When you’re a small business your priority is survival. But what happens when things take off? How does your account management team keep up with the challenges and opportunities presented by growth? And how do you define account management objectives that deliver results?
I’m excited to share my conversation with Calin Muresan, Existing Business Manager at Netguru. Calin joined the team when there were only two account managers. Today, only two years later, there are now 20.
If there’s one thing I know, it’s when you’re a small business your priority is survival. Organisational design and formal systems can wait. Which means as an account manager, you’ve got to rely on your instincts (and maybe a little prayer).
But you can’t run an account management team like that, let alone a business. In order to scale, sooner or later you must think about how you recruit and retain talent and put systems in place for information, planning and control to deliver a consistent experience for your clients.
Welcome to Part Two where Calin and I continue the conversation about account management as a revenue growth engine for Netguru, goal setting, why your client’s sales teams are your best teachers, recommended resources for account managers and a whole lot more.
01:21 Why changing mindset towards account management was the biggest obstacle.
03:53 Why you need to keep account plans simple.
05:22 Aligning key performance indicators.
06:12 Include quality KPIs to encourage the right behaviours.
07:27 Example of aligned KPIs.
09:03 Account plans are the evidence of the value you create for your clients.
09:49 Should you share account plans with clients?
10:28 Why QBRs have been a game changer.
12:03 Account plans are a dialogue not a monologue.
13:46 Misconceptions about account management.
16:10 Account managers still need to sell.
17:22 Why sometimes you need to ask your client for what you want.
19:09 The value of being transparent with your client.
21:22 Creating a vision for account management.
22:51 Account management as the revenue growth engine.
23:40 Account managers can drive change in the organisation.
25:16 Your client’s sales teams are your best teachers.
28:02 Helpful resources for account managers.
29:12 Why it’s important to keep exploring.
Warwick: Problems, you know, like in terms of any major challenges, anything that sticks out at you as well. What was that was an obstacle getting you to where you are today?
Calin: I think to this day, I still think this account plan mindset was the biggest obstacle because once this started happening, there’s a click, you know? Like once started, people started thinking long term and seeing the benefit of involving other elements of the organization. Now things are starting to become easier. I mean, there’s still a lot of obstacles.
For example, we introduced just two quarters ago doing quarterly business reviews with our clients. So it might sound silly in order to introduce it so late, but it is still an obstacle. We’re still learning how to do this part. But to some extent, we see all this now as part of the account plan or you could call it account based sales. It’s pretty much the same thing in my mind here.
But the biggest obstacle was to switch from a mindset where the account manager was thinking, OK, I’m talking to three stakeholders. I have this project. They might come and give me more, to a mindset of OK, so I’m going to set myself very ambitious goals: like I’m going to talk to – let’s take healthcare enterprise – I’m going to talk to three C-levels, and their first reaction always was,
I’m not gonna talk to the C-level. I’m like it’s not you, it’s Netguru. Who needs to talk to three, it’s you who needs to facilitate it.
And that’s I think when they started thinking, “OK” – and this is still a challenge for me sometimes: for account managers to think I’m the owner of the account and actually it’s my duty and my right to go and ask the organization to do things for me. And by the organization, I mean, Netguru.
And this is the biggest obstacle because people are sometimes afraid. They’re scared of roles. They fear, as you mentioned, you know, leadership. And they get scared of the C in front of the CEO or the C in front of the CTO. They are new in the organization, they don’t know these people like I know them and they’re like, “Can I go to the CEO and ask him?” I’m like, “Yeah, of course, he expects you to.”
And this is a hard mindset to develop and it’s still a big blocker because you see people that would like to experiment, but then feel afraid to ask for help from the organization.
So, honestly this was the biggest blocker for me to change the mindset.
Warwick: That’s a good point. I think a lot of account managers think of an account plan as something they own end-to-end, start to finish on their own. It isn’t that at all. It’s so many different moving parts. And your role is to coordinate them and facilitate them. And that means engaging your CEO to be introduced to your client’s CEO or that means you could get your tech team to do something. It doesn’t mean you have to physically go and do everything. So I think you’re right. People do get overwhelmed. And I think that’s one of the fears of an account plan.
Also, sometimes I think you only need a couple of things on an account plan. Some people want to make it like a shopping list. You know, they think the bigger the better. But actually you’re better off to have a few solid things that make an impact to you and to your client. And, you know, you can get them done and that your client’s going to spend some time on them.
