Is your business and your key account management team growing fast?
Do you feel like you're always playing catch-up and never have time for important projects, like developing processes that drive business growth or creating career paths for your key account managers? In this interview, key account management expert, Laura Cuello shares practical advice to help you set up your key account management team for success.
Getting started in key account management
Warwick: Hi, Laura, how did you get your start in account management?
Laura: A lot of people will feel that they have stumbled upon account management kind of like by accident. But in my case, I've always been focused towards management of relationships. I studied human resources and business administration. And then I started working, first of all, in banking. And then I went into the hospitality industry and then I moved on to management of client accounts in start-ups and in technology, mostly within hospitality as well. So that has been my journey.
And it wasn't necessarily by accident, but it was also perhaps enhanced by the fact that I enjoyed what I was doing and that I wanted to do more of that. So that's been the journey.
Warwick: Wow, I love that.
So few people actually design their careers and have a clear view of what they want to do. I know sometimes the industry is maybe the happy accident or, you know, fate lending its influence on your career. But to know that you've always wanted to be managing customer relationships and partner with your clients is wonderful.
Laura: It's never boring. There is never one day that is the same as the next. And that is true of any industry that you may be doing account management because the challenges come from the clients to ourselves and how do we partner with them.
And each company, each client is unique, so they all have different challenges. They all have different verticals, different industries, different ways of approaching their problems, different realities internally. So what I love the most is that I'm never bored and I am constantly learning.
So it's one of those jobs that you cannot say, I've done it for so many years, I know what I'm doing and just close your eyes and go on autopilot. You have to stay on your toes constantly and you have to be sure that you can face the new realities of our environment, of the clients environments as they go through and support a client.
So that's one of the things that I enjoy the most that I'm actually learning constantly and I am never actually bored with what I'm doing.
And in terms of personal highlights, you know, some of it's a little bit vague, but I can tell you that every time one of my account managers has gone through a career leap or they have been promoted or they've moved to another team, it's a little bit sad, but it's also career highlights because it makes me think like, OK, I contributed to their growth, I contributed a little bit to their development and they are doing what they're doing and it makes them happy.
So those are dotted across the history of my career. Small highlights, but they're also personal.
Warwick: I love what you said about that contribution to the success of your team's career. And in some small way, that's your legacy. And that's the leap you've given somebody or the career break you've given somebody or the opportunity that you've given somebody, that they've then flourished because you've been able to nurture that in them. And I love that. And I feel the same way about that.
Where does somebody start when they kind of in the business, but they've really got to invest time on the business and really struggling to make that happen?
The challenge of account management, especially when you have a very large portfolio, is how to make sure that you provide that great experience to all of your clients and not just concentrate on the 20 percent that make the most noise?
Laura: Yeah, well, you know me well, so you know, I'm a process person. But in general, I do try to create my own processes to make sure that I have guidelines and I have a stake in the ground kind of flags in terms of what do I want to achieve and when do I want to achieve them by.
And I think that part that you said about consistency is very important because again, another challenge of account management, especially when you have a very large portfolio, is how to make sure that you provide that great experience to all of your clients and not you just only concentrate on the 20 percent that make the most noise?
So how do you go through that quality experience with all of them? And I think it's important to try to organize yourself internally so that you don't get consumed by the urgency and the urgent doesn't take the space of the important, which is what we usually say.
So I think that the personal organization is very important. And again, it's a constant challenge, I won't say that I have it already sorted, but that time management is very, very important in terms of organizing yourself.
And also within the business. So if you are a part of a start-up or a company that is fairly new in terms of their account management department, the opportunities are great and it's fabulous. And actually it's very, very exciting to be able to design that from from the get go because you probably will not have any processes or any guidelines. And it's basically, you know, you were winging it up until now and now you have to formalize it. So that that opportunity is great.
And I will say that's one of the things that I always remember from from similar situations is: involve the rest of the business. You cannot do this without the buy from sales. You cannot do it without the buy in from marketing. You cannot do it without the buying from leadership. So giving that little bit of responsibility to other teams also makes makes you more successful because at least you've got people that are invested into the success of whatever you're doing.
In terms of your original question, what do you do?
