Seven Strategies to Grow Accounts
David disagrees with Blair's model for growing existing accounts in the post-AOR era, and then offers his list of 6 ideas on the topic.
The Challenger Sale by Matthew Dixon and Brent Adamson
DAVID C. BAKER: Today Blair, we are coming to you live from the ReCourses Woodworking Shop, where so far I have done no woodworking, but a whole lot of podcast recording. Maybe I need to take my saws up to my office or something, but I can wander because I'm on like a corded mic and I can just look at my stuff. If you start to bore me, I just read the manuals for my saws and it's really fun. Is that okay with you?
BLAIR ENNS:Yeah. I'll hear the table saw fire up in the background, right?
DAVID: You know you need to start to get more interesting at that point.
BLAIR: You know you're retreating further and further from civilization and identifying more and more with machinery and animals.
DAVID: And the rest of the world thanks me for this.
BLAIR: All right. Unabomber, what are we doing?
DAVID: Today, we're talking about growing accounts. And as I was thinking about this, why are we so interested in this? I guess one alternative would be that we could just really land big accounts at the beginning but it seems like two things have changed in the world that our listeners occupy. One is that they are tending to start with relationships that begin smaller. That's one thing that I've noticed. So it makes it more critical to grow accounts. The other thing that's changed is that it's much more of a project-based world and so maybe growth isn't necessarily going to solve all of that, but we're talking about a chain of projects. So it's kind of like an AOR relationship disguised as a whole bunch of projects that follow on, which require the skills to grow an account. Why do you want to talk about this? Why is this that important?
BLAIR: Yeah. And I think you're right in describing the environment. In this non-AOR environment, the emphasis is greater than it's ever been to go mine the account for the very next project because there aren't the guarantees, to the extent that there were guarantees at all in an AOR relationship. I guess in some of them, there were some form of guarantee. So you really do have to kind of eat what you kill in the modern project-based world.
BLAIR: As somebody who focuses on the new business side of things, I've worked with a lot of firms where they were really good at new business and then you look at how quickly their accounts or clients move on, you think, "Man, if you would just solve that problem, you would be killing it."
DAVID: Yeah. And thank goodness they were good at new business because as fast as they landed them, they left, right?
BLAIR: Yeah. So you've got a list of things, pointers that we'll review on growing existing accounts. And I have one point. And I don't think you agree with my point. Is this going to be the first podcast where we disagree?
DAVID: Publicly, yeah. There's been a lot of ...
BLAIR: You're so polite.
DAVID: Maybe I read through ... You sent me one paragraph with some ideas when I thought, "I don't know about that one."
BLAIR: And a PowerPoint deck.
DAVID: So this will be very interesting so you're going to talk about a concept called the account conference. Sounds very very official. And then we're going to, if you leave me any time at all.
BLAIR: I'm not planning to.
DAVID: Right. Then I'm going to provide just some very specific pointers, which I'm sure you'll agree with, right?
DAVID: When did you come up with this idea and what was the impetus for the account conference? It sounds like this is something that's been rolling around in your brain for a while.
BLAIR: Yeah. Well, I'm looking at this deck, it was from a webinar I did in February of 2014. So it's been around for almost five years. And the idea was I invented the idea of an account conference. Well actually I observed it happening in a hospital. So I was in a hospital with a family member and the surgery was about to happen. And I was watching how not just the surgeons and other doctors, but all the medical practitioners kind of handled it. They had, they called it a conference, maybe it was a patient conference. And I kind of watched from outside of the room. And I asked them questions about it later. In hospitals, you have these hierarchies, where the surgeon is at the very top and then you've got the specialists, doctor and then you've got that nurses et cetera and the other healthcare practitioners.
BLAIR: So there's this hierarchy. and in any hierarchy, there's a danger that the people at the top are kind of standing on the iceberg of ignorance. So they have this sense that they know everything because they're the master in that domain. And often there's people below, who are thinking, "Well, I'm not sure that's such a good idea." So the notion of the conference in a hospital setting as I understand it, it's basically stripes down in the military parlance. Everybody takes their hats off and put some stripes down on the table so there is no status, there is no hierarchy and it's an environment where everybody is free to say what they think about the patient, about the surgery that's going to happen. And so it's been developed over many years to change that hierarchical culture in hospitals, where you're not allowed to challenge people at the top, and it takes a while to implement to get everybody to buy in. So I was really impressed with that. So the goal of that in the hospital is to reduce the likelihood of a mistake happening because people are afraid to speak up.
