The term "account executive" can mean 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.
Let’s discuss the background and qualifications of a successful account executive at every level. Plus, hear from Aircall’s Director of Sales for North America, Tommy Jester, on what he looks for when hiring or promoting AEs at his organization.
What is an account executive?
An account executive supports existing client accounts. Traditional sales representatives sell a product or service to clients and then hand those accounts off to customer service teams or account executives. It's the AE's job to manage, grow, and renew those accounts.
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 at every level.
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 lack relevant experience — often start as junior account executives.
Lets take a closer look at the role of a junior account executive and the necessary skills to succeed:
What is a junior account executive?
A junior account executive typically supports more senior account executives with acquiring new client accounts and assists with maintaining client relationships. Typical duties for a junior account executive include new client prospecting and outreach, creating and distributing advertising materials to attract new clients, and supporting existing client relationships.
Junior account executives typically report to a senior executive on the team. They operate as the link between the client and the company and, as such, must hone the following skills:
- Communication skills — account executives are "people" people. They're adept at kick-starting conversations (both in-person and virtually), building and nurturing relationships, and developing trust. Through experience, they learn how to ask the right questions to get feedback and improve customer satisfaction.
- Negotiation skills — AEs possess sharp negotiation skills when closing new and existing contracts. They bring a healthy dose of patience, active listening, adaptability, and persuasion to the negotiation table.
- Sales skills — since this is a sales role, it's no surprise the best AE's have strong sales skills, including pitching, social selling, public speaking, and more. Ultimately, the goal is to source information on clients, communicate with them effectively, and craft killer value propositions.
Read on to learn more about senior account executives and the steps you can take to eventually become one.
What is a senior account executive?
A senior account executive is typically responsible for overseeing sales strategy and profitability of client accounts. Senior account executives often oversee account executives and ensure their organizational goals are being met.
What does it take to cut it as a senior account executive? Here is a handful of key skills and requirements:
1. A proven track record of results.
For obvious reasons, you can't jump into a senior-level position without a proven track record as an account executive.
In fact, your record of hitting targets and driving numbers is the greatest indicator of your impact — according to Tommy Jester, Director of Sales at AirCall.
He told me, "The biggest impact of an AE is the simplest thing: the numbers. It's the number that each person carries at the end of the day. That number contributes to company goals, revenue goals, and pushes the company forward. What more impact can you have than that?"
2. Leadership and management skills.
Individuals in this role are often tasked with managing a team of junior and mid-level account executives. With this in mind, you should have some leadership experience, or express a willingness to participate in management training to refine your skills.
3. Analytical skills.
Senior account executives often set and track targets for their team. Because of this, you must be able to read and interpret data to gauge your team's performance and forecast suitable goals. While data analytics isn't necessarily glamorous, it's critical to pushing your team and company forward.
4. Project management skills.
Account executives at any level need the right set of soft skills to produce results. This includes resourcefulness, adaptability, empathy, and drive — to name a few.
That said, when interviewing candidates for a senior role, Jester specifically looks for those with project management skills.
"As the deals get bigger and more complex, there's going to be a lot more stakeholders that enter the picture. You really need to be a master at setting expectations upfront. This means creating action plans with customers and internal stakeholders, and having checkpoints throughout."
In other words, becoming a senior-level executive requires more juggling of expectations, timelines, and action plans. To advance into your career, look for opportunities where you can flex this skill.
What does an account executive do?
Account executives grow customer accounts, eliminate competitive threats, and maintain customer and account satisfaction. They are proactive and curious members of a healthy sales team, and often identify growth opportunities for clients before they identify a need or gap for themselves.
Here are the five main responsibilities of an account executive:
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 react when customers need you. It's also about creating opportunities. According to Jester, having empathy and curiosity is the best way to get the job done.
"Customers can smell from a mile away when you're reaching out because the renewable date is approaching. You don't want them to feel like you're only reaching out because you need something," he tells me.
He continues, "You really need to be that internal champion for your customer. You need to be authentic with your approach and how you're maintaining relationships after that initial point of sale. What are you doing behind the scenes? How are they doing? How is their experience? What are they struggling with?"
Additionally, leadership should remember to tie account executives to goals around 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, AEs 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.
How much does an account executive make?
The average salary of an account executive is $68,490 per year in the United States and $20,000 commission per year. That said, the salary range is wide and hinges on a number of factors, including location, industry, and years of experience.
For instance, a small company may pay a junior account executive $40,000 or less, whereas a senior account executive working for a larger company in a high-paying industry — such as software and health care — could make $200,000 annually or more.
Ready to hire an account executive? Use the job description below to get started.
Account Executive Job Description
As an Account Executive on the sales team, the ideal candidate will identify, source, close, and oversee key customer relationships. Using selling and relationship-building skills, this candidate will maintain and expand our customer base.
In addition to the job description above, here are some additional account executive responsibilities to include in the job description:
- Educate and guide prospects through the buying process
- Manage a pipeline of qualified leads to build relationships with potential customers
- Work with existing key accounts to retain and grow their business
- Secure deals with new and existing customers at or above goal
- Work cross-functionally with marketing and product teams to develop sales strategies for new and existing products
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.
Back to You
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.