primarily responsible for that relationship.
  3. Knowing when to involve an SME is a critical skill. So there are three things that might trigger the direct involvement of a dedicated strategist. The client might ask for it. The account manager might ask for it. Or the strategist might ask for it, while reading through briefs or talking to that account manager.
  4. An account manager knows what questions to ask. This is a very valuable skill that very few other employees possess. A skilled account person knows what to ask and how to ask it, and they speak the language of strategy even if they aren’t the primary strategist. (So, while an account person knows what questions to ask, the strategist knows how to answer them…or how to correct the client’s answers.)
  5. Great account managers are too accessible to be viewed strategically. This is definitely not a statement about the degree to which account people are smart–it’s only a statement about how clients prefer to manage their own perceptions. In developed cultures, experts are not accessible, and so a strategist who bounces in and out of the relationship (never without the account person) is listened to more carefully. If you look out from the window seat on an airplane because you’re trying to figure out why the flight is late pushing back from the gate, you don’t want to see the pilot, in uniform, helping load the final bags.
  6. The best account people can present recommendations better than anyone else. That’s just a skill that’s right smack in their wheelhouse. They understand a particular client and they could talk for an hour about the nuances of the politics within that organization. They have excellent presentation skills. They speak the language of strategy, as noted above. They can read a room without getting lost in the actual presenting. They can “sell” ideas. And so on. Yes, someone else can be in the room and even have an active role in presenting, but the spotlight is on the account person.

Do you have account people who can do all this? Do you have a separate strategy component? Are your account people brought in early in order to sell the first project? Do you understand why great project management skills might indicate that someone is not in fact a great account person? Is your positioning tight enough that your account people can really speak intelligently to your service offerings or are they dog paddling a little just to stay above water?

The graceful dance between the client and the account person and the strategist is a beautiful thing to watch.

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