Training relationship managers

In recent years, the role of the chief sustainability officer (CSO) has moved from the corporate sidelines to the centre of business strategy.

I have recently been exposed to a couple of situations where the manager of a salesperson has been playing an unnecessarily high proportion of the role that could and should have been carried out by the salesperson. In each case, the salesperson was an “account manager”, or “relationship manager”, two terms which I like and to which I relate closely, as when I started my career in IT vendoring in the late 1960s this was my position, one from which I learned so much.

In these recent situations, I was acting as a coach to both the managers and the salespersons, helping them migrate to a situation where the managers could leave much more of the customer engagement to their subordinates, allowing them to deal with more strategic issues.

I suggested launching the process by preparing for meetings with customers where this would happen, and agreeing on how each would contribute to the flow.

It helps to rehearse, to role-play, with the two acting as themselves and someone else playing the part of the customer who’s been used to dealing with “the big man”. So we did.

Needless to say, this assumes the account manager is actually fit for purpose, particularly in dealing with people at a higher level than theirs, for if not their skills must be developed through training, coaching and other exposures.

In my recent examples, the relationship managers were indeed capable of engaging effectively with more senior people in customer environments, possessing the necessary combination of competence and confidence to fulfil both the technical and non-technical aspects of their work.

Too often, however, the more junior person lacks the confidence to deal with more senior customer representatives.

In my first ever sales training course I was introduced to the notion of “the nodding manager”, who as much as possible merely listens to their subordinates interacting with customers, with a supportive body language that shows their endorsement of what they are hearing.

So, as the meeting progresses, the manager says less and less and their junior ups their contributions and hence their credibility and acceptance. One must surely study the behaviour of the customer, to assess their readiness to be “degraded” in this way.

For in one of my recent situations, the senior customer person who’d been used to dealing with a manager had to be nudged to have their counterpart in the vendor organisation now be at a lower level.

Where their ego had assumed they’d be dealt with by their counterpart, they were now being asked to be humble enough to agree to the downward switch.

For me as a customer that wouldn’t be a problem, as it seems obvious that everything should happen at the lowest possible level. If the more junior person in the hierarchy is fit for the job, that’s all that matters.

Provided that between them and me as their customer we know where an issue is beyond their pay scale and we need to escalate higher office.

That’s an important point for relationship managers. As I wrote in an earlier article, where a matter needs escalation, whether within their own organisation or in the customer’s, they must develop the skill to know when and how to do so.

It should neither be too soon nor too late, and it should be pursued with emotional intelligence so that no one is offended. Escalation management is as important a skill as delegation management.

When all those years ago I was an account manager, I was allocated a small number of large customers where I was the one coordinating the software and hardware technical people supporting them, as well as the finance folk.

What a learning-by-doing experience this was, where I had to motivate and coordinate those involved on my side and help them not only to perform the technical aspects of their work effectively but also to communicate well with the customer staff.

And despite having these responsibilities I was not their line manager, having no direct authority over them – just influence.

My sense is that most account/relationship managers receive inadequate preparation for dealing at multiple levels with their customers.

They are insufficiently equipped for either handling problems that arise or proactively initiating new sales.

Eldon is chairman of management consultancy The DEPOT, co-founder of the Institute for Responsible Leadership and member of the Kepsa Advisory Council. [email protected]

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