Calin: You are 100 percent right here. When I introduced the objective and key results. Okay. One objective, ambitious and then three key results.
The reaction was, “For a whole year?”
I was like, “Yes, for the whole year.”
Three key results. Okay.
“But what if I achieve them by January?”
Then they’re not ambitious and I’ll challenge you. But if you achieve them by mid-quarter that’s great. That means you’re on track. But this links to other initiatives that we have at Netguru. So we project led the business values. And we try to understand that this is a lot where the delivery team is focused. What was the business value the project delivers?
But for the account managers, what they need, it’s literally five sentences, you know. What’s your objective and key results?
And then we can start digging. How are you going to achieve it? What do you need for this? But the account plan, overall, it’s five sentences. That’s what it came today to.
And everything else is automatic. All this index I told you and everything this is done by our CRM automatically. I can see it live every day. It uses the data that we have already in the CRM. So it’s no manual work. Which is brilliant. You don’t need admins for this stuff. You don’t. You know, as long as you’ve got the high-level kind of objectives, you’re good to go.
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Warwick: You mentioned a bit earlier about just, you know, when you first started with sort of account planning that it wasn’t necessarily lined up with KPIs and potentially other department’s
KPIs just might not fit into yours. Was that a big challenge or were you able to line those up pretty easily?
Calin: So I know I was really struggling, I had a few quarters of continuously iterating the account plan. I ended up to this point when I said, “Okay, now I want to start measuring it.”
And I didn’t know how.
And I was really stuck. And I knew kind of the logic. And then someone introduced me to the book about Objectives & Key Results (OKRs). And they said, read this and you’ll find a solution. And that’s how I came with the OKRs in the end. Then I realized, OK, well, they already have KPIs that I use to measure them. So today, an account manager’s performance – and actually their bonuses is related, to a mix of sales target and quality KPIs. So, I decided, OK, why not take those quality KPIs since I consider them so valuable that, you know, we pay bonuses and put the same things in their account plan on top of the OKRs.
And that’s what we did.
So it was, it was challenging, but the moment I got it right, it was one of those things that was so obvious. I was like, how could I miss this? For two quarters in a row, trying to come with complicated ways of measuring and thinking and feedback and loops and so on when all the data is there.
In terms of aligning with other organizations, it was easy especially with one organization: the Growth Department. So, by growth here, I mean everything marketing, branding falls under our Growth. They have an interest in talking publicly about our clients anyway. So when I managed to explain to our account managers that it’s also in our interest that they talk about this, it was cool. And when we did Account Plan Days and we started inviting Growth and they came and started learning more about the accounts. They got excited and they said, you know, we have these goals and actually now you have these goals. So now we started the aligning.
So, what happened, for example? Netguru does these events from time to time, The Disruption Forum. For one of our very big accounts, I put one of the objectives and key results – I challenged the account manager in January to put a public presence together with his client. This is a client which has a very strong NDA with us.
The account manager said, “No, it’s impossible. They would never give us references.”
And I said I didn’t ask for references, I asked for public presence. Them being present at an event, their logo next to us – doesn’t mean we work together. Because we do a lot of events. But it’s still something.
And we achieved it.
And the funny thing is, that was a blocker because they thought immediately, “case study.” Now, we are happy. And trust me, our Growth team is also happy because this is a very big name. We are still not allowed to talk about the collaboration. But that doesn’t mean our names can’t now appear together in events. And that means a lot because the industry is smart. And when you see names together, you make associations and you know how these things work. So that’s how it works. It’s a subtle way sometimes to achieve the things that you want.
And then that’s what I mean by account plan. I know a lot of those objectives and key results in our case are the soft things. I’m not going through the door, I’m going through that hole through the window. Getting to your objective, but not through the straight-forward pipeline way, that people followed in the past. And while pipeline is nothing to be ignored, but this is something to actually enhance your pipeline, increases your opportunity that in the future you’ll get more opportunities. And as you do more and more of these things in years, the noise and the name of Netguru is more and more known and present in the client. And the likelihood of you getting more and more things, naturally, it’s growing in time. That’s what I hope.
Warwick: And what it does is it compiles the evidence. It demonstrates the value you bring through your account management team and how different they are at the end of the year than they were at the beginning (the client).
Without account planning, there’s no documentation, there’s nothing to share to let your client know or to guide the account manager through that year to deliver a result.
And what I found with account planning myself, is just having an account plan and being able to discuss it with my client gives me so much more credibility, so much more access, engages them so differently. And then at the end of the year, when we’ve achieved these things, they’re happy about them.
