“Account executive” often means different things to different people. It’s a sales role, yes — but it goes beyond the traditional rep duties of only selling a product or service.

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Simply put, account executives exist to support accounts. And these accounts should be cheaper or more valuable to grow than the cost of acquiring a new account. Let's discuss the background and qualifications of a successful account executive.

How to Be An Account Executive

While there is no single field of study that directly leads to a career as an account executive, many candidates for this role have a bachelor’s degree or higher in a subject such as business administration, communications, or marketing.

Many account executives begin their careers as account coordinators or sales reps before transitioning to an account executive role. Those who are newer to the role or who lack relevant experience often start out as junior account executives.

For mid-level account executives, common skills and qualifications include:

  • Sales experience — An account executive should understand the sales process and know how to effectively work with a sales team.
  • Negotiation — Whether they are negotiating a new client contract or renegotiating an existing client deal, strong negotiation skills are a must for those in an account executive role.
  • Communication skills — Individuals in this role spend the majority of their time talking to clients and maintaining relationships. Doing so requires excellent communication skills. Account executives should be able to clearly communicate verbally and in written form to a wide variety of audiences.
  • Project management — Because account executives are responsible for managing multiple client accounts, they must be able to track and executive deliverables across timelines.

Complex organizations or larger companies can also benefit from having a senior account executive to oversee client relations at a company-level.

You need happy customers to justify the salary and commission of an account executive. If you’re not quite there yet, stick to hiring reps for now. If you have enough untapped customer accounts, read on below to understand what an account executive does.

1. Grow accounts.

How will you know when it’s time to grow an account? These opportunities are often linked to compelling client events such as a company acquisition, closing a round of funding, or hiring a new executive.

It’s not enough to navigate existing accounts and meet customer needs when they express interest. Account executives should navigate the account and create opportunities that wouldn’t have been possible without their stewardship.

To be a successful account executive, it’s important to have a high level of intellectual curiosity. There are no marketing qualified leads to explore, or prospects to outreach to. Instead, you should be curious about your customer’s business. So curious that you’re able to identify gaps and growth potential before they can.

Leadership should remember account executives often can’t be tied to traditional metrics like opportunities created or a specific sale. Instead, goals should be tethered to account retention and growth.

For example, an account executive’s goal might be to grow an account by 15% next year. That 15% growth is what their commission should be tied to. An account executive might be paid for new sales — but only if they’ve met their requisite retention goals.

2. Eliminate competitive threats.

Account executives are in front of so many people, it’s important for them to be vigilant of competitors. AE’s jobs should be to ensure competitors can’t call a business where they don’t already have a relationship.

How do you achieve this? Part of an account executive’s strategic thinking should be, “If a competitor wanted to poach this account, what would their shortest path to success look like?

Are they working with a team you’ve never spoken to? Do they have an offering your company does not? If the answer to either of these questions is, “yes,” take immediate action to open a dialogue with out-of-reach teams, and work with product to build these offerings into your roadmap.

These proactive steps benefit the customer and the vendor. They’re a lot of work, but this type of strategic thinking is how great AEs grow accounts and stay one step ahead of the competition.

3. Maintain customer satisfaction.

Documentation is key to success here. Whether quarterly or monthly, EAs should seek regular customer feedback on their organization is doing as a vendor. These questions shouldn’t only be about what’s broken and how it can be fixed. They should probe how the customer feels about the vendor on an emotional level.

Always ask for a grade. For example, “How would you grade our ability to provide strategic suggestions that contribute toward ongoing growth?” Your customer should provide a grade on a scale of A through F. As AE, your job is to ask why you were given the grade you received -- and to understand anything lower than a B is really an F.

If you’re given a bad grade, resist the temptation to correct immediately. You’re probably not getting a poor rating because you slipped up one time. It’s important to understand how your company’s performance and service has been contributing to this grade over the past weeks and months.

Then, set realistic expectations. If your customer gave you a C, don’t try to get that grade up to an A+ in seven days. Instead, tell your customer, “We’re scheduled for another call in X weeks. What can I do to get this grade up to a B- within that time frame?

Your goal is to make sure your customer feels heard. Be patient, listen, and take baby steps forward.

4. Establish new accounts.

The role of an account executive goes beyond keeping current clients happy. Depending on their organizational goals and the company’s sales targets, account executives are often responsible for bringing in new business as well. 

Account executives use their sales knowledge and prospecting skills to attract new clients and create more business for their company. Skilled account executives are able to time the acquisition of new client accounts and projects accordingly with expiring accounts to offset dips in revenue. 

If your company is having a hard time renewing client accounts or acquiring new business, bringing an account executive on board to recruit new clients can be a worthwhile option.

5. Collecting and analyzing data.

An account executive can also manage the collection and analysis of pertinent data about your industry to help your company achieve the ideal service mix and set the right growth targets. 

As the account executive seeks out new clients, they should make their decisions based on sound data. Analysis can include information about client behavior and lifecycle, industry trends and growth potential for each new account. This data should inform decisions regarding your company’s overall sales strategy.

Account executives are can be a large investment for your company, but if the need is truly there, having an account executive on hand can be valuable. Honestly assess whether you have the customer base and team infrastructure in place to support this position. When you do, make sure your AE is curious, proactive, and strategic in their approach.

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Originally published Dec 16, 2019 1:00:00 PM, updated June 08 2020

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Sales Hiring