The Best Ways to Disrespect Account People
Blair remembers what it was like when he was an account person himself, and David shares five ways firms can treat their account people better.
BLAIR ENNS: David, we're talking today about how to disrespect people. This is your topic idea.
DAVID C. BAKER: Yeah, I get so many requests from people that want help with this, and they naturally ask me. Right?
BLAIR: Yeah. Of course they do.
DAVID: "Who'd be really an expert at this? Ah, David, yeah, he could help us with this."
BLAIR: Yeah. The topic is, best ways to disrespect account people. Why this topic?
DAVID: I see so many firms disrespecting account people. I mean, they're obviously not doing it intentionally, but when you look at how they're treated, and how they're brought into workflow and all this stuff, it's pretty obvious that they could do things a little bit better, and so when I talk through it with them, their eyes light up, and they see, "Oh, there's another way to do this." That's the topic. I thought it might be interesting, because it just will save me time, right, in consulting, because then I won't have to answer this question every time, right?
BLAIR: You just said in this podcast, "I'm just thinking." I was an account person for many years, and I was going to say, "I don't recall ever being disrespected," but it just took me about five seconds to think longer, and now these emotions have all come flooding back. There are times when, as the account person, you're on top of the world. Right? I remember some of those moments early in my career.
DAVID: Just this morning, like an hour ago, I don't know, maybe it was the topic, it brought me back to this moment where I was just thinking, "I should have quit in that moment," back working for a large, multinational agency where I was disrespected. I thought, "I should have just quit right then."
BLAIR: Okay. Let's get into this, so you've got a bunch of ways in which account people are disrespected. We're going to unpack these. Right? The first one on your list here is this idea of recognizing or not recognizing how difficult the role is.
BLAIR: Hot potato. Over to you.
DAVID: Imagine working for a president, don't think of a specific one, just imagine working for this anonymous president of a country, and you are the ambassador, and you are asked to represent your country, but also speak for the country where you are planted, basically. I believe strongly that the most difficult role, not the most important role, but the most difficult role in a firm is this account person, because you have one foot firmly planted on both sides of the fence. You're supposed to speak for the client, but you're also supposed to not give away the shop. I think it's so critical. It's why it's so important to find the right ones. They're just so important, and when you think about the degree, you talk a lot about this, to what degree does a creative firm lead or direct their clients, and then you go down the list? So much of it depends on how good the account people are, for sure.
BLAIR: Yeah. They're at the front lines, making the strategy real or blowing up the strategy, if there is a strategy. I love that metaphor of the ambassador. You're saying something that you think is the party line, and all of a sudden, then the president says something completely different or even throws you under the bus.
DAVID: Right. Right.
BLAIR: So you're saying the first way to disrespect the account people is to not recognize how difficult their role is.
DAVID: Right, how difficult their role ... These are the people who are better than anybody else in the world at sending a client to hell and helping them enjoy the trip, and not even realizing that they're going to hell, like pushing back, getting more money out of them, getting the information out that they've been reticent to share. It just goes on and on about how important they are.
BLAIR: Yeah. Great. Okay. Next on your list is something about hovering over their shoulders. Is that what you mean by this?
DAVID: Well, yeah, and I see this phrase. It just sneaks out, I guess, and there aren't any evil intentions around it, but you can see this happening in the early stages of closing a new account, where the principal, who has made some appearance, because it is important that they make some appearance. Maybe not physical, but at least be a part of that closing process, they'll reassure them on the flip side of saying, "I'm not going to be your day-to-day account person," and then the flip side of that is to reassure them that, "But if anything goes wrong, or if there's any time you need me, just let me know," almost planting the seed is just so disrespectful, I think, the idea that, "If you don't get your way, come to me. Bypass your account person and climb a step higher on that ladder."
DAVID: I really, honestly, do not believe that principals, or even salespeople who aren't principals, intend to mean anything bad by that, but I think it just sets the wrong tone, and I would like to not insert or plant that seed at the very beginning of a relationship.