Well, you try to set up those milestones in terms of what you want to achieve for your program. So say, in my ideal world, my Utopia, my clients will go through this, this and that. And you try to then translate that into what does it actually mean for reality? And then also you try to make sure that you are replicating that experience with all of your clients, with more engagement or less engagement because I think that part is relative to the client's needs.
But at least the major milestone are covered and that the client knows what to expect from you and when to expect it by. So I think that's kind of like that shared responsibility as well is important.
Warwick: I love that.
I think the whole idea of having alignment and commitment across the organization, because if you do it all on your own, then you're just doing all the heavy lifting. You're making a huge rod for your own back if you design all your processes and systems and procedures independent of the rest of the business because it's inevitably going to fail somewhere along the track.
Laura: Yeah, or they'll come to you and they'll be like, "Oh, I'm sorry, this doesn't work for me, so, you know, go and re-do it. So you're in that position where you have to start from scratch.
Warwick: And the point about having milestones, I think is a really important one, because I think people get overwhelmed and they think, "Oh, my God, I can't do this. I can't implement a full 180 on my account management offer and solution. It's too big. It's too difficult because there's too much happening."
But I love how you've said little milestones. Just those little steps. You start one foot after the other. Start here, figure out the best... Where you want to go and then work backwards and start to build the building blocks, I guess?
Laura: I think that you're right. Have that overall light at the end of the tunnel, that mission.
Warwick: So you know where you're going.
Laura: That's so fundamental. Where are you going? What do you want to get out of it? And then work backwards as you say, you know, what factors and try to say, "OK, to get there, what do I need to do?"
One of the things that I use a lot, is mind mapping. So you can say, "OK, I want to get that as an objective. What are the other variants? What are the things that I need to get to? Not only for work, but also for your personal life. If you have to do a refurb in your house or you have to plan for some sort of course that you want to take. What do I need to do to get me there? And the mind mapping helps me, at least because it helps me visualize what's the end goal. It may not work for everybody, but it's one of those things that helps me in the day-to-day.
Warwick: Same. I'm a huge fan of my mind mapping you guys. I'll leave some links to some templates that I use for things like meeting agendas, account plans. Mind mapping is great and Mindmeister is a tool that I use for that, so links are below.
Laura: I think whilst you are the voice of your customer internally and it is great to be involved. I want to say the problem is when you start executing those facts on behalf of somebody else. And also there is obviously a little bit of ego on that because we tend to think that we can do it better.
And I think that's the problem.
When when you actually think, "actually I get it and I know what I want to get out of it" and I hear this from my team a lot: "But if I do it, it will be quicker and it will be done right. And if I have to give it away, I don't know how it's going to be done."
Well, learn to be OK with that. You need to learn to be OK with trusting other departments, other people, and to make sure that you set your boundaries because if not account management is often misconstrued as an inbox where everything else falls that doesn't belong to the sales or marketing, etc. so you end up being that repository of non-strategic tasks that nobody else wants to do. But they are for the client, so they kind of like fall with account management. And it's very important to to have your limits very clear from the start.
And I think that also goes internally as much as it goes for the client. Right? And I think that setting up those boundaries for the client as well is important because otherwise, again, they don't attach any value to what you're delivering. If what you're delivering goes into a basic problem resolution to a strategic plan. So the strategic plan then becomes the same value as that operational issue that you're resolving for them. And I think that's also those limits that you set up or those boundaries have to be placed towards the client as well.
Warwick: You know, you end up creating the monster. You know, if you do all that and you execute as well, not just an adviser, not just sharing your insights, not just helping somebody out with some opinions or some guidance, but actually taking it all on, you've only got yourself to blame.
And I love the idea of letting go of the things that aren't core. Do what only you can do and let other people do what they're supposed to be doing.
I remember when I was younger... If my boss couldn't do my job, we always used to snicker behind their back and we would laugh, "Oh they couldn't do our job if, you know, they had a gun to their head."
And the older I got, the more I realized I don't need my boss to do my job. I need my boss to do their job. And it kind of goes the same with everybody else in your organisation. You don't need to do their job, let them do their job. You do your job and just, you know, keep an eye on the quality and make sure that you close the gaps and anticipate problems. But let it go, you know?
