The age of the cybernetic account manager

In RoboCop—Paul Verhoeven’s classic 1987 sci-fi flick—ordinary police officer Alex Murphy is transformed through technological enhancement into the perfect crime-fighting machine. And while “RoboAccountDirector” might not roll off the tongue so easily, it could be a lot closer to becoming reality. Well, sort of.

It has never been more challenging for professional services firms to get account management right. Almost all the traditional relationship-building tools at the account director’s disposal—those after-work drinks, networking lunches, chance encounters at conference events—were rendered obsolete virtually overnight by the pandemic. And when you’re not at the same location as your client day in, day out, it’s just harder to understand their wants and needs. Account teams have always relied on “water-cooler conversations” to help inform what to try and sell when; now that those snatched moments are an impossibility, they have a lot less information to go on when making these decisions.

But even before COVID, life hadn’t exactly been getting easier for account directors working in large professional services organisations. A big part of their job has always been helping clients understand and navigate the complexity of their firms’ service offerings, directing prospective buyers to the people within the business best placed to address their individual requirements. But it’s sometimes felt over the last few years as if that internal complexity has been increasing at an exponential rate. Driven by demand from clients for truly multidisciplinary solutions, firms have had to expand the range of capabilities they have access to. The big players in the market have been making targeted acquisitions and launching sub-brands left and right. With every new capability that a firm develops and every new service it launches, the job of that firm’s account directors becomes that little bit harder.

Technology represents a (partial) solution to these challenges. By equipping client relationship managers and the account teams underneath them with specialist solutions, firms will be able to automate away some of the more routine, day-to-day responsibilities of managing a client relationship—and in the process, free up those individuals to spend more time on the genuinely value-adding parts of their roles. Account directors have, historically, often been seen as the “human face” of the firms they work for, but the firm of the future will understand that this is one area where humans and machines ought to be working closely together. Applied properly, technology can enhance the quality of a firm’s account management practices—without compromising the human element.

The range of account management technology currently being explored by firms is vast; it encompasses a broad range of solutions from digital best practice handbooks to intelligent stakeholder maps. But perhaps the most promising potential use cases for these technologies are to be found in the pipeline management space. Already, we are starting to see firms experiment with data scraping and predictive analytics as a way of forecasting client demand; data from a client organisation’s press releases, annual reports, and even the social media posts of key employees can be fed into complex machine learning models and used to help account teams understand what services that organisation is most likely to buy at any given moment.

In the future we may see firms go even further, using technology not just as a sales tool, but as a way of deepening and strengthening existing client relationships. We may, for example, see firms experiment with “self-service” customer portals that give key stakeholders direct access to critical project information. All of these technologies might still be in their infancy right now, but firms are finally starting to take them seriously—either by investing in building tools like these themselves or by looking at some of the new suppliers that have started to emerge in this space.

At the end of the film, the eponymous RoboCop realises that he can embrace his technological components while still preserving his human identity; likewise, professional services firms have a process of experimentation ahead of them when it comes to incorporating new technology in a way that doesn’t compromise the person-to-person dynamic of account management. But the rewards for those willing to embark on that journey are, potentially, quite significant indeed.