BLAIR: The specific point of disrespect here is implying to the client, this, the principal implies to the client that, "Listen, I'm always going to be here. You're in good hands with this account person, but just in case you're not, I'm on just a phone call away." Is that what you mean by this?
DAVID: Yeah, exactly.
BLAIR: So you're sowing the seeds of doubt with the client, as if they need to be checked on.
DAVID: Yeah. Right.
BLAIR: Okay, so not recognize ways to disrespect account people, not recognize that their role is the most difficult, to imply to the client that you're always there over the account person's shoulder, just in case the account person screws up. Next, you have swooping in and out of client relationships.
DAVID: Did we talk about this? I think we did, right, and we kind of had a ... We had a good time with this one about just not being involved on a daily basis, and then right before a big presentation is made to a client, you, as the principal, step in and clear the table, and rescue or save the day. It's just not respectful to the people who have been working so hard along the way. It's not to say that you don't have the right to step in. You certainly do. It's not to say that your feedback at this point isn't helpful, because it, in many cases, is quite helpful. It's just disrespecting the process. We talked about this in that episode, about “How to Drive Your Employees Bat Sh*t Crazy.” It wasn't just in the context of account people, but I feel so strongly that you need to set a certain cadence, and then you need to respect people.
DAVID: This shows up in big and little ways, and usually a firm has mastered this, or they have consistently not mastered it. Everybody knows whether they have or not, and I just feel like we need to be more careful about respecting the process, which means respecting the people. There is a connection between that. If we're talking about respecting the people, then we do need to respect the process that we have all agreed on as well, and stepping in at the last minute, clearing the table, and saying, "Okay, what are we doing here," and, "Are you sure that's what we should be presenting?" Meanwhile, that's what we've agreed on for six days, right, of-
BLAIR: Endless nights.
BLAIR: Yeah. Do you think there's something peculiar about creative firm principles that makes them susceptible to this, or is there something peculiar about account people that invites it?
DAVID: Oh, I think it's the former, for sure, because nobody went to school to be a principal. Many of them went to school to be a creative of some type, and they moved away from that role, as they've discovered that there are other things that are more important for them to do, and they've had folks sort of back fill in behind them who are better at it, but they still long for that rush of stepping in and rescuing things. They just cannot resist it, so I definitely do not think it's the account people. Now, account people and principals both do one thing really well, and that's to fill vacuums, so if there is a lack of leadership, somebody is going to step in, so if the account person is not leading the account appropriately, then we can expect, and maybe it's a good thing, for the principal to step in, but let's fix the underlying problem, which may be the account person, but let's not just keep being disruptive at every stage.
BLAIR: If the principal is a creative person, a creative personality, maybe there's also a vacuum or a void in what he or she sees as really good ideas. I'm saying this thinking of lots of scenarios I've been involved in, and I think I'm guilty of it now with my team is, they're working on something, and I come in and go, "Well, let's do it this way," kind of somewhat cognizant of how disruptive that is.
DAVID: It is right, but who gets to decide what the right idea is, and should we set up a system so that we identify that it's not the right idea a little bit earlier in the process? That's sort of what I'm headed for.
BLAIR: Yeah, and I think we've touched on this at least indirectly many times, this idea that creative firm principals are not all that systematic. Right?
DAVID: Yeah. No kidding. There's the understatement of the month.
BLAIR: Your line is, "You people like to dive off the diving board and invent the water on the way down."
DAVID: Right. Yeah.
BLAIR: It's like, "Ah, I'll figure it out when I get in there." It's like a surgeon, a creative surgeon. "Ah, I'll just cut you open. I'll figure it out once I get in there." The firms of our listeners don't tend to be all that organized around processes and systems to begin with, so in an environment like that, it's kind of natural for people, and the more senior people, to swoop in and out from time to time.
