The case for less mechanical account management

“What would I advise a consulting firm to do? Spend more time on relationship development. We have a very, very good account manager: he sleeps, eats, and breathes our industry; he meets with us once a month just to have coffee and talk about the state of the business – it isn’t a sales call, just something he thinks is important to do. And the people he brings with him are just the same.”

This was the chief HR officer of a major manufacturing company, talking to us last year – and he’s one of the lucky ones. Plenty of clients we speak to are dismissive of consulting firms’ ability to manage their account in a professional fashion – even though, our latest research, shows three quarters of major clients say that the firms they work with the most have put in place some degree of formal account management.

These particular comments also tell us a lot about what sets the best account management apart. Familiarity with the client’s business and environment (“breathes our industry”); not being obviously motivated by sales (“just something he thinks is important to do”); consistency (other people are “the same”). But if there’s one thing that stands out here it’s the informality. The best account managers make the process seem less like a process.

That’s also the point which emerges from some recent research we’ve carried out. We surveyed around 200 senior executives in the US. Two thirds say that the major consulting firms they work with have a formal account management process in place, and that that means there’s usually one main point of contact (typically an account manager). These figures don’t vary much if we separate out upper mid-sized organisations (between 1,000 and 5,000 employees) from the very large (more than 5,000) – and that in itself raises the question of whether firms are making the best use of their finite resources. Does it really make sense to be expending effort on mid-sized businesses, even large ones, when the coverage of the very biggest organisations is incomplete? Although 84% of CXOs say there’s formal account management, only 72% of senior managers think this.

But that’s not the only problem. In general, account teams appear to be better at reacting to issues and/or opportunities than they are at taking a pro-active role. Three quarters of the people we surveyed say that consulting firms are good at referring them to experts outside the account team, but two thirds think that senior people only turn up when there’s a sales opportunity on the horizon. Moreover, fewer than half think that account teams take the initiative in coming up with concrete ideas for improvement and only a third sees the account team as being available for informal chats.

What this suggests is that account teams do better where they’re responding to a specific issue or opportunity. They perform well in a less structured environment – where they’re initiating the conversation or are simply around to listen and discuss embryonic matters. Consulting firms have invested millions in trying to establish consistent principles of account management – perhaps now’s the time to empower them more.