Why Account People Should Close New Business

David gives Blair four practical reasons for sales people to hand off new business to the account person before the deal is closed instead of after.


BLAIR ENNS: David, I'm back home after a very long road trip sitting in front of professional equipment now. So everything is gonna be fine but you went and hit the road. You're mailing this in from a hotel, right?

DAVID C. BAKER: I am not in front of professional equipment, I'm in front of a laptop, I'm sitting in a hotel room. But I'm so dedicated to carrying my half of this podcast.

BLAIR: Your 65%.

DAVID: I'm doing it from the road. Yeah, I've been out here in L.A. working with a film firm, had a great time. Actually, you know, this has been a topic I've been excited to talk about. It's near and dear to my heart. It's not sexy but it's practical, I think.

BLAIR: And the topic is why account people should close new business.

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: And you think we've got 30 minutes on this?

DAVID: No, we don't. It may last 30 minutes, but we probably only got about 18, so.

BLAIR: You know how most books you buy are really like 20 page books spread over 280 pages?

DAVID: Yeah, they're articles.

BLAIR: That's going to be this podcast. As you can see I'm drawing this out already. Now let's get into it. I think it's a really valuable topic and as you said to me before we went live, "If we don't hit 30 minutes, that's fine". These are four very critical points that you want to cover. So you've got this list of four reasons why, and I think I'm going to hit you with some questions and maybe add in some other reasons. But four reasons why account people should close new business. As you are wont to do, you begin with a wallop. And reason number one is: because if they can't, they aren't good account people. Boom!

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: Defend your position.

DAVID: Yeah, well what we're saying is that account people need to close new business as opposed to new business people closing new business. New business people need to do something and they need to hand it off to account people at a very specific moment. And if they feel like they can't hand it off to an account person to close this new relationship, then the problem you have is a very poor account person. If the account person cannot close new business they are by definition not a great account person. They are more of and order-taker. And this is pretty important to think about.

DAVID: When you think about evaluating an account person, part of that complexity, part of the job description is that they should be able to, at the very beginning, shepherd the prospect through the closing process. And there are lots of other reasons that we're going to talk about that are important, but that's the critical thing. But if they can't close new business, they're not a good account person. They're more of an order-taker. And you'll see this mistake crop up in many different ways. Sometimes you'll see a principal who feels compelled to keep stepping back in, or to stay involved too long, or even when the account needs to grow later they feel like they need to step back in and grow it. That is a sign of one of two things. It's a sign that either that person is a control freak and has not learned in life how to hand things off, or they're willing to give the baton to somebody else but there's nobody to take the baton on the other side of things. Does that make sense?

BLAIR: Well what are the translatable scales that make a good account person and natural at closing business?

DAVID: Oh wow. That's an unexpected question. Are those allowed on a Friday afternoon? We're recording this on a Friday. Are those allowed? Thank you for embarrassing me in front of our 28 listeners. Appreciate that.

DAVID: Well, yeah I was talking about this today with the firm I was working with. Because now I have some science about how to evaluate an account person. But before I had that, I have some very specific questions I would ask. There were two questions in particular that were very interesting to me. One was: "Alright, the flight is canceled. Shit, we're going to have to drive eight hours to the new business meeting." Do you, as the principal, look forward to that drive with this would be account person, or are you dreading it? In other words: are they interesting, are they good at making conversation, are they self-aware, will they let you talk? All of those things that help you answer the question.

BLAIR: Can I stop you? That's an interesting question. Is it specific to account people or would you ask the same question of any other person in the firm?

DAVID: I wouldn't ask that of any other person in the firm. Like somebody in project management, I wouldn't necessarily ask that.

BLAIR: Right, okay. Second question?

DAVID: Second question is: The client is pissed off. They're not flipping angry, but they're irritated, they're annoyed, and if we don't fix this then there are probably going to be some other ramifications. I can't go to the meeting even though they asked me to come. Could I send the account person there on my behalf and not worry at all about how they conduct themselves, what they say how much presence they demonstrate, and so on. Those were the two ways I used to evaluate whether somebody is a good account person.

DAVID: So, back to your question, what makes a good account person. Well, partly it's listening skills, it's articulation, it's presence, it's being able to think on their feet. I don't know if I can answer that question exactly, but those are some of the things that come to mind for sure.

