I’m really excited to share a fantastic interview I conducted with Warwick Brown, the Founder of the Account Manager Tips blog. We sat down to talk Account Management, asking great questions, and how to drive real success with your key clients.
In this interview, you will learn:
- How to ask questions that deliver true insights
- How to prepare for big meetings by doing the right research
- Secrets to mastering Account Plans
- How to grow into your Account Management role
This was a fascinating conversation with a real Account Management pro. Enjoy!
My Interview with Warwick Brown
Alex Raymond (AR):
Warwick, to start off, please tell us a little bit about your experience in Account Management.
Warwick Brown (WB):
I’m originally from Australia but have called London home for the past 7 years. My entire career has been in service delivery, primarily in business travel. I moved from operations to account management about 15 years ago because I felt it was a more proactive and partnership orientated career, which really appealed to me.
The interesting thing about business travel is that I’m not selling travel. I partner with all sorts of organizations. I’ve been an Account Manager for firms like McKinsey, Deutsch Bank, Merck & Co and Vodafone. And, the common thread in my world is about understanding their business, because I need to know why they’re traveling: why do they need to get from A to B, what is their purpose?
The more you uncover about your clients, what they do and what drives them – the more successful you will be in Account Management.
I like the way you phrased that. The more successful they are, the more successful you can be. I know that in your work you do a lot of coaching both with your team, and you also have your blog and the website where you’ve got a lot of interesting stuff to help people to kind of level up or get to the next level, if you will, as Account Managers. One of the things that I’m sure will be of interest to our audience is, how to get to the crux of the matter with customers, how to ask good questions, really getting down to the heart of the matter with a client. As you’re coaching your team, what are the tips that you give them about asking great questions, and do you have any examples of great questions?
We’re wired as Account Managers to help and we tend to jump into that solution mode. We hear a problem, and instantly we think, “Right. I know exactly what you need.”
But, actually, we really need to dive a bit deeper and keep asking questions long before we give the answers.
So, one question I always ask – and it’s a simple one: “What do you need to achieve this year and how will you be measured?”
You have to distinguish between your client “the organization” and your client “the point of contact” because you may have an organization that wants to save $20 million, but the individual might not necessarily be goaled on that.
If you start out with that question, your contact will tell you exactly what they’re goaled on, how their measured, the challenges they face and how much time they have in the day to actually focus on their goals.
The conversation immediately turns into how can you align your solution to better support the thing that they’re going to be measured on.
Now, that doesn’t mean it’s the only thing you talk about, but start there, unpick that and you learn a lot more about the wider business and it gets you thinking.
In a recent meeting my contact said “I have no time. I’m not even supposed to be looking after this category, but there’s no one else to do it.”
Okay. For me, instantly I think how can I help her claim some time back? How can I make things more efficient? How can I help her learn more about the category? Maybe she doesn’t have enough confidence? Even a negative response like that changed the direction of the conversation to something more positive.
That’s a great discovery question to ask. It sounds like, when you’re coaching Account Managers, you’re really trying to get them to be not just focused on their product and service, but almost more broader business consultants or focusing on understanding your client’s business more. That’s an area where I know a lot of Account Managers don’t feel super comfortable – they do not feel like they necessarily have the background or the skills or the experience to be able to talk about a broader range of issues. What have you seen work there in terms of building a confidence or giving Account Managers tools to be able to perform that more of a consultative role?
Researching your clients’ industry is vital. Knowing your industry inside and out sure helps but knowing theirs adds a new dimension.
Merck and Co – a global pharmaceutical company – were a client of mine. I learned about clinical trials, blockbuster drugs, graduate recruitment, patents and generic drugs and lots more. That had nothing to do with business travel but everything to do with them. Knowing all of that made a huge impact to my ability to uncover opportunities and to make my solution work better for them.
And they viewed me as an expert because I understood them and spoke their language. It paved the way to much deeper connections and loyalty and opened access to senior people I wouldn’t have met otherwise.
Invest the time and research your customer and automate:
- set up Google alerts
- create Twitter lists
- follow companies and people on LinkedIn.
- and block time in your diary to read
It’s important to prepare for meetings in advance, understand who will be there and why and what want to achieve. Every time you interact with a customer you should move things forward:
- learn something new
- get a decision
- get an introduction to someone else in the business.
Account Managers need thinking time but rarely get it.
Most organizations don’t appreciate how much time and effort is involved to really understand your customers.