DAVID: Yeah, and in that same surgery scenario, you would hear the principal saying, muttering under her breath, "Well, if that's not the kidney, then what was that other thing we just took out," or, "I thought everybody had two of those. I can't find the other one."
BLAIR: Yeah. Exactly. I like to quote Dr. Spaceman from 30 Rock. His line is, "Well, we don't actually know where the heart is in the human body. Medicine is more of an art than a science." Okay, let's move to the next item on your list of best ways to disrespect account people. This one really strikes a chord with me. Switch them out frequently for specific clients, so first, let's just talk about that a little bit. Then we'll talk about how we might smooth that process out.
DAVID: We've been talking about the account person, and principals, and the agency and so on, but if we flip this around and look at it from the client standpoint, oh, my goodness, nothing quite sets them off more than having their account contacts swapped out frequently. Sometimes, you swoop in too early, you pull the quarterback that's struggling a little bit too early, and you put somebody else in their place, which can be disrespectful. Not always, obviously. Sometimes, you're trying to listen to the client too carefully, who wants a particular style, instead of expecting your account people to be able to adapt to clients, but it's so disruptive on so many levels, like even for the agency. It's even worse for the client, I think. What came to your mind as soon as we started talking about this?
BLAIR: Well, the very first piece of new business that I won early in my agency career, I was 22 years old, I was handed new business responsibility. The first piece of business I won was a professional sports team. The way I won it is, I had heard from like a printing rep or a media rep that the agency had just switched the account person on the client for the second time in six months, and I thought, "Oh, she's going to be so pissed off." I called and left a very polite voicemail message saying, "Hey, I know you've got an agency you're working with. I'm sure they're very good, but if you ever, you're interested in making a change for whatever reason, I'd be happy to have a conversation with you." 30 minutes later, my phone rang, and she said, "Yeah, your timing's kind of coincidental, because we've just lost our account person again, and I'm a little frustrated by it."
BLAIR: Within a couple weeks later, we had that account, so had there not been that vulnerable moment, there's just no way we would have won that piece of business, and as somebody who's in new business, that's something I had always looked for, that vulnerability between the client and agency relationship. Also, I had been the account person a few times, not that early in my career, but later in my career, where I was dropped in later after a really good account person, or somebody the client really liked, had moved on, or, again, the biggest vulnerability is, "Okay, I'm the third account person in a short period of time," and you're fighting an uphill battle in that moment.
DAVID: Right. It does seem like that is when accounts are most vulnerable. One of the ways to solve this that I've discovered by accident and then had lots of clients try is, so there are legitimate reasons why you have to switch, so like maybe your account person is leaving, under good or bad circumstances doesn't matter. "They're leaving. We need to have a new one." The best way I found to handle that is to ask the client to meet with who you are proposing as their new account person and ask them to give you feedback on that option. That, on the surface, is a scary thing to do, because what happens if the client says, "No, I don't want to work with them"? The thing is, the way this works is that you are handing power from yourself to the client, and that's enough to smooth it over.
DAVID: I have never heard of a client say, "No, I do not want to work with them." What a client reacts to, more than that, is somebody being foisted on them without a choice, so if they have some option, they are generally going to warm up to the idea. If we take this even further, if you are hiring a new account person, this is somebody, a new employee for your firm, I strongly believe that you should let one of your better clients interview them for you, and they should, that account person that you may be hiring should be there on their own. You would never do that with somebody whose skills don't include that ability, but an account person should be able to step into any situation and shine, and so just giving the client some choice in the matter seems to solve most of this.
BLAIR: This is one of those areas where it's so easy to be a consultant, where you can suggest something to your clients, because this idea terrifies me.
DAVID: It terrifies you. It's been a long time since I've heard you be terrified. Yeah, it terrifies me a little bit, too, but every time I've tested it, it's worked well, so I'm sure at some point, now that I've said this publicly, it's not, but every time I've tested it, it's worked well.