BLAIR: Somebody asked me on LinkedIn, I think it was last week, about some thoughts she was preparing for a talk and what thoughts from various people on what makes a good account person. And I pointed out that what makes good junior account person, it's not the same traits that make a good senior account person. And I think this trend or this characteristic that I'm talking about speaks to this first point of yours. That good account people are actually good at closing business. Because to succeed as a junior account person, and I wasn't very good as a junior account person when I started in advertising, you have to be a good server-responder. And that's the name of the profile of somebody, or at least in the language that I've been using for years, of somebody at the junior level. It's really all about service, it's about responding quickly to the client's needs, et cetera.

BLAIR: But as you go up the food chain on the account management side, on the agency side, and you get to a senior account position, it's my belief that the characteristics that are required for success are quite different. That's where you go from being a good server-responder to a good leader. And where you have kind of this requirement to challenge the client. I agree with your assertion that if they can't, they're not good account people. I think that might be a little bit of a bold overstatement, but I'll allow you that.

DAVID: Yeah, well I never make those so I'm surprised that you would say that.

BLAIR: I think the senior account people, it's not about responding and it's not so much about the little details. It's about the vision, it's about the future, and it's also about challenging the client. And I think those are the attributes of a good new business person, too. So I see those in common. And maybe that's the answer to the question.

DAVID: I think it is. Yeah. And lead the client relationship, which is the word you used, I think is the perfect word. Because 'challenge' brings a slightly negative connotation to it. But 'lead' is what we're doing in the client's best interest. And leading clients I think is the perfect phrase for what a great account person does. And part of what that means is to lead them into the right relationship with them at the outset.

BLAIR: Alright so we're talking about why account people should close new business, you've got four reasons. Reason number one is because if they can't, they're not good account people. What's reason number two?

DAVID: The second reason is because the new business person needs to go back out and kill something else. So this is not an issue of basically what they're good at. I mean, the new business person is clearly capable of closing the new business all the way to the end. But here, we're talking about freeing them up to keep doing what they were doing in order to bring this possibility, this prospect to the table. So, as you and I joke a lot, it's this person's job to leave the cave, kill something, drag it back. But then they need to drop it off and go back out and kill something else.

DAVID: So one of the reasons, and this is more of a minor point, but if the new business person gets too involved and stays too late in this process, then it's more difficult to extricate themselves from that relationship. And thus, they get distracted from their primary duty, which is new business.

DAVID: One of the maxims I have, there are five of them around account people, is that you would typically not combine account service and business development. Even though the skills are similar, one of them is more distracting than the other. So, if you have both of those things happening together, the same person is doing both of them, you can put off new business but you can't put off a client whether it's an emergency or not, they just need something. And so you keep doing that and then what suffers is new business. Account service never suffers because of new business, it's always the other way around. So here it's not about capability, it's about distraction. So the account person needs to close it so that the new business person can go back out and kill something else and drag it back to the cave.

DAVID: I live on 61 acres in the mountains and you live where there's wild animals in your backyard. Should we come up with some different images here?

BLAIR: No, I love the metaphor.

DAVID: Oh okay, alright.

BLAIR: Because the phrase I often use is "I killed it, you clean it." I think that metaphor of going out, killing something, dragging it back to the cave and then dropping it on the floor of the cave and saying "I killed it, you clean it," and then start walking back out of the cave, that's exactly what you want. And it creates some tension in the agency, but I think that's healthy tension.

DAVID: Mm-hmm (affirmative)

BLAIR: And as you've pointed out, I think the moment the principal looks at their new business person and says "You know what? He or she's got a little time on his hands and we're a little understaffed on account services. I'm just gonna get them to take the lead on this one account." That's the beginning of the end for the reasons you've pointed out, right?

DAVID: Absolutely.

BLAIR: The current clients will always win when it comes to priority and they should, right? If somebody is responsible for a current client and new business, the current client should be the priority.

DAVID: That's exactly right, yeah.

BLAIR: Okay, so reason number one why account people should close new business is because if they can't, they're not good account people. Reason number two is we need to keep the new business person focused on new business and as soon as we open that door, where they take some responsibility for the account, it's the beginning of kind of the end. And what's reason number three?

DAVID: Reason number three, and this one if there are account people listening to this they're going to smile, they're going to immediately identify this. And that's that: unless you have the account person leading the charge to close a new business, then they are going to inherit the silly promises that the salesperson is going to make on their behalf. And this happens a thousand times a day across the world, where you have salespeople who are really, especially if they're compensated on closing, they have no incentive not to make all these crazy, silly promises. And then who's going to inherit them? It's gonna be the account person who's going to immediately resent. "You said what to them?!"