BLAIR: And I took this notion of the patient conference, let's call it, in a hospital and I applied it to one of my clients who is having a challenge in growing an existing account. Really the initial challenge wasn't actually growing the existing account, although there were some growth challenges, it was kind of this surreptitious, if that's the right word, or indirect approach to diffuse power from power that had been consolidated among one and individual account person. Does that make sense?
DAVID: Yeah. Which is a common problem and one that everybody listening would think. Yeah, I've seen this happened or maybe it's happening right now for them.
BLAIR: Yeah. But let's forget about that first instance because ostensibly, the purpose was to help grow the account, enlist others to help grow the account. Now, I've since rolled that out in other firms. And here's the idea, the idea is that not every good account person is necessarily good at growing their account. So if that's the case, why don't we enlist others to help? So the way the account conference works is, I think it should be done roughly twice a year. Some people do it once a year, some people do it once a quarter, which seems a little bit too frequent for me.
BLAIR: So just imagine this, twice a year, you take your entire senior account services team off-site for an account conference. And one at a time, the account lead for any given account presents an overview of their account, "Here's what we've done lately. Here's the progress we've made and here are three key issues affecting the client's business. Not necessarily affecting what we do for the client, but the big strategic issues facing the client. These are the things that as best as the account person can discern or keeping to see you up at night."
DAVID: Can I just interject that you hit on something that frames all of this. This is not a self serving event, where we're looking to mine money. I mean that's going to happen naturally, if we do the right thing in the bigger picture. The bigger picture is what is happening at the client level, whether or not it involves an opportunity for us to make more money. It's about leading that account. That's really hidden in what you said. I just want to make sure people don't miss that.
BLAIR: Yeah. It's about leading the account, growing the account and it's also about recognizing the fact that the person who is leading that account for the agency is actually quite close to the client and probably has some biases. And they probably have some ideas in what the client should or shouldn't do, but also a basket of ideas of why the client won't do what those in the agency think they should do.
BLAIR: So in this situation, the senior account person on this account is presenting an overview of the account to the team. And then the rest of the team, they can ask some clarifying questions and once they get those answered, they brainstorm amongst themselves as the account person sits there quietly on what they think the client should be doing, and then they put together some proposals to take back to the client. And they again, with the account lead who's responsible for that account kind of watching silently, they don't really have a vote or say in this beyond asking any questions that are directed to them, the rest of the group decides on the proposal that is going to be taken forward to the client to help grow the client's business and grow the account for the agency.
DAVID: So the client knows that this is happening, but is not a part of this discussion until it's distilled by the account person back to them.
BLAIR: Yeah. And just think of that point, if you adopt to this account conference approach, it's actually a really interesting new business tool. When you explain late in the sale, when the client's nervous and looking to be calmed down and you're explaining your methodologies, how you work, it's really interesting at that point to the client to say, "Oh and twice a year, we have this account conference where we essentially retreat and brainstorm on your business. We're briefed by your account lead, but they don't really get a say in it. And then the rest of us, as a group, come up with proposals to help you move your business forward and then we come forward and present those proposals to you."
BLAIR: Now, one of the most interesting things about putting the proposals forward to the client under this model is, it's not necessarily the account lead who does it, the group decides. The group might decide that, "Okay, the account lead is the right person to put this proposal forward." But they also might decide that for whatever reason this type of selling to and growing the account is not in this person's wheelhouse or strength so they assign somebody else to do it.
DAVID: So the client knows about the cadence, obviously they may not know the first time, but they're going to know after that. What happens if the client says, "I'd like to be a part of that." What do you say? Is it important that they not be there?
