Are You Managing or Leading Your Clients?

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Jami Oetting
Jami Oetting



"Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it," said Dwight D. Eisenhower.

how to move from being an account manager to an account leader

What does leading you on mean? Leading is about persuasion, influence, and the ability to motivate. It’s not about what projects are completed, but about what has been accomplished.

Eisenhower also made this point clear: "You do not lead by hitting people over the head -- that's assault, not leadership."

This is an important distinction to make as we consider whether the account management role is dying in agencies.

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Part of the problem is that we need more skilled account managers who are trained to lead accounts, rather than simply take orders from clients. But first, we need to understand the difference between the two and account management best practices.

“The most simple distinction is it's the difference between doing what the client asked you to do versus seeing what the client needs you to do,” said Sheila Campbell. “It's not always the same thing.”

Campbell is the principal and chief consultant at Wild Blue Yonder, which she founded in 1994. Her business partner, Gary Duke, joined the team in 2015. They provide training and talent development on subjects such as leadership, account management, and strategic thinking for agency staff and executives. Campbell is a go-to source for account management training for 4A’s members, and she truly understands the agency world having been on the account side prior to founding and running her own agency in Washington D.C.

Besides the owner, a client’s account manager is the most influential person on the health of the relationship -- either positive or negative. Yet few agencies clearly define the “role” of an account management, nor do they provide training for the skills needed to protect and lead clients.

The agency industry is famous for its lack of training and development. Consider this stat from a 2011 report by Arnold and the 4A’s: A Starbuck’s barista receives more training than an agency staffer. But compounding the problem for account managers is that many enter the role as recent graduates with degrees that are non-specific for the job.

We need a clearly defined idea of the responsibilities and skills of an account manager and a path for transforming account managers who act more like project managers into client leaders.

We'll start by defining the main responsibilities of any account manager's daily job. These are listed in order of importance per Campbell. 

1) Ability to drive revenue and grow the account

The No. 1 job of an account manager is to grow the size of the client account. While new business is essential, an agency’s stability and profitability is more aligned with the organic growth of its existing happy clients.

“We work for an agency, and we work with the client, but we don't work for the client,” Campbell said.

Account managers need to be constantly assessing the existing and future opportunities for their clients. They should be reading industry forecasts and analysis and staying on top of trends so they can identify what marketing strategies should be considered and when so that they can make a plan for upselling. They also need to be able to gauge the client's aptitude for risk. 

New business might be more exciting, but having a roster of profitable and growing clients accounts is much more valuable to a business's financial health. 

2) Collaborate with creative and other departments to ensure delivery of great work

The account manager is responsible for helping to create great work by gaining access to and sharing all the information the agency team needs. She has to be involved throughout the process, working with planners, the creative team, developers, and outside vendors to produce work that meets the client’s goals and reflects their wants and needs. In addition, the account manager often presents the work or is at least responsible for building up excitement about the work, so she is also responsible for creating an environment and an attitude that will make the client more readily accept the work.

3) Achieve client’s marketing goals

Campbell doesn’t put this first on the list because she says it is obvious -- this is the baseline skill for an account manager. If an account manager can’t achieve this, it doesn't matter if the work is good or if the relationship is strong. Your agency is still at risk of being fired, and for good reason. 

Account managers need to understand the client’s business and her goals for the quarter or year. You should have a repeatable onboarding process that leads you and the client through a discovery phase from which you can set SMART goals. Review and measure these on a monthly, quarterly, and yearly basis so that everyone is clear about what the ultimate goal is. 

4) Ensuring profitability and efficiency while utilising agency resources

Again, account managers work for the agency, not the client, so a large part of their role is making sure the account remains profitable. That might mean making sure a project is properly scoped, working to prevent scope creep from occurring, building processes to make projects run more efficiently, and asking the right questions so you have all the important information and a project doesn’t have to go through multiple rounds of revisions. An account manager’s job is to prevent or break down roadblocks that cause projects to go off course.

Campbell pointed to advice given to her a long time ago. Agencies only have a few resources: time, money, and information.

Account managers need to protect these resources from being overwhelmed by client requests. This is especially true as margins on projects continue to shrink. Just one write-off can wipe out the profitability of the project. 

5) Keep clients happy

This one is a bit of a trick. Account managers need to keep the client happy with the entire agency, not just the account manager. It’s an easy trap to fall into: The account manager wants the client to like her, so if those drafts are late or if the project goes out of scope, she blames other team members. She acts like she’s struggling and trying her best to deal with a difficult, unproductive team. This makes her the hero, which seems nice, but this position then makes the agency the enemy.

The account manager should be working to heighten the client's trust of the agency and its internal experts. Campbell gives an example of a positive way account managers can keep in touch with clients and improve the relationship. When the client’s team is assembled or if a designer is working on a project, take a picture and send it to the client, introducing the team or showing progress on the project with a note from the creative. The client needs to feel connected to the entire team, not one single individual.

