It ain’t what you do, it’s the way that you do it

Image credit: David, https://flic.kr/p/ah2HAg

On Thursday I went to a pub for lunch with an ex-colleague. The next day I went to a different pub for lunch with a different ex-colleague…

…and the experiences got me thinking about account management.

Thursday

We walked into the pub, ordered food and took our drinks to a little niche at the side of the bar area. So far, so good. Then, just as we were settling ourselves, a member of staff approached purposefully.

Member of staff (with a charmless and assertive manner bordering on aggressive): “You can’t sit there, this area’s closed”
My inner self (feeling immediately adversarial): “Where the hell else do you expect us to sit. The bar area’s pretty crowded”
What I actually said (in a very English way): “Sorry”
Member of staff: “…and you should have given a table number when you ordered”
My inner self (increasingly aroused, in a bad way): “Perhaps you should be telling that to the person who took our order”
What I actually said (in a very English way): “Sorry”

So, feeling rather passive aggressive by now, we picked up our drinks and stomped across the bar on a mission to find somewhere we were allowed to sit.

The food was fine, and the  conversation enjoyable. But if Google had asked me for a review of that place at that moment, it would not have been good.

Friday

We entered the pub before noon. The lady behind the bar appeared a little concerned as she told us that food wasn’t available until 12:00. We were happy to talk over a drink and look at the menu until then.

Member of staff (indicating one of the tables): “That table is reserved, but feel free to sit anywhere else”

After a few minutes the member of staff came over to where we were sat.

Member of staff: “It’s really not my day! I got confused – this table is actually reserved for 12:30”
What I said (reflecting the feelings of my inner self and very grateful for the lack of inner conflict): “That’s fine. We’ll move before the food arrives”

…and indeed, we happily took our drinks to another table where we enjoyed our food and conversation without any passive aggressive feelings. A customer-focused approach meant that we were more than happy to be cooperative.

Lesson of the day – it’s the little things that matter

There was no big problem with Thursday’s pub – but we came away unimpressed, not because of the deliverables themselves, but the manner in which they were delivered.

The same principle is true when working on customer projects in my chosen career of product development. Things will go wrong – timescales slip, software bugs happen, there are resourcing issues. Deal with it properly and the customer relationship will be stronger than if the problems had never occurred. Handle it badly, and it could be you’ll never work for that customer again.

That’s why it often makes sense to have someone in the role of account manager, away from the pressures of direct project responsibilities. When problems arise, this semi-detached person can take the broad view on the solution, where the project manager might feel compelled to apply the letter of the agreement. There’s scope to play the “good guy/bad guy” personas and work not only to deliver today’s project but tomorrow’s relationship.

The person in the account manager role should stay in touch with the project, attending both internal and customer progress meetings, but must be careful not to drift into the project manager’s territory. This is especially true for customer meetings – the tone and content of customer messaging should be agreed between the project team and the account manager beforehand.

Equally, the project manager should not be making big promises to the customer without consulting the account manager.

I have seen this model work very well, nurturing long-term trusting and profitable client relationships. I have also worked with companies that don’t see the point – the technical team manages the whole relationship while the project is operating. These companies have had notably low levels of repeat business.