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Towards a unified theory of account management

To an outside observer, physics might seem like a single science. But appearances can be deceiving; it would be more accurate to think of the discipline as two distinct fields, operating independently. General relativity tells us how large objects interact with one another, but breaks down when applied at the level of the very small. To understand the behaviour of atoms and subatomic particles, we instead have to turn to quantum mechanics. The challenge for physicists is that, while these two theories work perfectly well at their intended scale, they are mutually incompatible. The question of how to bridge this gap—how to create a “theory of everything”, in other words—is probably one of the most important unsolved problems in all of modern science.

I’ve been having a lot of conversations with professional services leaders recently about the topic of account management. And the more of these conversations I have, the more it strikes me that account management is actually a lot like physics. I know it sounds mad, but hear me out…

Although we might talk about “account management” as a singular concept, what we’re really doing is lumping together multiple different functions within a firm, purely because they’re often (although not always) carried out by the same type of person. And just as physics can be split apart into general relativity and quantum mechanics, so too can account management be deconstructed into two primary components.

The modern account manager has two distinct roles to play. First, there is the client-facing element of the role: They need to know how to build relationships with key client-side stakeholders, and develop a deep and sophisticated understanding of the client’s organisation, in order to spot opportunities for the consulting firm to create value. But at the same time, an account manager also needs a commanding knowledge of their own firm; they need to understand the full extent of its capabilities and—crucially—know how to bring those capabilities together within the context of an individual client engagement.

This more inward-facing aspect of the account manager’s role—what we could call “delivery architecture”—has become even more important over the last few years. Clients these days don’t want pre-packaged services; they want consultants to provide them with multidisciplinary solutions that take full advantage of the firm’s global pool of experts. And that means that account managers need the ability to track down those experts and bring them together in a way that adds up to something greater than the sum of its parts.

It’s unfortunate, therefore, that when people talk about account management, they often default to talking about solely the client-facing aspect of the role. Look at how a firm trains its account managers, for example, and you’ll see that there’s a heavy focus on sales and networking skills. In other words, they’re teaching people to be relationship managers—not account managers.

So, what’s the solution here? Should firms fully disaggregate the role of the account manager, and split those responsibilities between a dedicated relationship manager and a specialist delivery architect?

While we have seen some firms go down that route for their key accounts, that kind of approach isn’t going to be feasible for everyone. A more realistic solution would be to simply acknowledge the importance of both elements of account management. On a practical level, firms should make sure that they’re promoting good delivery architecture practices through their L&D offerings, that they’re testing for it when they interview potential hires, and that they’re giving their account managers space to carry out this crucial component of their role.

Compared to the challenge of unifying general relativity and quantum mechanics, that’s surely an achievable goal.