- Account managers are vital to customer relationships
- Promoting star salespeople to managers can be a bad decision
- Top account managers are great communicators and motivators
One of the most important decisions a business-to-business (B2B) company makes is who it names its account managers.
Gallup has observed and worked with hundreds of account teams and has conducted tens of thousands of customer interviews. Through this discovery process, Gallup identified the core characteristics of the most successful account teams.
In general, these teams are defined by their customer-centric worldview. They have a good sense of where the customer's business has been and where it is going, and they strategically align with the markets they serve. These teams' companies enable them in ways that allow them to build exceptional strategies for customers. Their companies give them a certain freedom in how they operate to ensure they meet customers' needs.
Beyond these generalities, there are specific actions companies can take to build stronger account teams and, thus, stronger customer relationships. These actions relate to employee selection, performance management and service values, among others.
Simply put, the account manager is everything to the customer relationship for a B2B company. This individual is responsible for building and maintaining an optimal relationship with the customer and the internal team. That's why companies must think very carefully about this role and who is the best fit.
Choosing the right account manager is more vital to a B2B company now than ever before. Businesses looking to grow by buying up other companies are likely to see their acquisitions strategy hit a wall. Gallup recommends a strategy of growing organically -- getting more business from existing customers.
But this approach poses a challenge to B2Bs right now: According to recent Gallup research, only 29% of B2B customers are engaged, while 60% are indifferent and 11% are actively disengaged. Those relationships won't grow organically until there is far superior account management.
Making the Right Selection
When choosing an account manager, B2B companies tend to look at their sales team and promote the top performer -- the person who brings in the most revenue. This strategy usually turns out to be the wrong selection. A high-performing salesperson doesn't necessarily make a high-performing account manager. The talents required to sell are different from the talents required to lead a team and build partnerships with customers. Companies should be looking at internal and external candidates who excel at managing people, relationships and projects.
During quantitative and qualitative reviews with a hospitality client, Gallup found that individual franchise owners were unhappy with their point of contact at the brand. Owners didn't believe that their account manager knew enough about the business. In most cases, account managers were former general managers who were great at quality assurance but lacked an understanding of how to accelerate an owner's portfolio. The account managers couldn't provide the high-level advice and consulting that owners wanted. As a result, Gallup and the client worked together to create an account management team with the talent and experience better suited to the owners' needs.
Regardless of industry, Gallup has found that the best account managers are:
- Dedicated allies: Successful account managers are great when on-site with the customer. They understand how to manage expectations and deliver on their promises. These account managers know every facet of the customer's business and continually think of ways to provide value.
- Steadfast advocates: Account managers should make choices in the best interest of their customer first, their company second and their team third. They need to be advocates for the customer in all areas of their company.
- Skilled communicators: Account managers work with people across multiple lines of business within their company. They not only interact with salespeople but also with employees in technology, analytics and accounting. As the person with the most insight into the customer organization and its needs, an account manager must ensure that everyone on the account team is on the same page and working toward the same goal.
- Strategic activators: Through quantitative and qualitative research, companies gain valuable insights into what their customers think and want. Account managers have to take that information and deliver on it. They must mobilize their team to implement real change.
- Masterful recruiters: The best account managers deliberately think about how to assemble their team and then recruit top talent to join it. They look for people who can build relationships, not just people who are good at accounting or sales. Account managers should think about the implications of each person joining their team to determine how he or she could affect customer engagement.
- Great motivators: Of course, account managers don't always get to choose their team members -- they often inherit them. Even then, account managers who are truly right for the job will understand how to work with what they have. They recognize each team member's individual strengths, celebrate his or her successes and figure out what works best to motivate every person.
Finally, the best account managers are positive brand ambassadors. B2B companies typically don't advertise, and because of this, most B2B leaders don't believe they have to worry about their company's brand. Nothing could be further from the truth. Customers have a reaction every time they hear a company's name or see one of its products -- and that reaction is the brand. A brand is not a logo or tagline; it's an experience. Account managers are brand ambassadors, and the good ones always leave the customer with the right impression -- the kind of impression that helps drive much-needed organic growth.