BLAIR: The next thing on your list of how to disrespect account people is to saddle them with new business responsibility. Clearly, you have a point of view on this that that's not a good thing to do. Is that correct, and why?
DAVID: It is correct. I know it surprises you that I have a point of view on this.
BLAIR: It's so rare that I have points of view. I never tire of hearing your points of view, so-
DAVID: Yeah. The odd thing is that the skills of a new business person, the skills of account person, are almost identical. That's not the reason why we might separate these two roles. A primary reason why we separate them is because if an account person is responsible for new business, they're not going to usually shine at the new business side, because it's just not as urgent, and so it can be put off, and then they're going to fail, and that's really not fair to them. The other thing is, I just don't think it's fair to them.
DAVID: I think they should be charged with growing the accounts that you hand to them, and that is such an important role at the firm that we don't need to minimize that role by also asking them to sell for the firm. It's not a massive issue, but it's a big enough issue. I don't see it happen quite as often as it used to, but I really want to see the new business function be separate, and we'll talk later about when there's some overlap, but I'd like it to be separate. You're more in the new business side than I am. I'm interested to hear your perspective on this.
BLAIR: I agree, absolutely. I think in the smallest firms, where you just don't have enough people to separate those roles, it makes sense where an account person might have some new business responsibilities, but you were saying you don't see it, much of it anymore. I still, to this day, remain surprised at the large firms that I see where people are managing accounts and are in charge of new business. I agree with you. It isn't as popular as it used to be, but I still see it far, far too often. You're right, it's not like new business is less important or even less fun. Many would argue it's more fun because you get to kind of push the boundaries a little bit, but it's less urgent, so it always, always, always suffers.
BLAIR: If new business isn't suffering because of the account person's focus on the current accounts, then that person's priorities aren't in the right place, so it's not inconceivable, but it's just, like the idea that you're going to have somebody manage accounts half the time and grow the business the other half of the time by pursuing new accounts, you're just setting up this conflict that's just never really going to be resolved.
DAVID: Right. Yeah. There's no way they're going to do both well, and so we're not really respecting them by giving them something that they can do, well, both ways.
BLAIR: Okay. We are talking about the best ways to disrespect account people, and there's really one item left on the list, David, but I think it's going to take us home through the entire second half of this podcast. It's kind of related to the one we were just talking about, which is saddling account people with new business responsibilities. It's really the hand-off from the new business team to the account people, and you're saying that your big beef here is, it often happens too late. Is that correct?
DAVID: Yes. I think it should happen as early as humanly possible. We see some overlap, roll this time clock back, and we think about a prospect that knows nothing about your firm, they find out about your firm, they might hang around awhile, they may read stuff on your website, then they sign up for your emails or whatever it is that they're doing. They may hear you speak. Eventually, they raise their hand and they say, "Okay, you can sell to me. I'm interested enough in that." The new business person's role at that point often switches to just determining to what degree this new opportunity is a fit for our firm.
DAVID: As soon as it looks like it's going to be a fit, that is when I would bring the account person in, who would then take over the primary role of closing that first account, as opposed to what normally happens, and that's the new business team, whoever's on that, closing the initial relationship, which usually means the first project, and then introducing the account person. There are so many things wrong with that model, and we can pull that apart in detail here, that I just really wish we would involve account people so much earlier in this process.
BLAIR: Okay. I see your point, but I also understand why it's done the way you just described it, where typically, on the new business team, especially in larger firms, you've got like the planner or the strategy director, or what I like to say are the big brains of the firm. It doesn't mean there aren't other big brains in the firm, but the people responsible for the more strategic offering. That's because at the beginning of any new engagement, you're always beginning with the upfront strategy stuff. If we think of transitions, the first transition from the sale to the account is essentially the salespeople, or the new business people, to the senior strategists, and then once the strategic direction, and probably creative direction, is set, then it gets handed over to the people who are implementing, but you're right. It does raise this issue of, "Okay, now we're this far into the account, and here's your account people." What's the problem there?