I was talking to somebody today and they said to me, "I don't know how to say no." She feels that the value she brings to her client is by being accommodating, by being helpful, by saying yes and is really struggling to get to "No." Any thoughts on either why we do that or how do we get out of that if we find ourselves constantly saying, "Yes," and we know it's the wrong thing to be saying?
If you're just aiming for the client to like you, they're probably just going to take you for granted.
Laura: I think it's very, very common in account management, right? Because we build those relationships very close to our clients and we want to keep them happy and have that good relationship. If you're just aiming for the client to like you, they're probably just going to take you for granted and they're not going to assign any value. And don't be surprised when it comes a time when you say, "Oh, you have to pay for account management" and they'll be like, "Why, I don't need them. I can do it myself."
And you're like, "Oh, my God, everything that I've done for you.
But it's because you haven't attached any value.
And if you end up saying yes to everything and then it becomes kind of like a patch that you put onto things just so you can resolve quickly.
And also you don't empower the client to actually get something more out of the relationship. And again, you know, one of the things that I was reading about recently, I was revisiting Steve Jobs biography and was he was saying that if he would have listened to his customers, he probably never would have invented anything, you know?
So it's because you actually need to you need to say "No" and you need to come up with something different. And sometimes our clients may not be able to articulate what they want. And so they will tell you, I want this and if you immediately say, "Yes," you're robbing them from the opportunity of actually holding the ultimate problem.
Warwick: That just give me a light bulb... Like shivers... Like goose bumps.
Because that is so true: if you constantly say "Yes," then you're stopping the problem from really being explored. Because you've said yes to the first thing that was asked of you instead of, "No. But let's talk about it a bit more and figure out the right way to do that. Or a way that's going to work for both of us. Or to find out if that's really the problem or is the problem something else? And this is more a symptom than a cause?
And if you say yes straight away, you don't get to any of those conversations.
Laura: And it also works when the client is asking you for something that your company doesn't do or it doesn't offer. Right? So that's another situation that account managers often find themselves in. It's like, "Oh, my God, the competition has this feature and I don't have it. How do I tell my client that, no, we can't do it?"
And it's typical, right? What you're trying to say, is, "OK, what is the problem that the client is trying to solve?" And how can you solve it through a different path but actually may end up being the better path for that client.
And I think it's super important that whomever you're working with takes full responsibility for their path of what do they want to do? And I think, in the past, it was very much like, "Hi, your my manager, give me my development plan." Whereas now it's a collaboration. Where do you want to get to? Let's brainstorm to think, OK, what can work within your company or within the department that you work in to to get you there?
And just keep in mind that it may not necessarily be a linear path. You may have to go and do a secondment in another department or try to work with somebody else that you haven't worked with before.
So I think mapping that out, first of all, is very important. And also working through the skill sets of that person to say, "where do you feel that you're not there yet? What are the areas where you feel like your skill set is lacking?" And then helping them develop that.
So, for example, if there is a person who, you know, they're not very comfortable speaking in public. How do you get them to be more comfortable? And to say, "OK, in the next meeting, five minutes - do a presentation of five minutes or whatever you're doing. Or in the next team meeting you are running the agenda. All of those little things can help them develop that particular skill.
And it doesn't need to be a huge development plan, but it needs to be a collaboration between the person that you have with you and yourself as a leader.
And then obviously, as a leader, what you can do, is talk to the rest of the business to open the path or offer mentorships or coaching tips and then make sure that that person connects with other persons within the business.
Warwick: Great advice.
And I know you've had a few people come to you say, "Well, I've been here the longest. I should be a senior by now. Give me." And I know it's also been really important for you to have visibility of "What do I need to do?" It's not just some great mystery. Why is that person a senior? Why is that person and I'm not?
You created those pathways: well do the work. This is the pathway. I'll clear some space. I'll help you. But here it is. It's an outline. It's not just some, "Well, let's talk at your performance review and we'll see if you've done a good job. Maybe. Whatever. One day. Some day. Probably not."
You actually were like, "Here it is. That's what you've got to do."
Laura: I think you're right, because, again, that comparison versus your environment versus the rest of the people around you, it's very natural. We all do it, right? But I think it's also a disservice to ourselves because we are not trying to get ourselves better. We're just basically looking at whomever we think we deserve that.
