How to Stress-Test Account Management

“The most serious mistakes are not being made as a result of wrong answers. The truly dangerous thing is asking the wrong questions.” - Peter Drucker

Account Management in any business is stressful. Every decision, even the most casual conversation runs the risk of setting a client's mind running. The risk intensifies when (brand) managers are pressured to hit growth and profit targets and want immediate results. Making matters more interesting, your client's targets are not ever arbitrary, and even though their timelines seem unrealistic--that is a normal day for them. Business psychologists often speak of the immense value of emotional intelligence in the workplace. What all of us-need to remember is that nothing is realized in the marketplace overnight. Growth takes time, effort and strong relationships to realize. Growth, more often than not, is directly related to risk, and risk is stressful. Keep that in mind next time you feel the pressure.

There are two ways to control risk: You can simply tell your account people what to do, or you can tell them what not to do:

  • A Totalitarian approach to account management will ensure that people won’t make mistakes by ensuring that they do not risk at all. This will also ensure the client does nothing terribly interesting in their marketing efforts and might even have them wondering why they hired you to begin with. It's a fine-tuned balance between answering the brief, and creating awareness worth being aware of. The same goes for selling a service or product--you can't convince anyone of anything if you are terrified of what they might think. 
  • An Entrepreneurial approach gives people the freedom to exercise creativity within defined limits and risk. However, you could end up pissing off the client when you tell them things they might not want to hear. Great account management people first and foremost know their client's business inside and out--and the best, anticipate their needs before they ask. Part of the problem is that often times jr. executives are told to sell without having being instructed on how to listen. 

If you want to stress-test your account team's ability to handle autonomy and entrepreneurial thinking, here's the questions you might want to ask them in a workshop or informal setting. This exercise is not about demanding performance--its about inspiring dedication to the clients highest goals and learning to listen to what client's are really saying. 

{Note--I didn't say "stress-out" I said, stress-test. Meaning that it's in everyone's best interest to be asking the right questions from day one, because it's either uphill or downhill from there.} 

1: Who is your client's primary customer?
2: Which core-values does the client emphasize? What's top-most in their messaging hierarchy? In other words, what do they talk about most?  What words, expressions and messaging shows up more often than not? 
3: What's missing from the primary communication matrix--what aren't they saying that you think they ought to be?
4: What strategic boundaries has the client set--or more accurately who is setting the direction of the relationship--the client or you? 
5:  How does the client deal with creative tension, with oppositional viewpoints? Do they take risks or expect the "same old thing"? 
6: How committed are you to helping the client out and briefing them on what's new in the industry? How do you do this every day? 
7: What strategic uncertainties keep the client (or you!) awake at night?  

These simple questions will give your management team immediate and direct insight into where your relationship stands. It's important to do this a lot--I suggest even once a week sitting down with account leads and having an honest discussion about what was done that week to forward the client's goals. How do team members feel about the relationship? Try and make an honest assessment of how account management functions on the day-to-day and  if it's any different  than how the team operates under unexpected pressure.

Figuring out first if your team are in a responsive mode versus crisis management mode will help you identify problem areas-laggard practices and root out low morale. By giving your team this benefit of your leadership--you will be able to easily read either enthusiasm or reluctance in their answers. Beyond the obvious need to find out just how much they know about the client, you will find out how much they care about the client.  I can assure you that the more they care--the more revenue you are going to generate. 

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