DAVID: And you can't hold an account person responsible for promises somebody else made on their behalf! So we need to get this one straight. Everybody understands exactly what we're talking about here. But it is a part of the reason.

DAVID: I guess this is a question we should ask ourselves, what is the role of the salesperson then? If they're not really there to close the account? You're more of an expert on this than I am. My perspective on it is that, at the end of this process, their job is to primarily assess fit. And if they feel like the fit is there, then the next thing they do is they transition that feeling, that relationship, that give and take to the account person in a seamless way and they take a more secondary role, the account person takes a primary role. But that's a big role! I mean, it's not like it's not important. They're better at assessing fit than anybody is.


BLAIR: You know, when I said the phrase "I kill it, you clean it," I said think it creates some healthy tension, that's exactly the phrase that comes to mind when I imagine, say, I'm the new business person and I'm dropping the kill on the floor. And I mutter to my colleagues "I killed it, you clean it," and I turn to walk back out of the cave and they look at me like "What do you expect me to do with this?" And I round and say "You sold what?" And again, I think that's healthy tension. But your point is that that prevents the silly promises. If the account person is involved in the close, then they have some authority, whether they take full responsibility or not, and I think maybe we should parse that a little bit in minute. But if they're involved in the close, then if that's their opportunity to speak to any objections or any grand promises that the salesperson is making, that anybody in the agency might not be able to deliver on.

DAVID: Right, and I think it's important to also make the distinction that the new business person should be held responsible for the shape and size and nature of that animal they're dropping on the floor. We're all agreeing as an agency these are the right fit clients, and so don't drop anything on the floor that doesn't fit. But the specific promises that are made to that new business prospect that's now becoming the client are the responsibility of the account person. So it's not as if they can just drop a squirrel on the floor when we're looking for bears, right? But the promises we're making to the bear should be the responsibility of the account people. This is crazy.

BLAIR: It kind of begs the question though: if it's a sizable account, and I think you and I have roughly the same math that typical firms should be closing. About one significant piece of business per quarter, give or take, does that sound about right?

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: So if it's a sizable account, I think you're going to run into situations where the account person can't close on their own. And maybe you're not saying "Take full responsibility for closing," but "Play a role in closing," is that true or am I misunderstanding you there?

DAVID: Well, I would like them to lead the process and when they need help, I think the salesperson should be there to help with the personal side, the relationship side, and then typically they're going to have other help from it could be a creative director, it could be a strategist, it could be a media person. But they should lead that process. Even though they should comfortably accept help from all kinds of people, including the new business person.

BLAIR: Alright, lets get to reason number four why account people should close new business.

DAVID: Yeah.

BLAIR: It's because the client won't feel like they've just been a pawn in the bait-and-switch game. What's the bait-and-switch game, David?

DAVID: Oh come on! We are only 15, 16 minutes into this thing and we're almost done! We're gonna spoil people. They're not going to want to listen to these longer podcasts.

DAVID: So the bait-and-switch game is in the new business process obviously, I'm almost embarrassed to talk about this because you know so much more about new business than I do. There really is assessing a fit on both sides. Do I want to work with this agency? Do we want to work with this client? And it's not just about capabilities, it's also about culture and style and personality, all that stuff.

DAVID: So there's this natural bonding that takes place, and they get comfortable with each other. And then let's say that the account does get closed. If the account person hasn't been introduced yet or, worse yet, has been introduced but hasn't been leading, has been sitting in the back of the room taking notes, then they're going to feel cheated. The new client is going to feel like "Well wait a second, I know I'm working with an agency but I've bonded with this person. And now they're gone? I feel like bait-and-switch game." And so you really want to introduce the account person really early just so that the prospect, who will soon become a client, can bond to them very strongly. So that as the new business person slowly fades away, they don't feel cheated at all. That's what I mean by the bait-and-switch game.

BLAIR: Do you see or hear that phrase "bait-and-switch" as much? I'm just thinking about this now. Do you hear it as much as you used to hear it?

DAVID: I don't.

BLAIR: I'm thinking I still hear it but not nearly as often. What do you think has changed in the last 10 years or so around that?

DAVID: I think it's because there are not as many professional salespeople out there. That selling has switched away from that typical relationship, cold-calling kind of salesperson to more of a maybe it's an inbound game? Or maybe it's the account person who's following their contacts as they go to other places. And so there isn't that obvious hand off like there used to be. And so there's less of the bait-and-switch game. I do still hear it, but it's not nearly as prevalent, like you said.

BLAIR: Yeah to me it's a phrase I hear more in the large ad agency pitch arena, right?