Campbell suggests using these five account management skills as a career roadmap. Determine what you are naturally good at and what skills could be improved. Use this as a guide for ongoing training and development. These skills could also serve as a framework for goal setting for account people and their supervisors: How has the revenue on each account grown in the past year? What write-offs occurred for each account? Did the delivered projects meet the goals of the client? Doing a yearly or quarterly check-up on client accounts is a solid practice for understanding how successful an account manager is in her role.

What It Takes to be an Account Leader

The next step for account managers is building client leadership skills -- this is the ultimate goal for improving your client relationships and for increasing the importance of account management in the agency.

“We want the client to be more successful, but we also want the agency to be more successful,” Campbell said. “It can't just be the client. It has to also be the agency who's getting better because of the account manager.”

There are many more, but here are three core account leadership skills account people must master to be seen as leaders:

1) Can sell ideas to clients

Because account managers are the closest to the client, they are the most likely person to persuade clients on new projects. But there is an art to upselling a client, especially if you have been working with the client for several years on the same set of marketing projects.

Selling is not about getting everyone in the same room, turning down the lights, and doing a big presentation.

“Nobody likes surprises,” Campbell said. “It is human nature to be resistant to new things. Very often, the first thing the client is thinking is, ‘I don't know anything about this. I will have to manage this. I have to explain it to my management. I have to make sure nothing goes wrong, It would just be safer for me not to go there.’”

Instead, Campbell says account leaders should focus on seeding the idea, mentioning it a few times and sending a few articles over a number of months -- these articles should address the client’s fears and help them to see the implications for their own products or services. The client then realizes the opportunity on their own and becomes familiar with the idea. Eventually, they will want the agency do mock-up or create a plan to implement their idea. The client has to get to the point of wanting what you know they need. 

The client might even succumb to what Campbell calls corporate inevitability: where a project seems inevitable because of how long or often it is discussed.

2) Says “no” to clients

“It's really hard, and yet it is important because every client isn't right all the time,” said Campbell.

There are two types of "no’s" account leaders need to learn: 1) The philosophical “no” or you’re asking us to do something that is unethical or outside of our comfort zone, and 2) the operational “no” or the response when the client is asking for unreasonable turnarounds or budgets, etc. 

The point isn’t to say “no” but to be able to determine if a “no” is necessary. Can the account manager ask the right questions to understand why the timeline is so short or why the clients wants something done a certain way? Can the account manager uncover the real problem and if possible, find the right solution -- for the client and the agency? That's a sign of leadership. 

3) Has mastered the art of managing meetings

“Managing meetings does not mean making a list of things we are going to talk about,” said Campbell.

The art of meeting management is about figuring out which meetings are actually necessary, what things need to be accomplished during the meeting, and what follow-up action items need to be done.

Agencies are notoriously bad at meetings: They plan too many brainstorming and status and check-in meetings that do little to move a project forward. In addition, there are too many client meetings that occur where the agency wants to get approval on or move forward on a project yet fails to even address this during the conversation. It’s all a waste of time.

An account leader needs to consider the goal of the meeting, make this clear to the group, and be the one who keeps things on track. And Campbell warns against wasting time writing up detailed meeting notes, rather she suggests sending a list of action items that the client is responsible for after the meeting. Consider if you added a line item to all your proposals that outlines how meeting notes will be provided at $150 per document. How many clients would really care about this?

The art of a meeting is also about body language, i.e., how you sit, how you make eye contact with the client, how you take notes. An account manager who understands and studies this can better lead client and internal meetings. 

Creating a Client Leadership Plan

We plan client campaigns, we create new business plans, and we have a plan for the growth of our agencies, but rarely do we create a roadmap for a client relationship.

Campbell suggests writing what she calls a client leadership strategic plan, which prompts the account manager to consider the health of the current relationship and the future opportunities in the relationship. Wild Blue Yonder has developed a template for this analysis that includes sections on opportunities, threats, and goals. (You can download the template here.) It covers questions such as:

  1. Is our work for the client measurably effective?
  2. What is the state of our financial relationship?
  3. What new needs might our client have in the coming year?
  4. What new opportunities exist in other departments or divisions of the client’s company?
  5. What situations within the client’s organization could adversely affect our relationship?
  6. What relationship issues need to be resolved?

This forces account managers to think like leaders and consider not just how well things are going now but what direction they want to take the client’s business: Where does the client need to go to meet or exceed their goals? What could the agency do to make themselves indispensable to the client.

And while this is a seemingly simple exercise, it’s one that is overlooked too often due to client fires and other distractions.

This is especially easy to ignore if everything is going well. If the account manager and the client have a good relationship and the client seems happy, then why cause issues by over-analyzing the account.

“The fact that we do things for clients is very nice,” said Campbell. “This agency might do it a little nicer than that agency, but it's not hard for a client to get people to do stuff. It's the thinking that really makes the difference -- that is what adds the value to the relationship.”

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Topics: Leadership

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