BLAIR: I don't think it's important that they not be there. I actually think it's an interesting idea. I haven't talked through this with any of our clients before. I actually like the idea that the client is sitting there quietly and the client too, can be asked some questions, some clarifying questions. It introduces another variable. It gets a little bit risky. It would really depend on the client, your relationship with the client. I think if you're going to adopt this approach, you should try it without the client there first. And then after you do it a couple of times, if it seems to make sense to you to involve the client, then go ahead and try it.
DAVID: I want to go back to how you introduced this whole idea where it kind of spring to your mind in a healthcare setting and the motivation for it in that setting was to reduce risk. It's like less people will die if we do this.
DAVID: It's easy to dismiss that and say, "Well, that's an interesting model but it's really not about reducing risk." But I would say, it really is about reducing risk because the risk that were trying to mitigate here is that we quit leading. And some of my specific suggestions that we'll get to later, talk about how to make sure we don't quit leading. Because that's how you get an account in the first place and that's how you lose an account when you quit doing that. So the risk that we're mitigating is that we quit leading.
DAVID: It's so interesting. One of the things that I'd love to explore, if somebody wants to do this in a really deep consistent disciplined way, would be how do we overlay this with really great techniques for brainstorming because brainstorming is really misunderstood. And there are a lot of personality profile elements that relate to brainstorming. You have people who simply don't think well on their feet, but who make consistently great contributions, but they just do it 15 minutes after everybody's moved on from that part of the conversation. To make this effective, you'd have to really understand how to effectively brainstorm, how to effectively run a meeting as well. But the main point is just that the risk we're mitigating is that we are not leading the account. I think that's such a fascinating, valuable concept.
BLAIR: I think you're right and I also agree that there are elements here like a framework for brainstorming that are missing. Like this is something that I introduced about five years ago and I've come back to it from time to time, but it's not something that we kind of teach on an ongoing basis. When I have a client with an issue around account growth that comes up, I usually introduce the model to them. So I think there is an entire area or adjacent areas of exploration that would make this model better.
BLAIR: I believe strongly in the model. I think one of the reasons why it's valid and we've talked about this previously, it occurred to me that the saying that I and so many other people keep repeating, that it's everybody's job to sell, just isn't true. And if we embrace the fact that it's not everybody's job to sell, that your people and in particular, your senior account people, some of them are very good at growing their accounts and some of them are very good at just kind of responding and keeping them happy. And if we embrace the idea that let's put sales responsibility or account growth responsibility into the hands of those who are good at it, this is a model that really suits that. That last part of deciding who's going to present this to the client. You can say to the account lead, "All right. Here's the proposal. Here's a little bit of coaching on delivering it. You go ahead and do it." Or you just might decide that, "Actually, you're better off and it's more appropriate for some other account person who's really good at growing their own accounts to go have that meeting with the client." So if you're the account lead in that situation, you really do have to let go of this idea of the ownership of the account.
BLAIR: One of the things I was trying to do initially back in that first scenario with this model was transfer the equity in the relationship from individuals to the organizations. So when you build advocacy among your client base, typically you want multiple people in the client organization advocating for your agency. But every once in awhile, you get this concentration of power where you get either one person or multiple people on the client side only advocating for one person on the agency side. And that's a very dangerous thing. And this model, If you're in danger of that happening in your firm, by involving others in growing the account, it helps to transfer that advocacy or the equity in the relationship from individuals to multiple individuals in the firm and hence really the firm itself.
DAVID: So the only thing that gives me pause in this is the notion that some account people are good at growing accounts and some aren't. On the face, you can't disagree with that. It's absolutely true. But what I say to my clients is that, if somebody is not good at growing an account then they are not a good account person. In other words, I think that is not an optional part of the job description.
DAVID: By growth, maybe we need to define that. I mean it seems like we shouldn't have to define growth. It could obviously mean more volume from the account or it could mean more ongoing projects without necessarily increasing the total volume, or it could mean moving upstream. I find that in about a third of the firms out there, they have the wrong people leading those client relationships. These are people who are really good at the details and they don't mess things up. In fact, many times, they are the ones who have stepped in to rescue an account that you were going to lose because the person who was good at growing the account was not good at managing the details, or were good at the relationship and not the details. The client got very exasperated. You decided to put this person in as an emergency move because they have demonstrated over and over again that they're really good at getting the details right.