There’s a disconnect between what they want Account Managers to do and what they’re actually doing. You’ll often find Account Managers the first point of contact for a whole range of issues.
A lot of firms think the Account Manager owns everything but if you’re out there chasing invoice copies and refunds, you’ll never be seen as a peer or partner of the C-level. You’re seen as the gopher.
What I’ve done with my teams is strip out any activities that don’t directly impact revenue and retention and returned them back to their rightful business owners.
As a manager of an Account Management team, you have to focus on that for your team.
That’s an interesting point. It’s really easy to sit back and say, “Well, just go be more strategic. Don’t be such a tactical person. Don’t be a gopher,” as you put it. But, operate at a different level. You can hear those words, but you don’t necessarily know what to do about it. You can’t take someone who maybe doesn’t have a ton of experience, maybe they’re fairly junior, and immediately make him this senior experienced kind of consultative type of person. So, is it about giving them the tools, like frameworks or great questions to ask, like you mentioned, or more training about Account Management? Or, what are the things I can actually, just on a really day-to day level, practical, actionable level, go from being this kind of gopher type of thing that you said, to be more strategic?
You have to really break down what you’re doing now. You know if a client is using you as a shortcut. You know if your internal teams aren’t pulling their weight. And you know if you’re part of the problem too. A lot of Account Managers are supporting work-arounds to compensate for gaps in the offer.
Make a list of everything you’re doing that you shouldn’t be doing and then create the plan to transition them out. You can’t stop doing until you know someone else has started.
That’s why Account Manager Tips was born is, it doesn’t have to be hard. I know Account Managers are time poor and the struggle is real. I give them actionable advice that’s quick to implement and over time the compound effect of these small wins will really elevate how you deliver account management.
It can be really overwhelming when you’re supposed to do a SWOT, a PEST, a relationship map, white space analysis just to manage your client. It’s overkill and most account managers think: “ I can’t do that. I just don’t have time.”
So, they do nothing.
But you can look at your customer and ask yourself “Who don’t I know?” Start with who your point of contact reports to. A lot of account managers don’t even know that much.
Start small, and then work your way up to something more robust as you develop your style and discover what works for you.
“Start small” is fantastic advice. When you say that the reaction from a lot of people would be, “Oh, my god, I don’t have time for this.” Why don’t they have time? Is their boss not giving them time and space and permission to be more strategic and thoughtful about stuff? What do you think the roadblocks are to having more time?
To elevate your status as an Account Manager, to have commercial conversations, to have strategic conversations, to introduce yourself and expand your networks … that is hard work. Sometimes scary. It’s safer place to sit at your desk and say, “I’ve got too much admin. My emails are out of control. I’m fixing issues.” That’s a great excuse to stay in your comfort zone and avoid pushing yourself.
But that means the really important stuff: creating value, improving revenue, deepening relationships, strategic planning – all falls by the wayside and your client becomes ripe for competitors to swoop in.
So you need to make time.
I like to use cloud-based project tools to create account plans and invite client to collaborate with me on them. Instantly you’re seen as more strategic because now you have plan, not just an email.
I created a very simple account planning process and that was the same year I had zero churn. It led to more intriguing conversations with our clients because it’s not reactive, it’s proactive.
My team got to the end of the year and said “wow, I did all that” and their clients also said “wow, you did all that”
It really helped their confidence and got them thinking differently.
This is for your client or for your manager that you’re talking about?
I think you have to share your successes with your manager – they don’t always know the details of what you’re doing and all the great value you’ve brought. Plus it helps them promote your team internally and get you the support you need.
And you have to remember to share the good news with your client too. Just a handful of quality initiatives with a solid ROI that you’ve pursued during the year will get your client thinking “I’m so glad we’re working with you.”
It sounds like there are two elements: one is marketing yourself and educating your boss. The other element is inside of your company – understanding why your customers are buying your products or services or what they’re trying to accomplish with them.
Absolutely. Account Managers need advocates to get things done. And that means getting your boss and your organization to understand what you’re doing and why. You also need to help connect the dots for them on what your client wants to achieve and align everyone to that purpose. A lot of times clients start using your solution for something other than it was intended. They’ve grown but your offer hasn’t kept up. How do you get everyone back on the same page and get attention to the challenges and the opportunities? That’s what we should keep focused on.
Where can people find you and what’s your area of expertise?
I call myself an Account Management Activist and here to serve the interests of account managers everywhere to help them develop their clients and their careers.