So the outline is, you're totally right, you need an outline, because ultimately you want to be transparent. You want to make sure that your team has credibility... you have credibility with your team and that your team respects you. And you want to make sure that that's out there and it's clear for everybody. So, OK, if you want to be a senior, these are the five pillars and these are the things that we would expect a senior to do, not you, any senior. So this, this and that and that.
"How do you feel you rank yourself versus pillar number one?"
"Oh, actually, I think I'm an expert."
"OK, how do you define yourself versus pillar number two?
"Oh, I think actually, you know, I'm 80 percent there."
"OK. You need to get to 100 percent. So how can we work towards filling in that gap so you can actually feel that you're strong in all of those areas?"
And making that transparent for everybody, I think is important.
In general, as you have said, some people expect tenure you to bring you that. And sometimes it does, and sometimes it doesn't. You know, I think it's more of a, "Hey, you know, if you are here long enough, you'll learn. But also you need to invest yourself into that learning journey. And then if you haven't done it, you're probably still going to be doing what you're doing in five years time."
You need to invest in that learning journey. And whatever you learn, you can take with you. It will make you a better account manager so it's time well spent.
Warwick: And these aren't guarantees. You don't give people promises at the end that there's the golden ticket of a promotion and some more money. It's well, this is kind of what you need to do, right?
Laura: Exactly, you don't give them a promise, in terms of, "Hey, you're going to get this position, or you're going to get more money." But yes, you're going to get better. And whatever you learn, you can take with you. So if at the end of that journey you decide that you don't want to continue that journey in this company, it will make you a better account manager for whichever company you go to, so it's time well spent at the end.
And that's not to say that, you know, we don't want to give people promotions, of course we will when you know, whenever we have the opportunity. But you should be trying to improve yourself just because you want to be better at it.
We should all be doing that. I think that's that's the key.
Warwick: And that's what's within your control. You don't have control over future budgets or pay rise or headcount forecasts necessarily, depending on your position in a company. But you can control the development and as an account manager, I can control how invested I am in my career. And like you say, you know, you take great pleasure in knowing that you've enabled and helped support and guide somebody through their career transformation and their career path. And sometimes that doesn't mean 20 years with you.
Maybe that means three or four or five. But as long as they're part of your team and you are working together, you do your best and they do their best. I think that's really kind of what's essential.
Laura: And as leaders, we have a huge responsibility to make sure that the longer term vision is what we share with our teams and everybody's on board. Because if you focus yourself on the immediate three to six months results, then you kind of like losing sight of what you're trying to accomplish and this is when people start to get demotivated.
Warwick: That's very true. And the path... You might go down a different road and that's the beauty of growth and being also in account management. It's an agile function because it's a service function and it's very... There's not a lot of dependencies on tools and technology. So particularly when you are smaller and you're entering growth, you could do something tomorrow differently. If you kind of figure out it's the best way to approach your strategy and get closer and faster towards your vision, you could do it tomorrow.
It's not like you're manufacturing. It's not like your customer service team of 600 people with, you know, technology infrastructure and a voice over Internet protocols and, you know, computers and laptops. You've got six people in your team, 10 people in your team, 20 people your team. That's agile. That's nimble. You can move really quickly. So why not take advantage of that? You know, change fatigue is a thing, of course, but, yeah, I love that sort of approach.
Laura: Our skills are 100% transferable as account managers. We can do, what we do, in any industry, in any company where you're actually providing a service to anybody. So I think the fact that you're going through different experiences, again, you know, it benefits in the longer term.
And by the way, I have never been this cool with change. I think it's something that you get into.
I know, because if I go through my career, at the beginning, I was very stubborn. I was like, why do we have to go through this when whatever we were doing was working? But again, because if you keep doing what you're doing to keep getting what you're getting. You're not getting more or better. So I think that's the important part. And I've gotten used to change to the point that I'm actually a fan at the moment.
I don't know how I would cope with a situation where we're not actually changing or experimenting.
Our skills are 100% transferable as account managers. We can do, what we do, in any industry, in any company.
Warwick: I think change needs to be well planned - as well planned as it can be. And I know that we had a situation where our boss at one time was like, "Do it, just change it tomorrow. Split the team up in two. Change it this way, do it that way."
And we were like, "Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa."