DAVID: The problem is that, that person's approach is to not lose the account, instead of taking risks. And so my perspective has always been - maybe I need to rethink this - but my perspective has always been, if you can't grow the account, you are not a good account person. You're saying that it's possible to be a good account person as long as other people can help you grow the account.
BLAIR: I largely agree with what you're saying. I think what you're talking about is really the Peter principle, where people are promoted beyond their kind of abilities because lower level account people are more server responder types. They're very good at the details. They're very good at taking care of the client, checking things off the list. And so you get a really good junior or mid-level account person who fits that profile, then you promote them to the senior account person. Now, you're actually looking for quite a different personality. You're looking for somebody who will kind of create tension in the sale. A challenger type, if you want to go back to the book, The Challenger Sale. Somebody who's comfortable creating tension in the sale because to lead, often you have to look past what it is the individual client wants to what's good for the client organization.
BLAIR: Okay so we're talking about ideas on how to grow an existing account. I've put forward my model for the account conference and you have a list of key points here that we're going to cover. And your first one on the list is, to do what's best. That seems straightforward. What do you mean by that?
DAVID: I mean that if we're trying to grow the account, let's not hold on to it. It's like let it go and it'll come back to you. Almost like an errant boomerang that hit you in the eye. I don't mean it quite like that. I mean if you really want to grow the account, don't grip it, do what's in the client's best interest, even if that means that you need to direct them somewhere else. Because in the bigger picture, we're really trying to build that bond of confidence and trust, and we need to encourage them to do - very much like this account conference you described, where you talked about how we're trying to brainstorm not in how to build more work for the agency, we're trying to brainstorm on what the client needs. What are the existential threats to that client. The same here, we need to do what's best for the client. And it may hurt us in the short term, but it will really help us in the long term.
DAVID: People know this instinctively, but especially in panicky situations, especially in situations where the client is already too big or if the account person has power, any of that little erosion of our own confidence makes us grip things too tightly and then we start to mess up. That's what I meant by do what's best.
BLAIR: So you mean you should find yourself trying to sell something into the client that maybe isn't in the client's best interest?
DAVID: Yeah. Or maybe they're set up to do it themselves and we should not fight that.
DAVID: We cannot view the client as the enemy anymore like we used to. You know, 15 years ago, even as as recently as 10 years ago we would say, "Oh my god, they think we're competing against the client and the client department is tired of all this low level shit work they're getting an they want this juicy project but those are the ones that we're really good at." Nowadays, we cannot think like that. It is definitely a partnership and we have to view it that way. Our job is partly overflow work. Mainly, it's external objectivity and training them. And that's okay. We have to get used to that world.
BLAIR: Yeah. We could do an entire podcast on that one.
BLAIR: That's a really valid point. All right, so do what's best for the client. Don't grip things in a death grip, if the right move is for the client to go elsewhere for that work or take it in-house, then let it happen or even encourage it. What's next?
DAVID: Next is lead with a point of view. The freshest ideas you ever have are the ones you present to the client, where you are on your best behavior, you're doing your best thinking, you're taking a risk. And that's because you don't have the account yet. There's nothing to lose here. You're just out there playing with house money. Nobody expects you to win, you're plus 21, you're going to lose this game like you got nothing to lose. And that's why you take all these risks at the beginning. And then you get the thing and then your whole mentality changes and now you're holding on to it. Meanwhile, there's somebody in the bushes over there. It's going to be nine months from now or 36 months from now who's going to come in and they're going to do the exact same thing that you did to the other firm. And if you are not continually leading with a point of view, you have to be willing to lose this thing at any point.
DAVID: You talk a lot about how not needing to get something is one of the most powerful perspectives you have in new business. Not needing to keep something is one of most powerful perspective you can have in client service as well. Having a point of view, I don't mean being an ass, I just mean really being an expert and not being afraid to have that perspective.
BLAIR: And so you're talking about bringing fresh ideas to the table the way you would if you were competing for the business, where you're trying to unseat somebody else.
BLAIR: It seems to me, this speaks to this you know the death grip that we just talked about because you win the business and then a loss aversion bias kicks in, where we essentially value the potential of losing something about twice as much as we value gaining something. So we get racked with fear over losing the account.
