“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.

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.

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 for more on what your account executive should do.

1. Grow the account

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.

Account executives are an enormous investment for a company. Be honest about 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 Mar 15, 2018 7:30:00 AM, updated March 15 2018

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Sales Hiring