One of the things I am most fascinated by is how people become trapped in mental models, or ways of thinking, often in spite of overwhelming evidence that the model is flawed or, as is often the case, completely, absolutely 100% wrong. The perpetuation of falsehoods happens in individuals and groups, with intelligence seemingly no indicator of someone’s likelihood to subscribe to a broken model.
I don’t understand how this happens as widely and often as it does, but I do know that I am as guilty of it as anyone. For years I have not only failed to question the oft-repeated notion that “it’s everyone’s job to sell,” I wholeheartedly repeated and supported it.
I’ve been paid a lot of money to try to turn non-salespeople (usually account services personnel) into salespeople while at the same time knowing that improving abilities through training cannot override contrary motivations. Over the years however I have taken up the challenge to try to accomplish something that was at odds with my belief and somehow I was able to rationalize this because the idea that it’s everyone’s job to sell is so pervasive and seems so self evident that I didn’t think to question it. Of course it’s everyone’s job to sell.
I see so clearly now that it is not.
It’s obvious to me in hindsight that those who were already good at it were likely to get better at it after training, but those who were failing at it rarely improved.
In an insightful moment of frustration recently, I said to one of my consulting colleagues that getting account people to better sell into their accounts remains one of the great mysteries to me (and to many agency principals, I suspect).
The mystery was finally solved in some conversations that were sparked by my May 2012 article, The New Rainmakers, which discussed among other things how a focus on relationship building is detrimental to business development performance. The question was put to me: if people with high affiliation needs are less likely to be effective at business development (a point I’ve been making for years but one that has recently been supported by meaningful research that underpins the revealing new book, The Challenger Sale) then surely there’s a role for them elsewhere in the firm – most certainly in account services?
My response was no, you should staff business development positions and account management positions with challenger type personalities (authors Dixon and Adamson offer a more detailed description of that term in their book, I refer to them as people whose need for authority and respect outstrip their need to be liked, but even here I'm offering a generalized view based only on rudimentary motivational makeup and not abilities).
But if neither the people pursuing new accounts nor the people leading existing accounts are focused on the relationship, then who should be? If both these parties are focused on questioning the client and challenging assumptions (what I refer to as leading the account, which can often result in some discomfort for the prospect or client) then who is building the relationship with the client and letting him know that everything’s going to be okay?
The answer is the project manager.
Account Management and Project Management
While most of my clients are design based rather than advertising based, I spent the majority of my pre-consulting career in advertising, and most of that working for larger firms. In advertising there is a hierarchy in account services that can stack five or six rungs between the account coordinator at the bottom and the group account director at the top. Prove yourself on the bottom rungs and you can advance to the top of the department and the firm.
The flaw in the model however is the head-down skills required to do well at the bottom rungs are little like the head-up skills required to perform at the top. Because it’s a hierarchy and advancement is implied, the skills at the lower level are valued less. If you want to make more money, you have to advance, even if your skill set suggests it might not be best for you, the firm or the client.
Design-based professions are more nuanced in how they handle clients and their projects than are their advertising agency brethren, particularly product or industrial design firms whose origins are a little closer to engineering, architecture and other professions that value project management as a skill set and legitimate job function.
Project management is the answer to the question of who should be focused on the relationship.
It’s the project manager’s job to make sure that everything is going to be okay on the project or engagement at hand. Their job is to deliver and to make sure their team delivers. It’s also their job to let the client know that everything is going to be okay. You can call this relationship building or you can call it something else. To me, the need for relationships in business is highly personal and varies from individual to individual on both sides of the client-agency table. Instead of thinking of it as relationship building, I think of it as reassuring. It can be done through competence, attention to detail and confidence that in turn gives the client confidence, or it can be done by blurring the lines between personal and professional, having the client feel like there is someone who has their personal interests at heart. In most firms, it’s probably a combination.
The important point is that when the client needs reassuring that everything is going to be okay, that job should fall to the project manager because like the business development person, the account manager’s job is to think ahead, longer term, looking out for the client company or brand and sometimes this means pushing the client into uncomfortable places, getting him to think about his situation or solution differently. Sometimes it’s the job of the account person to make the client see that everything’s not going to be okay.
This is what I mean by leading the account. It’s hard to do this if your most dominant motivation is to build a relationship. The best account managers, I believe, have makeups similar to the best business development people: aside from having good skills, they are also heads-up people focused on the future and not too worried about dragging others into uncomfortable places.
In The New Rainmakers I explained how the business development position has suffered because we’ve asked people to generate leads and then navigate the opportunities represented by those leads. Adamson and Dixon’s research is showing us that it’s the challengers who are best at navigating complex B2B sales, and my observation is that those types perform better when they are freed from lead generation, which, fortunately, is increasingly becoming a marketing function.
Similarly, I'm arguing here that the best account people are like the best business development people in many ways, and to get the most out of them they should be decoupled from project management. Project management is heads-down, detail-oriented work that has room for people who value the building of relationships, whereas account management is heads-up, strategic work performed better by people who are unencumbered by the need to build relationships and be liked (both of these are directly linked).
So Whose Job Is It To Sell?
If we separate account management and project management this way then it becomes pretty obvious whose job it is to sell. Leading is selling, in the way that I’ve described it, and those who are most natural at leading the client do best at selling into the account. So it’s the account manager’s job to sell and not the project manager’s.
If you’ve been combining these two functions in your firm and have been frustrated by the huge variance in the sales performance of your account managers, the light has probably already gone on for you and you can easily identify those who should be account managers and those who should be project managers.
It is not everybody’s job to sell, but until we start to value project management as a job function and offer the same pay and opportunities for advancement as we do for account management, we will continue to ask the wrong people to do the task they are not inclined to do – and will not do – no matter how much training we subject them to.