Let's just like take a step back. Let's think about some of what could go right, what can go wrong, some of the messaging. Let's make sure that we kind of, have a plan to launch this change of structure versus what he was advocating, which was literally I want this done by next week. And we only needed another month to get it done, to kind of set it up so that it was at least a more comfortable message for everybody and get more people kind of on board with the whole thing. Versus what I think, you know, can be more problematic is when it's "just do it."
Laura: And it can be a little bit brutal, right, because everybody wants to feel part of it. And change is not always better. Better, is always change.
Sometimes account managers tend to go to a client meeting to just deliver information. So they're saying, "OK, I have my annual business review, or I have this meeting planning or et cetera, and this is what I'm going to deliver."
And my number one question always is, "What do you want to get out of this?"
It's not what are you going to do, practically, in the meeting, but what is your objective? And I think I've seen that a lot of not having it very clear in their heads what is the objective of that meeting, what you want to get out of that?
I don't know, do you want an extra sale? Do you want revenue, or do you want the client to accept whatever project you're doing or what is it that you want at the end of that meeting that will make that a successful meeting? Because if it is just going to do a business review or let's say, a data dump, and then walk out, then you're not adding any value. And it's just a waste of time - of the client, and yourself.
But if you're actually thinking, as an account manager, what do you want to get out of the meeting? And what would be successful for the client (if you're actually doing it together)? Then you keep that in mind as your objective and you tailor your message to that. It's not just a data dump like we were saying.
Warwick: That's brilliant advice. And I see that mistake all the time. And I've made it myself many times. I'm so busy. I've had the review in the diary for months and it creeps up on me and suddenly it's tomorrow. And I've done no planning and I race in there, you know, on a wing and a prayer hoping I'll get through it. And the client doesn't realize that I've done nothing.
And that cheats the client. They'll realize that I didn't invest any time in planning that meeting. I'll leave, having wasted a whole day getting there with nothing achieved from it. And it doesn't do anybody any good. And I think that's such a) probably one of the biggest mistakes I see and b) one of the most easiest to fix.
It's literally, you know, 5, 10, 20 minutes, 30 minutes, you know, a little bit of planning. Write down some notes. What do you want to achieve? What does the client want out of this? What are some potential questions that might come up? What are the answers? What am I going to open with? How am I going to set the tone of the meeting? Those are questions you can answer in literally 15 minutes, you know what I mean? It's not a lot of work.
Laura: Otherwise it's just a tick box, exercise. I think you're right. And I think even if you you have those situations, we've all been there, where the meeting creeps up on you and it's tomorrow. And, hey, I haven't had any chance to plan. Ultimately maybe take ten minutes before or, you know, at the lobby just get there, you know, 10, 15 minutes before and just think, OK, "How much do I know this client? What do I know will benefit them overall and what will benefit my company? And how can I actually get a little bit closer to that?"
So just having that mental space to say, hey, it's an expansion or hey, do they have, I don't know, operational issues or anything that you can think of? This is an objective of both of us. You have something that you can talk to.
I don't advocate that by the way, I mean, arriving ten minutes before!
Warwick: You, me, everybody has sometimes failed ourselves and a client at a meeting by going in unprepared. It's life. It's the way things happen. Like you said at the beginning of the call, sometimes the urgent takes over the important and the walls are falling down and that's the thing you had to sacrifice to attend to something else. But let that be the exception, not the rule. you know? And make sure that for the most part, you are prepared.
Laura: Some people still have the old idea of account management of tea and biscuits. Keeping the client happy. That's come over for a chat. Just be friendly and be the face of the company and then just go back home and just don't ruffle any feathers. I think that's a misconception that a lot of older schoolers maybe have about account management.
The new world of account management is very much that we are go getters. We are partners with our customers, and ultimately we are strategic program management executers if you want.
We are not that friendly face of trying to keep the customer happy by saying "Yes" to everything and bringing in a box of biscuits.
Warwick: It's a much more revenue focused role than it was 10, 20 years ago, I think. And also, you're right, like it's not about... That's obviously important relationships, but that's not the only thing. And, you know, I'm a big believer in account managers need a point of view and sometimes what's that expression? To make an omelette, you've got to break some eggs. Sometimes you've got to tell the client, "This is not the way you should do it. I'm telling you. And this is what I recommend instead."
That's account management.
