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The three stages of account management maturity

Account management, it’s safe to say, isn’t the sexiest part of being a consultant. Few of the bright young things applying to consulting grad schemes do so because of a deep, unquenched desire to one day chase clients for invoices or respond to late night emails about project minutiae. Nevertheless, a robust and purposeful approach to account management is critical for firms that want to ensure both parties get value out of the client/service provider relationship.

If anything, good account management has only become more important in recent years. In a recent survey we conducted of buyers of professional services, 49% told us that they had, on at least one occasion, ended a relationship with a firm because of poor account management. Conversely, 61% reported that they had commissioned projects they otherwise wouldn’t have because an account manager convinced them to.

To a large extent, this is down to the increasing complexity of the modern consulting firm. Scratch the surface of any decent-sized firm these days and you are sure to find a myriad of disparate services and sub-brands—many of which fall well outside the remit of what would traditionally have been seen as “consulting”.  The account manager, therefore, has to act as something of a librarian. They have a key role to play in helping clients to make sense of all of that complexity, and to figure out how to piece together all of those different capabilities in ways that meet the specific needs of the project at hand.

While most recognise the challenge, different firms have chosen to respond to it in different ways. Some have even decided to jettison the language of “account management” altogether, preferring to talk in terms of “relationship management” or “client development”. But despite the diversity in the details of how individual firms approach the topic, take a step back and you’ll find some broad similarities start to emerge. In particular, our research has suggested that virtually all firms follow the same broad trajectory from the point where they first start grappling with these questions of how they ought to approach account management. While the details of the story—and the speed with which it is told—may vary, the important beats remain the same.

When they first start thinking seriously about what good account management looks like, most firms find themselves at level one, which we have termed “ad hoc account management”. At this stage, there is no structured approach to account management per se. Instead, individual client relationships are owned by whichever partner first developed them; and each of those partners has essentially unlimited leeway to manage those relationships however they see fit. Deals are made haphazardly on the golf course and at restaurants, and scant thought is given to the long-term strategy for driving revenue out of an account in a sustainable way.

While this approach can work—especially in the case of smaller firms—it does have some fundamental limitations. For one thing, it puts a firm in a situation where it will inevitably struggle to maintain its client relationships should the individual partner who owns that relationship leave the company or become incapacitated. Even more problematic is the fact that it is almost impossible to show your client the full breadth of your firm’s capabilities when there is no formalised account management structure in place. Susan in your strategy practice may have a brilliant relationship with some key stakeholders at the Acme Corporation, but that doesn’t mean she has either the ability or the incentive to introduce those individuals to your operational improvement team—and that means you may miss out on opportunities to grow your foothold in the account.

That’s why most medium and large-sized firms eventually progress out of level one and reach level two: “systematised account management”. At this stage, firms start to introduce a degree of structure to the account management process. Dedicated firmwide account managers are appointed for most clients—and, for the very largest clients, those account managers are equipped with a team of support staff. Account managers are charged not only with managing the client relationship on a day-to-day basis, but also with putting together detailed account plans that outline how the firm intends to generate revenue from the relationship in question.

Very few—if any—firms have yet to make the leap to level three: “intelligent account management”. As such, this level is the most theoretical of the three we have identified. It is based not on concrete examples of firms that are already there, but on a shared direction of travel among many of the firms which have been sitting at level two the longest. We expect that, given enough time, this is where many of today’s leading firms will eventually end up.

At its core, intelligent account management is about recognising that the structure and systematisation introduced in level two needs to be seen not as an end goal in and of itself, but rather as a starting point. As firms approach level three, they come to realise that structures and processes provide a foundation on which to build complex and deep client relationships that are highly iterative in nature. That is, the firm constantly shifts its approach to account management based on the contextual needs of the individual client.

And in order to facilitate that flexibility, firms that practice intelligent account management take it upon themselves to introduce an unprecedented degree of transparency into each and every one of their client relationships. There is a mindset shift that takes place at this level: Firms stop seeing account management as something that is done to a client, and instead start to see it as a joint endeavour with a shared set of objectives and ambitions. And so the foundation of each relationship shifts away from “How are we going to drive as much revenue as possible out of this account?”, and becomes something more akin to “How are we going to build a working relationship with you that creates genuine and lasting value for both parties?”.

Just as no two firms are the same, there is no single universal account management pathway. But even so, we believe that this sort of three-stage framework provides a useful way to think about how approaches to account management generally tend to mature and develop over time. And if firms are willing to honestly interrogate the way they operate, and figure out where they sit along this trajectory, then that puts them in a position where they can figure out the best way for progressing further along it—and getting closer to that holy grail of truly intelligent account management.