The changing role of the account manager

There are three primary domains the newly-designed “account manager” must possess.

A savvy business owner from Maryland called me the other day to talk about his company’s career ladder (e.g., staffing, employee development and succession planning). The business owner was interested in leveraging additional value from his account managers to gain a competitive advantage against his local industry rivals.

For many years, the role of account manager represented a diverse blend of operational, people and customer skills. That traditional hybrid role has recently evolved into two dichotomous positions frequently found in most mid-size landscape companies.

The account manager position now focuses extensively on the customer side of the business, often renamed as a client relations manager, customer account manager, or client service representative. That singular fixation on customer focus has necessitated the complementary redefinition of the field supervisor position, which emphasizes myriad tactical field issues: crew composition, labor efficiency and yard departure/arrival; job sequencing, rotation maps and job quality; and employee safety, crew training and staffing.

With the operational facets are no longer under the auspices of the account manager, that position has been forced to adopt a new set of skills often shown to be time consuming, costly in terms of re-training and replete with difficulty for some historically dyed-in-the-wool account managers lacking adaptive transition.

To facilitate that new position structure at his company, I conveyed the following three primary domains the newly-designed “account manager” must possess.

1. Being a capitalist. The former account manager position was respectfully characterized as an “operator.” No longer. The current account manager position must now possess an entrepreneurial mindset characterized by business acumen aimed at increasing revenue (e.g., enhancements sales, construction work, tree referrals), containing costs (e.g., estimating system, gross margin calculations, materials vendor relationships) and maximizing company profit within the context of each customer’s landscape budget.

2. Coaching. The former account manager role was underscored by formal supervision of numerous foremen, crew leaders and irrigators. Not anymore. The new position does not oversee subordinate staff. The account manager must now take on the role of coach incorporating softer skills of communication, facilitation and influencing, as directed onto the customers, field supervisors and vendors. Instead of mandating vertical compliance from subordinates of yesteryear, the account manager must now view interpersonal relationships through horizontal collaboration seeking “win-win” successes, mutual alliances and continued partnerships.

3. Role model. The former account manager job classification was circumscribed by a pragmatic managerial orientation. The new account manager must now develop an enriched leadership mentality, focusing on company values, organizational culture and systems alignment, which when taken collectively contribute to improved client relations, employee engagement and vendor cooperation.

The elevated mindset of “role model” requires the account manager to continuously think, act and plan in terms of personifying best practices, earning others’ trust and promoting sustainable results capable of being emulated by those who have witnessed his/her impact.

Focus on people. As I explained to the business owner, this transformation requires time, resources and patience. Still, the pivot point cannot be more obvious: The focus is now on the people, not the job. The people must be engaged by the account manager to drive results.

The people must be coached by the account manager to reach their potential. The people must be considered by the account manager when positioning him/herself as emblematic of the company brand image.

Just as the account manager’s role has been transformed, so must their supervisors’ orientation adapt as well. Given the three types of goals, the new account manager position must be judged more equivalently across all three domains. As such, their supervisors must reframe their evaluation criteria for account managers.

The landscape industry continues to change, as have our clients who expect more personal touch. Our organizations must respond in kind to exceed their expectations. The newly configured account manager position is one more step in that continuing direction.

Cream of the Crop features a rotating panel from the Harvest Group, a landscape business consulting company.

February 2022
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