Are account plans all internal? Are they external? Do you share with your client? What’s the balance? Some people don’t have account plans that they share with clients. I’m a big believer in full disclosure, pretty much with clients and joint planning where you can. What’s your approach?
Calin: So my dream is that we share them with clients. Today, I would lie if I said we do so. I would say probably 80 percent of them are internal. And this was my mission of creating the mindset initially internally, challenging how people think before we go to the clients so we look like experts of we look like we know what we’re doing.
That’s where the QBR comes in effect now. By starting to do QBRs, we started openly telling our clients also besides revenue, where we would like to expand. Those QBRs – especially the ones that we did it in a very right way – we build them together with our clients.
So this is the other big change happening at the moment. The best QBRs we did so far were the ones where literally the presentation was built by our account manager together with that contact person. Slides were written together. So when the presentation came together and the executive teams were in the same room, we both, especially the account manager and their personal contact, they knew exactly what’s there and they aligned the story in a way that they got them what they want and we got what we want.
But I do hope that if we talk again in two years about this topic, I would like to say it’s not 80 percent of the account plan which is internal, it’s 20 percent – that part that we want to keep only for us. But today we’re not there.
Warwick: I think that’s something for others to realize as well, is that you can do it different ways.
It can be a journey. And sometimes when you’re trying to finesse it and embed it and figure it out you don’t want to go to your client saying here’s our account planning process and then three weeks later, oh, actually, we’re doing it differently. Oh, actually now we’re going to do it this way.
Once you’re confident, you’re in a good place with the account planning concept, and it’s embedded then you can evolve it to something that’s more client facing or talk about how you can attach some of the conversations to your QBRs. But ultimately, for me, I think it’s so important that you end up having a lot of it shared with clients because when you’re doing it on your own and it’s internal, it still puts you at the center of the conversation. Not the client.
Even though you’re talking about the client it’s all second hand. It’s all stuff you’ve been told by them or you’ve figured out or that you want vs. really knowing what your client wants. Without a transparent conversation with your client you’re unable to effectively incorporate their goals into your account plan.
Calin: I agree with you. The full transparency is something we aspire to. But as you mentioned,
first, we needed to look confident in front of our clients since we were changing the product. Now, it’s defined for three quarters. We haven’t changed the process. We are adding small tweaks. So now I feel confident, and when people talk at QBRs and I see that some share their goals. But for now, I’ve left it down to them and how confident each account manager feels with their client and their relationships.
Warwick: And not all account plans will be works of art. They’re not all going to be something that you need to share. But it’s great that you’re moving in that direction and would like to see it there.
What’s maybe something that you didn’t realize about account management or that you think people misunderstand about account management. Or a common misconception.
Calin: So I think it’s this part that I mentioned at the beginning. When I do interviews, especially I hear this a lot. It’s in no way less sales than sales. This is probably the biggest misconception I had as well. But after some time in account management, I realized, actually, you’re doing sales. But I often hear, “I chose account management because I don’t like sales, I like building relationships.” I mean, it’s fair, I understand this part. But you shouldn’t choose account management if you don’t like sales because it’s still sales.
Ultimately, my clients know me. I used to say, “Look, we all know why we’re here.” And this is the best, when you have a very open relationship and can say, “I’m here to grow the business of my employer. And you are here to benefit. And my role is to align these things.”
We are part of the Sales department, at least at Netguru and in a lot of other organizations. I report to the Head of Sales. I have a quota attached to myself, to each account manager. So account management is sales.
The other big misconception is the level of proactiveness. People also think, “Oh, it’s farming.” And I always say, “this is not farming,” especially how we build it at Netguru, ”It’s hunting in your own farm.”
I’m not asking you to go for new clients, but I’m giving you this big plot of land and I’m telling you, “Go and hunt.” I gave you just the first plot, but everything else it’s yours to go and find the resources. And it’s for the account manager to figure it out by building their account plans.
But there’s still lot of hunting to do. There’s still a lot of outreach. This is something that people don’t realise. How do you expect to meet new stakeholders if you don’t do outreach? You might still have to cold call when you’re an account manager. You might have to do cold emailing.
Warwick: I agree with you completely. I think it’s one of the biggest from both account managers themselves, like you say, as well as from people that are not account managers. And I love that expression “hunting in your own farm,” because that’s exactly what it is.