DAVID: Well, part of it is that we don't want to be doing much strategy until the account is actually officially on board, and about half of the strategists in the countries that are listening to this podcast are really good at closing that initial part of the relationship, and the other half are not. You would not typically be comfortable having those strategists who are more from a research background close the Relationship, with a capital R. Also, this idea of closing accounts should be wrapped around the notion that we're not closing that many a year. It's probably one every three or four months or so, and so we can take our time doing it, but what I don't want is an account person to be inheriting the promises that somebody else has made on their behalf. That's what happens, and then they're handed these promises somebody else has made, and they're said, "All right, it's your job to manage this relationship so that it's profitable," and they had virtually nothing to do with the pricing of the account or the promises that were made.
BLAIR: As we're talking through this, I'm thinking of something you mentioned earlier about the principal kind of swooping in. This is a related topic, but I think it makes sense to cover it here. I have a beef about how the strategist or planner roles are set up in firms, especially ad agencies. They're almost always billable positions where they see themselves, and they're set up, they're hired this way, or the expectations are lined up this way, that their job is to essentially drive the strategic direction of the account, or the strategy that the agency is going to bring to the client. I think that's a misunderstanding of that role.
BLAIR: I don't think the strategy role, if there is a senior strategy person, often called the planner, I don't think they should be billable. I don't think their focus should be swooping in and doing the high-level strategic work for the client, sucking up all the fun stuff and the higher-margin stuff. I think in creative and marketing firms out there, if you have a strategy role, that person should be charged with building the strategic models, the intellectual property, on how the firm thinks about and goes about solving the client's problems, and then their job should be to train the senior account people. Do you have any thoughts on that?
DAVID: I agree that they should be focusing on the higher-level stuff, but I do think there are many situations where their work should absolutely be billable. The target billableness for them, if that's a word, for me, is about 60%, so it's much lower than an account person would be, which is at 80%, but I do think it should be billable, but it's about the kinds of questions that they are answering. An account person's job is to ask brilliant questions to pull out as much of the strategy as possible that sort of resides within the client, and the client doesn't even know what it is or what it could be. The strategist sees the questions, and sees the answers, and provides slightly better answers than the client provided the account person, so I still think it should be very billable.
DAVID: You and I see a strong connection between business development and the planning function, because we're trying to lead with unapplied insight, and then when the client hires us, we apply the insight and start charging a lot of money. I do think there is a split role there. There are so many things we could talk about here, right? I mean, we don't want to see the strategist as rescuing the ineptitude of the account person. That's not it at all, but the account person needs to be so close to the relationship that sometimes, they can't be as highly respected as the strategist role is, because the strategist bounces in and out and doesn't ever create that familiarity of being in touch so frequently and so closely with the client.
BLAIR: That kind of makes sense to me, but I think you're saying part of the issue here is, when you start with the strategist and do the high-level strategy work, then you're handed off to the account person, there's the sense of, "Well, where did that smart person go?"
DAVID: Yeah, right.
BLAIR: "How come they're not on my account?" It feels a bit like a bait and switch, doesn't it?
DAVID: A little bit, except that if you have the right account person, I don't think your clients are saying that, because account people are so well-spoken, and they think so well on their feet, and they are so smart not just with all the answers, but with most of the questions, that I don't think clients feel that way. If there is a bait and switch happening here under this umbrella, I think the bait and switch is, "What happens to the person who sold my account and that I bonded with, and now I am with this account person that I've not had any chance to talk to?" If the account person is the one who leads the closing of the account, then they don't feel that bait and switch, because ... Now, I think the strategy person should be a part of this conversation at the very beginning, but the person leading the closing of the account is the account person who's very, very qualified.
BLAIR: Are you making a case for your senior account people to be part strategist and part new business person?
DAVID: Yes, if we assume that being involved in closing the account is new business, yes, but what I don't want to see them responsible for is spooning up those leads. Once the leads are brought in, then they should help close them, not spoon those leads up.
