For a while now I’ve been concerned by what I’ve observed across the Account Management population I work with.

Individuals who’ve historically marshalled client relationships with skill and finesse, adopting a truly consultative approach to retaining business, identifying new opportunities and increasing share of wallet. Individuals who’ve been more than successful over previous years are well, how can I put it, struggling.

Initially this puzzled me. It’s not like they’d stopped doing what had worked for them before. If anything they were even more focused on applying the skills and behaviours that had traditionally served them so well. It wasn’t as though they were doing anything different. Then it began to dawn on me. Maybe that was the problem – they weren’t doing anything different.

I’m fortunate to work with a diverse range of clients across multiple industries. The one feature that I’ve noticed impacting all of these organisations, irrespective of industry, is the unrelenting pace of change across their markets.  We live in an increasingly competitive, volatile and uncertain working world where the days in which we could secure sustainable, game changing differentiation purely on the features of our products have all but disappeared. I read an interview with a former senior sales leader at Xerox, who mentioned that in the 1980s, it would take their closest rival (Canon) around 18 months to replicate any new technology introduced to the Xerox product range. Can you imagine that?!? – 18 months before your main competition could come close to replicating your star feature. How quickly are the various smartphone manufacturers able to imitate each other’s ‘ground-breaking’ features today? It sure ain’t 18 months. The time from breakthrough technology to mass market application is collapsing, re-shaping the markets we sell into. And if you’re thinking this only applies to industries reliant on technology hardware, think again. In the financial services industry for example, competing products can be copied literally overnight.

So what’s all this got to do with Account Management? Well the fact is that products, and to an extent services, are becoming increasingly commoditised. No huge revelation there. In fact, it’s precisely because it was becoming increasingly difficult to differentiate on product that the more successful Account Managers recognised the need to stand out from the crowd in other ways. Which is why until now, those investing the time and effort to really understand their customers’ business, and therefore how they could create value for those customers, were able to stay ahead of the pack. The problem now? Either everyone else is catching up and/or customers have become more demanding. The consultative approach is no longer the differentiator it once was. You could argue that in many fields it’s become a cost of entry. With time increasingly at a premium, the glass half empty brigade may even argue that many customers no longer want to invest the time demanded by the consultative approach. Those familiar with the research that sits behind the Challenger Sale will recognise these themes.

So what does it take to steal a march as an Account Manager? What does it take to improve the overall customer experience? Well from what I’ve seen, it’s about bringing relevant insights to the table in order to help customers see things differently. This could come from (but is certainly not limited to) industry-based research, reports, white papers, or even your experience of working with similar organisations. Chances are that if you’re bringing something fresh, it could create some value. Now before you start thinking ‘But I’d need to be an expert in my customer’s industry!’ I’m not sure you do. One of my clients is a merchant services provider. When you make an in-store purchase and pay by card they’re the company that provides the payment terminal to the retailer and processes the payment. I’m certainly no expert in the retail industry but I can jump online and within two minutes I’m able to access various reports and research predicting the potential impact of cryptocurrencies on the retail sector – Bingo! Doubtless there’d be some valuable information in there that could take my next conversation with the retailer to another level. I wonder how many account managers regularly adopt this type of practice.

So it doesn’t mean you have to be the expert in your client’s industry, it doesn’t mean you have to invest huge amounts of time and effort to re-invent the wheel. What it does require though is a change in approach. I’m not yet convinced that the consultative approach has had its day. What I feel more confident about is that Account Managers who combine customer-relevant insights into the discussion will be at an advantage for some time to come.

– Dan