Artful account management

Artful account management

There are four levels of direct business-to-business selling: industry marketing, account management, opportunity management and face-to-face selling. Each level requires different methodologies, talent and tools, but overall you need an integrated account plan.

Face-to-face selling is the foundation skill, because you must eventually persuade individuals to recommend your company. Opportunity management is the sales process of managing the competitive evaluation of a committee of multiple buyers. Account management should drive opportunity management, but many companies treat them like separate processes. Finally, sales strategy should fall out of an overall industry marketing strategy.

To effectively manage opportunity with an enterprise customer, you must first have account management covered. The best practices of account management have a four-stage methodology: penetrate, radiate, collaborate and dominate. The end goal: to earn a partnership or preferred-vendor status, where you can realise the returns of higher volumes, better margins and less competition. If you don't believe that these outcomes are possible within an account, invest your time elsewhere.

To some solutions integrators, account management means caretaking. To other SIs it means appointing someone to fill out an account profile, inventory the opportunities and arrange executive lunches. To me, it means creating demand, earning executive trust and achieving a dominant market share within the account. It really means changing the customer's buying process so that it favours you.

A lead is a bad thing

In opportunity management, a lead is a good thing. In account management, a lead is a bad thing. A lead from within one of your existing accounts means that a competitive evaluation has begun without your being aware of it. Market share does not equate with customer loyalty.

After you've got your foot in the door with the first engagement, you need to control the politics, issues and specifications, competition and decision-making process before the next evaluation ever breaks out. It may have to go out to bid, but you want the high ground.

Once the formal evaluation process begins, it's too late - the walls are up and the guards are out. Even your best clients may not talk to you.

Nothing shortens sales cycles like the trust of powerful sponsors. Your goal is to build enough trust in your company and its solutions that the client never has a reason to look elsewhere. However, a customer may be a large account without being a partnership account. Getting high volumes without lower cost of sales or less competition can be worthwhile - but don't think it's a partnership. It's just a high-maintenance account, albeit one that might be worth the effort.

The solution is to sell the way the customer buys and to allocate your resources accordingly. Thus some accounts may warrant a team of dedicated resources while others receive only occasional calls. Knowing which accounts to invest time and resources in is the challenge to both the sales manager and the individual rep. If you lavish partnership resources on commodity buyers, you'll partner yourself broke.

But if you can build a partnership into an "annuity" account, the return in lower-cost repeat business can be enormous. The highest level of trust exists when the client says, "Whatever you're selling, I'm buying. Tell me what I need." And if account management is done well enough, you don't have to do opportunity management at all.

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