BLAIR: Yeah, so, "Hey, Mr. Account Director, we're working on closing this significant new piece of business. You're going to own this account when it's closed, so we're bringing you in for the closing conversation, or at some point in the sale." That's how you're viewing it. Is that right?
DAVID: Yeah. Right. Exactly.
BLAIR: That phrase, "bait and switch," my thoughts on that, back when I was a young agency pup, we used to use that term derisively towards our competitors, and we would be defensive about the fact that we don't bait and switch, and now I think it's one of most misused, overused, misunderstood phrases out there. Does it conjure up similar kind of emotional response to you?
DAVID: I think clients are very sensitive to bait and switch, but when I hear that phrase used, almost always it's referring to falling in love with somebody in the new business process and then having somebody else introduce that's going to lead the account, and now all the smart fun people are off closing something else, and that's when we really caring about an account, but once we've landed it, we just give them to these boring account people. I do think that may not be the best phrase, but I do hear that a lot, and I think it's still quite prevalent.
DAVID: Part of what I'm trying to solve here is to eliminate that feeling that a prospect has of a bait and switch by having them bond with an account person at the very beginning. That frees the salesperson to go out, kill something else, drag it back to the cave, which you know I talk a lot about. It keeps the account person from having to inherit promises that somebody else made. It's such a better flow, and I'm just arguing, really, for them to be introduced much earlier and to take, not take notes in the meeting. By God, let's not have them do that. They should be leading the discussion at the very outset.
BLAIR: Yeah, so we're not talking about baiting and switching, like the entire senior team. I think where that phrase, "bait and switch," is valid, is when you get large ad agencies where the senior creative team and many of the big brands in the firm, they're focused on getting the clients that they don't currently have, and a lot of these firms, more than half of what they do is pitching new accounts, and then once the accounts are won, they're handed off to other teams entirely. I think there's some validity there, but on this point, you're really talking about healthy transitions, and I think you're talking about getting the account person in on the transition in the sale before the account begins.
BLAIR: One of the tricks that I learned years ago is that when you're transitioning, and a closing meeting is a point of transition where the new business person is transitioning out, and the strategy, and potentially account person or transitioning in, or if you're doing it the way that you're kind of advocating against, then once we get into the strategic part of the account, the strategist is transitioning out, and the account person is transitioning in.
BLAIR: My tip for transitioning is, if you are a person transitioning out in a conversation, then write nothing down, because you'll see in a meeting that the client's focus, as you're talking about next steps, the client's focus will turn to the person who is taking notes, so it's just a subtle little trick to signify that you're transitioning out by you no longer writing things down, and the person who is taking up the mantle begins to take notes.
DAVID: Now, as long as that person who's taking notes is also leading the meeting, if that person is silent, taking notes, then they tend to be disrespected by the client, so leading the meeting and taking notes, very, very powerful combination.
BLAIR: Good point. Otherwise, you're just a stenographer.
BLAIR: Okay, so the topic today was, best ways to disrespect account people. I can't wait till we get to the ones about disrespecting creative people, disrespecting the accountants. The key points we covered, not recognizing that the account person role is the most difficult in the shop, the principal implying that they'll always be there if the account person messes up, so, "You're in good hands with this person, but I'm always here, just in case you're not," swooping in and out of client relationships and kind of clearing the table and starting over, switching account people out frequently for specific clients, saddling account people with new business responsibilities, and then turning new clients over to them too late. This is great. There was a lot on here I hadn't previously thought of before, David. Thank you very much.
DAVID: You're welcome. We need to talk next about what account people, good account people, should do, and we really owe our audience a lot about how to grow accounts, too. We have to pick that up at some point.
BLAIR: I think you do owe our audience a lot on that, so I look forward to talking about that a couple of podcasts from now.
DAVID: Thank you, Blair.
BLAIR: Thanks, David.