How to Prevent Your Account Executive from Becoming an Account Manager

The Gist:

  • Account Executives tend to move into an account management role, a challenge plaguing many sales organizations.
  • When salespeople have too little time for selling activities, it gets difficult for sales organizations to reach their growth goals.
  • Successfully reaching your goals means keeping the right people in the right role.

Over time, an excellent salesperson (described here as an “account executive”) can find themselves being pulled away from their sales role and responsibilities and towards administrative tasks that are not their responsibility. Eventually, the account executive finds themselves doing more work that belongs to some other employee and doing less in their own role. Both the account executive and the client adjust their relationship, but too often the account executive’s company takes on the new arrangement without any resistance, even though it hurts the account executive’s results.

Expert salespeople often slip into account manager roles by what we might call “taking a step to the left.” The client isn’t getting some result and complains to the account executive who, being highly competent, intervenes to take care of their client and resolve their issue—something that doesn’t feel like a big deal at the time. The account executive is considered a good team player for taking on the extra work, and everyone wants to retain the client.

Not too much later, the client, unhappy with their actual account manager, calls the account executive to ask for their help resolving an issue with their invoice—and along the way, lays out the five things they don’t like about the account manager assigned to them. This pattern continues until the account executive is working for the client instead of working on acquiring clients, spending their time on operational responsibilities that belong to other people in other departments.

Right level of accountability

The Right Level of Accountability

In The Only Sales Guide You’ll Ever Need, there is a chapter on accountability. Your willingness to be accountable for the results you promise your clients is one of the factors that can motivate them to buy from you instead of from a competitor. Delivering the results you promise is how you earn the right to their next project or initiative, or even access to some other part of their business. Your responsibility as a salesperson is to provide the client with the value of your advice and the solution you sold them, confirming the strategic value of your solution, the fourth level of value in my model. (You can learn more about the levels of value in Eat Their Lunch: Winning Clients Away from Your Competition.) The problems and challenges that threaten the client’s results belong to your company, including the people who are responsible for delivering a different type of value.

The client’s missing shipment, for example, belongs to customer service or some other operational role. The reports the client asks for belong to someone in finance, accounting, or the information technology group responsible for that outcome. The client’s complaints about the account manager that isn’t a good fit belongs to a sales manager or the Vice President of Sales or the group responsible for Actual People (I have come to loathe the words “human resources.”) Giving these tasks to the salesperson would be no different from asking the accounting department to schedule meetings for the salesperson—and Accounting would rightly protest that they weren’t hired to do that task.

Give the Problem Back

There is no reason not to take a call from a client who needs something from your organization. Taking the call obligates you to do something about the client’s problem, challenge, or complaint, but it does not create an additional obligation for you to do the work necessary to resolve the problem, challenge, or complaint yourself. To move back to the right and occupy your role as a salesperson, you have to give the problem back to the person or department who owns it.

The best way to accomplish this is by telling the client you are going to get them the help they need, and that you will follow up with them to make sure your colleagues have helped them. Then, instead of doing the work yourself, call the person or department responsible for what the client needs and ask them to call the client and resolve the issue for them. Thank them for their help, and ask them to call or text you when the problem is resolved, so you can follow up with the client. You can do all of this in ten minutes without allowing yourself to get pulled into a customer service role, something that will destroy your sales results.

The problem that you solve for your company is acquiring new clients and new opportunities. No one else in your company is going to do that work for you, and you have to be responsible for the outcomes your business needs from you.

A note for sales leaders

A Note to Sales Leaders

When you allow your sales force to do the work that belongs to a colleague in some other role or department, you are almost certainly covering up a problem in that other department—likely a problem with resources, people, or some other constraint that prevents them from being able to execute their roles and responsibilities. When you treat those problems as if they belong to sales, you prevent your colleagues from devoting the time, attention, and resources necessary to take real corrective action and prevent future problems. You have to deprive them of your resources if you want to help a struggling department to get the real help it needs.

You would also do well not to allow your consultative salespeople to present themselves as “glorified customer service,” lowering their stature in the eyes of the very clients who you need to see them as trusted advisors. The more menial the task the salesperson takes care of for the client, the less they are a peer. You want your account executive to solve your clients’ and prospective clients’ strategic challenges, not the day-to-day problems that belong to some other part of the business.

Do Good Work

  • Intervene to protect your sales force from doing non-sales-related work.
  • Work with your field reps to ensure they know how to hand tasks to the parties that own those outcomes.
  • Ensure that the few people responsible for creating opportunities stay in their lane.
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