You have to sell. You’ve got to renew a client on existing projects. You’ve got to grow projects, get new business, find new territories. You’ve got to improve margins and meet new people. There’s lots of elements that are the same.
Somebody explained it to me like this, a salesperson starts at 0/100. They don’t know the people. They don’t have a relationship. There’s literally no pre-existing partnership. They have to build the foundation on which to stand in order to get to a comfortable point where they can sell.
Account managers start, probably at 60/100. They’ve got relationships. They’ve got some of the business. There’s a gateway to some of the stakeholders. But it’s not a done deal. There’s still work to do to grow and retain that business.
I like the idea that, about being transparent with your client that we’re all here to sell and grow our business. That doesn’t mean I’m going to sell you something that’s crap. It doesn’t mean I’m going to sell ice to Eskimos just because I need to make some money. I still have a great product and a great solution. And I know that it’s the right one for you.
Which is what I’m saying about account plans. I would put on my account plans that I want your business in Germany. Some people would think, “Oh, we don’t want them to know that!” But why can’t we just say it out loud? Why do we have to keep it a secret?
”I want more of your business.”
“I want to be a single supplier.”
And let’s figure out together how I can prove to you we’re the right partner.
Calin: It comes down to human nature. It sounds bad when you say, “I want something.” It sounds selfish. You also don’t want to be rejected. But we all work in sales, so we know rejection. It’s our thing.
And I think I personally, as an account manager, I had the biggest satisfaction when I was very open to the client, as you mentioned. ”You know, look, I want to get in that site.
Can you help me?” And, you know, they sometimes sit down with you and they’ll draw the organigram and point you in the right direction.
I remember sitting in one meeting and thinking, “Bloody hell, for two months I’ve been trying to do my digging and it was as simple as just asking this person, “Hey, can you draw it for me?”
And they said, “Sure, here’s this person, here’s that person. If you want to talk to this person, be careful.”
There was nothing to lose for them and nothing to lose for me. So being open about your intentions and acknowledging the fact that you’re a salesperson, it’s really essential at the end of the day.
Remember though, as an account manager, once you sell, you also have to be there for the result. So, don’t sell ice to the Eskimos.
Warwick: The thing is, if you are transparent with your point of contact, they may help you. If they don’t, at least they might give you permission to pursue it or they might point you in the right direction. If you’re not transparent, what can happen is that you end up with backlash. You know, when they find out you’ve been talking to somebody else or trying to get a deal done through the back door. It can get really uncomfortable.
Calin: It’s hard because we don’t want to get rejected. It’s human nature. We don’t want to hear to the “No.” We don’t want to hear, “I don’t I don’t have time for this.” You don’t want to feel you bothered someone. This is a huge challenge.
Warwick: Thinking about all the things you’ve talked about, you’ve obviously got to a vision of where you want to head with your team and what good looks like for account management at Netguru.
Calin: So I remember when I became team leader, it was a temporary appointment while they recruited for the role. You know, Calin will take care of it until we find someone.
So the first question I asked was, “Can it be permanent?” The reply was “Can you do it?”
I said, “I don’t know.”
But I came back two months later and I sat down with our COO and Head of Sales and I showed them a mind map of how I imagined account management (which I still have). And this was when we were four people. Back then it was about, being more proactive.
Fast forward to last year, and we were three teams of account managers and I decided to pitch for the position of Manager – which didn’t exist. So I sat down and actually built my vision and it came back to the same thing I believed since the moment I joined Netguru when I realized the opportunities we have.
My ambition is to create the new standard in account management, and that it becomes something other organizations look up to.
And I have a vision that account management becomes the actual growth engine of Netguru. We have an amazing business that closes new accounts all the time – currently close to USD$50 Million in sales per year. But as the organization grows it’s impossible to add that in new
business annually. This will only come from recurring business. We can’t continue to double revenue year-on-year unless we know how to grow our accounts effectively.
That means providing such value it encourages them to buy more. Of course. that doesn’t come only from my team, it comes through all elements of the organization working together. Netguru is becoming more and more customer centric because that’s the only way to grow in a big organization, regardless of what area you are in.
But that growth starts from the account management team, because my team is the one that, in theory, should go to the organization and say, “these are the trends in the market, because I talked to the clients. These are the needs that I see in the market. These are the new things we should develop.”
This is the way be customer-centric, by being responsive. And this is how we should adjust our services, and how we should adjust our approach and our processes.
