Three Account Manager Power Grab Reversals

While project management (what I call Resourcing) is the most important role at your firm, client managers have the most difficult job. They have one foot firmly planted on both sides of the fence, advocating for clients while getting a paycheck from the firm.

The best ones, too, are remarkably qualified. They are smart, think on their feet, and are persuasive. They can send clients to hell and help them enjoy the trip. They grow accounts, smooth tensions, and follow contacts to their new jobs without skipping a beat.

They also amass power, and that’s where we sometimes have to draw the line. They are the wide receivers of football, drawn to the influence and spotlight, and–if unchecked–they end up running things in a way that’s not good for your firm, or even for the client.

Just as individual account people amass power over two or three years within your firm, so too the position group makes small advances across the entire industry over decades. Until, that is, they need to be pulled back in and slotted into a more balanced role. They need to be reminded that they are team members and that it does take a village.

That seismic adjustment has occurred three times across the decades, and understanding those adjustments is a helpful foil to their every increasing role in the field.

Adjustment No. 1: Yank Biz Dev From AEs

The first big adjustment came when business development was rightfully seen as a separate function. The skill set for sales and account service is exactly the same, but there were several reasons to separate the roles:

  1. New business can be put off as more urgent client issues surface. Do that for too long and new business falters.
  2. Sales is a highly trained role, and while the skills are the same, the training is not. You can’t typically excel at both.
  3. Sales is no longer as segregated from lead generation as it used to be, and since sales requires more involvement in lead generation, account service becomes even more distracting.

Yes, business development will ideally be separate from account service, but once the client is onboard, they should never hear from sales again. The properly qualified account person finds growing that account to be second nature.

Adjustment No. 2: Yank Strategy From AEs

Any great account person reading this will have a visceral reaction to this notion that strategy should be separate from account service. There is some definite nuance around it, so don’t jump to any conclusions before reading this earlier article about how strategic account people should be.

But there are very specific reasons why this has occurred, and it’s a good thing.

  1. When strategy as a function (known generally as account planning) was created, the secondary reason was because account people were making sh!t up and clients deserved more thoughtful, grounded insight. Thus the movement was born, first in the UK from where it rapidly spread to the rest of the world. In my own research, account planning in Europe is still more research-based than in the US and Australia, especially, where it is more concept-based.
  2. The proximity to the client in order to deliver a great client experience turns into an over-familiarity that reduces respect for the function. The “expert” who bounces in and out of the relationship doesn’t have to fight for respect like an easily accessible account person does.

Adjustment No. 3: Yank Project Management From AEs

The final historical movement to readjust the balance has been the rise of the project management function, something that I have made a central tenet of my own work. I describe how the “CofT”–Center of (healthy) Tension–must exist between the two roles, and the six things that project managers must lead at your firm.

The critical component in this context, though, is that project management must not be embedded within the account management function. That’s another way of saying that it must be separate, and that brings us to the present.

What’s the next movement? I’m not sure, but we can be certain that these amazing account people will sneak up on us and amass power right under our noses. Can’t live with them and can’t live without them, so let the uneasy alliances continue!

Bonus: As it is, I would argue that digital firms, especially, need to pay more attention to account management as a function. At the moment there’s an average allocation of only 12% of labor. More on that shortly.

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