I think you're right. A lot of people misunderstand as that warm and fuzzy relationship-y, doughnuts, tea and biscuits and I'll help you when you need it.
Laura: And of course it's important. It's important that relationship and connecting with the person that you have in front of you. It's very timely because I had a conversation with somebody in my team recently and he said:
"I've come to my light-bulb moment and realized that a lot of my customers will have a beer with me or they will go out with me and have a chat and we'll go and see a football match or whatever. But not a lot of my customers will follow my advice."
So why is that?
And he was like, "Oh, my God, all of those people that I thought I had pretty good relationships with, yes, they like me. But would they actually follow my advice and think I'm an expert on what I'm delivering?"
And he was challenging himself on that preconception of great relationships. What am I doing wrong that these people will not see me as the expert of the relationship? And I think that part we were discussing earlier about saying, "No", and making sure that you unpeel the onion, and then you discover what the problem is... Overall it wins that respect from the client afterwards. That, you know, they will listen to your advice or you will work on the strategy together.
Laura: Book recommendations, I have tons. I know you're, also an avid book reader, but the couple that I'm going through at the moment, Work Rules by Laszlo Bock. It's a lot about how they used to manage the human resources department at Google. But not only that, it's about the common mistakes that we do as leaders and how we need to relinquish control and how we need to overcome our biases. So I found that really interesting, because it challenged me in the right areas.
And also another book that I'm reading is called The Undoing Project. It's about how our minds make the decisions based on, again, a lot of biases and, for example, the fear of the possible reality and all of those things that intervene in the decision making process that I thought was really interesting.
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Collaboration tools that spare your inbox
Laura: In terms of tools I mean, of course, any collaboration tool that you have. Whether it's Slack or Microsoft Teams or anything else, I think it's it's one of those things that at the moment I couldn't do without because I'm a communicator. I like to share. But also I'm trying to move away from having my day managed by my inbox.
And I think all of these additional tools give you that collaboration without having to have your inbox dictate what do you do first?
Warwick: I'm a huge fan of those collaborative tools - have been for a long time. But I've recently been using Microsoft Teams for my coaching and training clients and it's amazing and it's so powerful. But Trello, Asana, lots of those things you can use to collaborate with clients - internal and external - and just save your inbox.
Best advice for account managers?
Laura: Only do what only you can do, because you are unique. I think that's very important. It will save you a lot of hassle about, being overwhelmed and everything else. So that's been my motto for the past years.
Warwick: Perfect advice and perfect way to end the conversation. So thank you so much for your time, Laura. So much generous advice, and we dug really deep into some of the challenges that business growth presents to account managers and to their leaders. So really, thank you so much for sharing all that wisdom.
Laura: Absolute pleasure to see you again, virtually even. And I thoroughly enjoyed talking about these things with you. And I hope that are useful for your audience.
A couple of things that really stood out to me. I love the idea that to begin you have to start, and the power of those small improvements.
And Laura's recommendation to involve the rest of the business because you can't do this alone. You can't design successful processes without their support. I see that so often the friction between account management and internal teams. It's very wise to encourage more cross-functional collaboration.
And finally, I loved her idea of leadership as a legacy and the fact that she takes such joy from helping her teams develop and being an enabler for their success. I really think that's a lesson for all of us, you know, in any profession.
But let me know what you enjoyed? Were there any "aha" moments, anything that stood out to you? I would love to hear from you. So drop a note in the comments and please connect with Laura on LinkedIn.
* This interview has been edited for clarity
- Connect with Laura Cuello on LinkedIn
- Mindmeister Meeting Agenda Template. Mind mapping software is a flexible and visual way to connect and present ideas. Use this all-in-one meeting mind map template to capture everything from your agenda, to minutes and action items.
- Work Rules!: Insights from Inside Google That Will Transform How You Live and Lead. Written by Laszlo Block, head of Google's People Operations, this book is a blueprint for attracting talent to your business and ensuring they succeed.
- The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed Our Minds. Written by Michael Lewis, this is the story of Israeli psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and their ground breaking research that challenged everything we knew about how we make decisions.
- Slack. Communication and collaboration platform used as an alternative to email.
- Microsoft Teams. A teamwork hub which brings together all the tools you need: chat, threaded conversations, meetings and video conferencing, calling and content collaboration.