It’s our duty actually as account managers in this organization, to drive this. It’s our duty to drive the organization forward. And sometimes it’s frustrating. Sometimes you have to fight internally
for things. We’ve had a few instances in the last two or three years when we created a new service through account management, and it took so much energy to convince people internally.
But that’s OK.
I always remind the account managers, “you opened the door and the organization discovered a new thing, a new way of selling services, a new way of providing value to the client. And for the next account managers, it will be easier.”
It’s the one who opens the door who drives change.
Warwick: That’s music to my ears. I think account management is so under-appreciated for the contribution that they can make to business growth. And when you talk about, 70 percent (or something like that) of revenue generated from existing clients, the potential is incredible.
If you have the right team in place, the right engagement, the right support from the business, the right people leading the team and account managers themselves embracing change and accepting responsibility for their role, then you can be unstoppable.
And what a wonderful vision to elevate your team in terms of not just your business, but as an industry benchmark of what good account management looks like in your space and that they become the drivers of growth.
Among other things I used to do a lot was talk to my clients account managers, because I liked to learn how they approached account management.
Calin: I love to talk to my client’s sales team. Because that’s a completely safe space because a lot of times they don’t really work with sales departments, but when they know I’m a supplier it’s different. You’re in different businesses usually, and it’s just interesting to get insights into how they do things.
And there is another trick I’ll share with you.
When you talk to the sales team of your clients, first you learn about different industries, different ways of doing KPIs and so on, which is amazing. But I sell and that’s what drives my company forward. So, if I talk to someone from their sales and I learn what they’re selling and what is valuable for them and for their clients, well, I can actually position my services better.
Talking with your client’s sales teams is one of the best sources of information because those are the people who sell the services that you are probably building. Not the tech team that you’re building for. Or the marketing team. The sales team are the people that have to fill their bottom line, their cash flow and so on.
And it’s a two way thing. We’ve invited one or two of our clients to share knowledge for our account managers. Just to tell us, what are their challenges? How do they sell in their industry? In their countries? So, yeah, I love that.
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Warwick: I agree that it’s a gold mine that gets unexplored because people thing, “Why should I talk to sales? It’s not like I’m going to sell them something?”
But as an account manager, if I understand who my client’s perfect client or their perfect partner is, that means I really understand their business. That’s what you want as an account manager: to be seen as the person who understands them.
Are there any resources, books you’d like to recommend that’s helped you as you’ve built this team?
Calin: I’m a big believer in reading. I try to read on all subjects. But there’s one book which I keep recommending to the account managers is The Trusted Advisor. It was one of those books I was reading and I was like, yes, this is what I’m trying to do.
I’m also into podcasts. One podcast which I really enjoy which is a sales podcast, is The Sales Evangelist with Donald C. Kelly from Florida. I’ve been listening to Donald for five years. I’ve talked with him a few times and I’ve introduced a few people to him as well. Donald is a lovely guy. I didn’t find any specifically on account management, but it’s sales, and Donald covers so many areas. Sometimes about leadership, sometimes about outreach, different industries and for me, this is the podcast that I keep going back to.
Warwick: Any final parting advice for anybody that might be going on this type of journey? That have found themselves with a growing team and a growing business?
Calin: I was trying to think what’s the thing that actually keeps me pushing forward and that I see account managers push forward? So regardless if you’re pursuing leadership, like the path I chose in the last few years or the path of account manager, my advice is just keep exploring. Never give up. If you bang your head on the wall, just start questioning, is it the right wall? Explore the ways around.
This is the same way I did account management, and the same way I try to do leadership. I always explore ways to better myself. Of course, I’m satisfied where I am, but that doesn’t mean you should stop exploring – explore better ways or more efficient ways, more valuable ways.
Explore, explore, explore. This has really stayed with me. Explore the way you know your client. Explore new ways of selling your services. Explore new ways of organizing your time. Explore new ways of getting connected to your clients. Always explore.
And at some point you’ll hit your style. That’s what I’ve done and each account manager in my team has done.
And if you’re afraid of failure don’t be – just go for it.
Wasn’t that a fantastic conversation? So much insight and actionable advice on how to scale an account management team to drive growth – and fast.
I hope you enjoyed it. If you missed Part One, be sure to check it out. We talk about how the management journey at Netguru began, how Calin built the account management team, how vital teamwork and collaboration has been and why and how he implemented account planning.
If you’d like to be my next guest on Account Management in Action get in touch. You can send an email to email@example.com or just DM me on the social media platform of your choice @warwickabrown.