When you are in the client services business, whether it’s a professional service firm (lawyer, accountant, consultant) or a creative services firm (marketing, advertising, PR, web design. etc.) you make your money by serving clients. You need to diagnose a client’s needs, educate and advise them so that they agree with your diagnosis, then engineer a solution that most likely involves you doing some work and them doing some work. And in the end, you want them to like the work you do. It’s a challenge — and not one that you learn about in school. This client services dance doesn’t come naturally to most anyone.
That is why the most precious commodity in any professional services firm is the account manager. I’m not talking about junior people, just a couple of years out of school. Once someone has 5 years or so of experience serving clients they have only begun to learn the basics of how to diagnose the client’s dilemma and persuade them of the best solution — both keys to making these engagements successful. It’s really hard to “buy” that kind of talent on the street. If you can find it, the price will be high, and the person you bring in still has a learning curve at your firm. It’s better to grow your own.
But, wow, how do you do that? Take someone with no client services experience and train them to become a “trusted advisor”?! Turning that person into someone who can influence clients, demonstrate expertise, and deliver services is a big hill to climb.
There is nothing like experience. Anyone preparing for this role needs to see you doing it. They need to experience what it’s like to push back on a client only to find the client respects you more. While you cannot minimize the need for this experience, you can speed up the process. Lots of account management books have been written by client services luminaries that can be used to enhance training and development for your younger account manager team members.
Here are my top book picks for your account management team members:
1. True Professionalism by David Maister
David Maister is the deepest thinker about the issues facing client services firms. True Professionalism is his effort to orient those new to client services to the basics of what it means to be a consultant, a trusted advisor and a professional. It’s a great thing to give new hires on their first day of work — and it also has value for anyone with 5 or less years in the field who wants to be a true professional.
2. Crucial Conversations by Kerry Patterson
Much of what we do as professionals is to talk with our clients and co-workers. Our work is conducted either verbally or in writing. Crucial Conversations helps readers to be more thoughtful about their own communication and provides tools and perspectives that can keep you from getting tangled up in the stories that others are telling you. This book will make you better at your job, but it will also make you a better spouse, friend and human being.
3. Getting Naked by Patrick Lencioni
I’m not a big fan of the “parable” business book — but the content of this book is so good that it more than makes up for the cheesy tale that starts it off. Patrick Lencioni has taken a simple framework and packed it full of real wisdom. This book will make you a better at serving clients no matter how many years of experience you have.
4. The Trusted Advisor by David Maister & Charles Green
When it comes time for your client service people to start building some business, give them The Trusted Advisor. Here Maister outlines some very important thoughts about how selling services is different from selling products, and how a true professional sells (by demonstrating expertise and building trust).
5. Managing the Professional Services Firm
Once your younger team members have started to improve their judgment and are ready to start taking on more of a leadership role, it’s time to move them up to talking about the numbers and how service firms make money. Again, I turn back to David Maister, who lays it all out for us in this book. If you haven’t read it you should. It will change how you look at your firm.
I’ve seen firms who set up a quarterly “book group” and they just run through these books over the course of a year. Anyone who hasn’t already read them joins in, they read a chapter or two a week, and then take a lunch hour to discuss what they are learning and how it applies to this business.
Photo credit: Abee5