BLAIR: And you're saying, let's let go of that fear. Keep bringing strong point of view, keep challenging the existing thinking and conventions, even if the existing thinking that you're challenging is thinking that you brought to the table initially.
DAVID: Yeah. Exactly. Like, "You know what? Uh - we were kind of wrong there."
BLAIR: "I know you paid us $2.5 million to implement that wrong idea, but it was a mistake."
DAVID: Yeah. We need to be a little more reckless here and it's okay. That's what I mean by that point. And you know your clients are always asking you to do zero-based budgeting, which simply means don't add 3% to what you did last year, start over. Like re-justify everything you're doing from a budget standpoint. Well, we need zero-based ideas as well. Are we really going to do the same thing we did last year? And your clients that are protecting a position are nervous about change. The ones who are not protecting a position, they've got less to lose. That's the perspective you got to have I think.
BLAIR: Okay. So one on your list is do what's best. Two is lead with a point of view. I've already written down zero-based ideas. I'm going to tell people I wrote that. I've already tweeted it. Now we're getting to the provocative stuff. What's next?
DAVID: Offer a resignation whenever there's a CMO transition.
DAVID: Yeah. I really believe in this one. And it's not my idea. Tony Mikes had this many years ago. My first time I heard it, I was like, "What? Tony, what are you smoking or drinking? This is crazy." So you've got this account, you won this account a while ago, you've been doing work for this client and then there's a change at the CMO. So the boss person that you're going to be answering to ultimately is new. And you go in to keep it mode. Like everything we need to do. And I'm saying no, go on the other way because you've got new CMO. She wants to put a stamp on the agency here. And the former CMO was fired for a reason. And if the head coach was fired then it's possible that the assistant coaches need to be fired too and the trainer. And so there's suspicion about this relationship you have and they're not sure they really want to inherit that. And everybody knows that, but nobody necessarily wants to say it.
DAVID: So what you do, a few days later, you write a letter. I really mean this. A real letter and you hand deliver it and say, "Here's our resignation letter. It's not that we don't want to work for you. We really do want to work for you. In fact, we think that, from what we know so far, the perspective that we're hearing from you, we might actually be able to do better work. These are some of the things that we wanted to do and we were held back from them. And here are some of the mistakes we made, here's what we did really well. But we do not want you to feel like you've inherited this relationship. If you would like to keep working with us, please let's do it, but we just want to make this easier for you." You hand them that letter and then walk out. What have you got to lose?
BLAIR: Yeah. This happens at high levels of government and even some corporations where it's, "You're hired, now give me your undated resignation letter."
BLAIR: I think it's a fantastic, really provocative idea. I tend to stop short of actually like handing over a letter and just having the direct ... So you're one-upping me here.
DAVID: This is the first time I've been more ... These are the kind of silly ideas you come up with all the time and I cringe and here I've come up with one that makes you cringe. This is a first.
BLAIR: Well, clearly you're wrong then. Clearly you've overstepped. Yeah. But I think the spirit of it, absolutely, I fully agree. I think you don't go into a defense mode, you say to the new CMO, "Listen, we'd love the account. There's things we weren't able to do. There are mistakes we've made. Part of us is really excited about the opportunity to do these things we could never do with you, but I understand you might want to bring your own people in. If that's the case, just let us know. No hard feelings, it's just business."
DAVID: "And we'll provide a very smooth transition for you, no hard feelings." I think that's an important part of this too.
BLAIR: Yeah. What's next on your list?
DAVID: Next is to speak, blog and podcast together, whatever the things are that you do. For one thing, if you're having trouble getting speaking engagements, it's a lot easier to get them if you kind of co-speak with a client because this association putting on this event thinks you're going to stand up there and just sell your services. But the person paying the dues is your client and the client is well-known and there might be a great story to tell. You, recognizing that business is personal, a lot of personal elements here, I think it's really useful to build a relationship that way. So do what you can to not just help the company itself, but to help this person's career, whether that's introducing them to be on somebody else's podcast or speak at some event, but just the personal bonding at a high-level. This isn't about the lower implementation kinds of stuff you've done, but talk about how you've approached things very differently. And I don't mean in a gratuitous way, a silly sort of way, I mean genuine.