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: Because a large ad agency, often your A team really is focused on the pitch. And they're in charge of getting new clients and then they might only work on one or two of the larger clients. So the implication is the kind of the rockstar creative teams in front of the prospective client. And it's not stated explicitly that this team will work on the account or will not work on the account. So they win the business and that A team is not on the account, there's that sense of bait-and-switch.

BLAIR: But I do think we're hearing it less because I think that there's less of that AOR advertising account type business that's winning the big pitch. And maybe we're just biased by the firms that we work with, but independent marketing firms tend to be more specialized away from something that's pure advertising, these days. And I think maybe there's just something about the nature of the sale or how the services are sold that doesn't quite lead to the bait-and-switch feeling as often as it used to.

DAVID: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah it's less of a momentous decision to hire a firm nowadays because you're hiring them for a project. It's not that big a risk. And so, it'd be natural to have less of that transition anxiety, I would think. But you know at the higher level, where you have these large agencies, often a part of the holding companies, the A team is there because they're often giving away the strategy at the beginning as part of the pitch. So the B team comes in to basically implement the strategy that the client has agreed to. And, in agreeing to that, they've agreed to hire them. They haven't even hired them yet until after they've agreed to the strategy that the A team delivered. So that's part of it too, I think.

BLAIR: So I'm imagining you in a room with three people. You've got the agency -

DAVID: Wait, wait that would never happen. I would never.

BLAIR: Being the introvert you are. Two is your maximum.

DAVID: Right.

BLAIR: You're in the room, you're advising a firm, and you have three people in the room. You've got the agency principal, you've got the new business person, and you've got the senior account person. Let's just assume there's one of each. And you're trying to explain to them the role of each in new business. You start with the principal. What would your advice be to the principal? And then I'll ask you to move to the new business person and then the account person.

DAVID: So the principal's role should be to make some sort of appearance. At a minimum, it needs to be 10-15 minutes of a scheduled phone call where they talk about, typically, the history of the firm, the great people, the culture, standard for customer service, all that stuff. At a maximum it might include one meeting where they show up. So they need to make an appearance, they need to communicate very clearly that this is so important to the history of the firm that we've brought the principal here to talk. That's that person's role.

BLAIR: And I've heard you explain this idea that you kind of wheel the old guy or gal in on wheelchair with the blanket on his or her lap and just like "You're in good hands!" And it kind of begs any question of "Well how come you, the owner, you're not working on my business?" And the owner gets a chance to reply "Oh, you don't want that to happen, trust me."

DAVID: Stan Richards. Oh wait! Did I just say that? Yeah. In his 80's, no. Actually he's very sharp. But you get that sense, right? He's probably not going to be working on the account. But he's like "Ah, we just landed Chick-Fil-A or Dodge and we brought Stan out for this. This is a big moment for us."

BLAIR: So it's kinda the principal is there as a figurehead. And then what is the role of the new business person?

DAVID: That person is to facilitate the hand off and to grease the wheels, to talk about the relationship, to in the background debrief the account person so that they really understand the nuances. Help them understand what buttons not to press, what not to step on, and there are several of those, believe me. I've got some raw wounds about those. And really just to facilitate that introduction and to express gratefulness. The one thing they do not want to do is say "And you're in good hands, and if you ever have any difficulty just let me know." That's one of the worst things, people just say that out of default. But that's just their role. And they're often in the first, second meeting and fully participating in the conversation in small but not necessarily leading the meeting.

BLAIR: Okay so they're taking control of the relationship after hello or the introduction. Maybe it's an RFP that comes in over the transom. And they're kind of navigating through the arc of the sale. And as they get closer to the close, they start to bring in the account person. So, let's just wrap this up by saying what's the role of the account person in new business?

DAVID: It's to actually conduct the close and to make those promises and to agree to what we're going to do for how much money. Of course, with people in the background contributing all kinds of things to that data. But they should be the ones that are clearly leading the relationship from that point forward. And the new business person is simply the facilitator and everything is under the control of the account person at that point.

BLAIR: Alright, why account people should close new business and we've got four reasons. Number one: because if they can't, they aren't good account people. Number two: because the new business person needs to go back out and kill something else. Number three: because this way the account people won't inherit all the silly promises that salespeople like to make in order to drag the deal over the finish line. And number four: because the client won't feel like they've just been a pawn in the bait-and-switch game. Thank you for this, David. You have arrived at your weekend.

DAVID: Thank you.

BLAIR: You're free to go.

DAVID: Okay, Blair.

David Baker