DAVID: If your client is an idiot, don't do this, but if your client is intelligent and they have something to say and you wouldn't be embarrassed being on the stage with them, then I think this is a fantastic way to build that bond.
BLAIR: Now, when you said podcast together, I imagined a client and agency principal actually launching an ongoing podcast together. And now, wouldn't that be interesting? Because at some point, that relationship's going to end. So I would listen just for the inevitable train wreck.
DAVID: I had not thought about that.
BLAIR: Like this one, right?
DAVID: I hear the train coming. That's a really interesting idea. Yeah, that's not what I envisioned but wow. Yeah, that's even riskier than handing a resignation letter.
BLAIR: Yeah. That could be horrible. It could be incredible too though, right?
DAVID: Yeah. It could.
BLAIR: Breaking up on air. All right. You got a couple more things on your list. I think we've got time to do both. What's next?
DAVID: So an annual off-site planning with their team. This overlaps a little bit with what you talked about. I just think there's something to be said for and it needs to be off site, if possible. I've got clients who charter a plane and go to a place in Montana and they have this for a day and a half. So there's a a mix of social bonding, but also really serious planning and obviously this bonds both parties together, but it also gives you a clue to everything they're planning, even if it doesn't necessarily involve you. It gives you a chance to see you where you can worm your way in. It gives you an idea of what services you might beef up overtime and so on. So that's the fifth idea.
BLAIR: What about an annual event called, If We Were Pitching Your Account. You know back to an earlier idea about leading with a point of view and the need to keep bringing fresh ideas.
BLAIR: There's an interesting concept there. You could have another team in the agency, if your firm is large enough, come in and try to dislodge the current thinking. You could have fun with that.
DAVID: Oh, you could. And something else that would work really well here is - presuming that you are focused and your clients share some similar characteristics - gathering your clients together on an invitation-only basis once a year too is a fantastic experience. They're going to stay around and talk about that forever. Like a round table.
BLAIR: We should do a podcast on using events to drive leads.
DAVID: Yeah. Once we figure that out.
BLAIR: Well, we've got some clients who have figured that out so maybe we could take credit for their work. All right. So we're talking about core ideas to grow an existing account. You've got one more thing on your list.
DAVID: Yeah. And we've kind of touched on this, operate to win and not from a fear to lose. I feel like, and you've talked about this a lot, the fact that the relationship is going to go downhill is inevitable. It's just a matter of time. That's the only variable here. So we've probably beat this one to death, but just don't fear losing the account. You know where you see this happen the most is when somebody slowly develops a client concentration problem. So the client becomes too big. And inevitably, I've never seen this not happen, when you have a client that gets too big, you end up with a client concentration problem because you're afraid of losing them and you quit leading and that's exactly what you shouldn't be doing. So enough of that.
BLAIR: So we're talking about ideas to grow an existing account. I led with the idea of the account conference and then I'm just going to read off your list:
Do what's best for the client. So don't grip everything so tightly. If it makes sense to send work somewhere else, send it somewhere else, including in-house.
Lead with a point of view. So bring that strong point of view to the relationship, throughout the relationship - the one that you brought right at the beginning when you're trying to win the business.
The most provocative thing on your list I think is to offer a resignation at every CMO transition.
Then speak, blog and podcast together. Create content together and essentially get the client's endorsement of your work.
Consider an annual off-site planning with the clients team.
And then operate to win and not from a fear of losing.
And that last one is really kind of a recurring theme throughout. That's really the death grip that you talked about at the top, isn't it?
DAVID: Yeah. Absolutely. And it kind of wound its way through everything we talked about. This has been really fun.
BLAIR: Yeah. It has been fun. As you pointed out at the top, it really is a new era from what it was 10 years or so ago. Those skills of growing existing accounts are even more important now in the non-AOR era than they ever were. So I think this is a really valuable topic and hopefully we've given the listeners some ideas.
DAVID: Yep. See you in Australia I guess, huh?
BLAIR: Oh yeah. Right. I'll see you in a week or two. That will be fun. Looking forward to it.
DAVID: Safe travels.