I received a request from a great client the other day. They have had the founder of their company handling the representation of numerous key accounts for decades, and after years of growth on their sales team, the time has come to allow the CEO to be a CEO and transition some key accounts to strong Account Executives. Here is a good game plan to make that transition happen positively and avoid disruption. I sent the following email to the VP of Sales and the CEO…
First, congratulations are in order; this is EXACTLY the sort of thing that will have the potential to drive future value to these customers and to free up your CEO for those leadership duties that are beckoning for her attention. As much as the CEO enjoys supporting these customers, it forces her to occasionally have to short-change some other priority so that she can make time to handle the customer’s needs. Better to give them a new relationship, that EXPANDS their relationship with your company. Let me explain…
Before you do this, realize the value of a systematic approach to transitioning these accounts from your CEO to another AE. This should be done to ENHANCE the value that the customer receives from your company. Otherwise, it is good for you and bad for them. Let’s agree that we need to avoid doing anything that is bad for the customer, right? Of course, that is right.
- Consider the Customer – What are their fears, whether rational or irrational? Either way, you will need to proactively address their concerns and remove them. View this important change through the client’s eyes. Provide the client with a great opportunity to discuss any concerns with both of you. Before you make any changes, make sure they understand the need for the changes at your company from a business sustainability perspective and do your absolute best to turn this experience into a positive for the customer. Leave an open line of communications to the CEO in place so that the client won’t feel like they’re being demoted or divorced from a relationship that they’ve invested in for decades. Tell the customer that both of you will remain involved with the account as an executive sponsor, and then stay involved on some reasonable level, so that it’s not an empty promise. Let’s make sure that the new AE who is assigned to them, is a good fit technically, professionally, and personally. Show empathy for the customer throughout the whole process, and provide them with a very lengthy, advanced notice, so that the customer has time to plan and adjust on their end. Perhaps most importantly, do your best to give them an excellent alternative to handle their affairs moving forward. That will be difficult, but don’t assign them to a junior staffer, under any circumstances. Rather, assign them to someone who is well equipped to move the relationship forward and to leave the customer with the impression that this move is NOT negative, it is in many ways a step forward. The key is to avoid surprising the customer last minute, being confident and positive that this is good for the customer in the long run as well as good for your company. Once you are convinced that you have planned to make this transition a positive for your customer, then you can engage and make it happen in the right way…
- Discuss the Transition with Your Customer – I suggest that you both be personally engaged in the transition, and long after the transition is completed. Discussing this with the customer a couple of times face to face is best. A transition like this is going to trigger fears and uncertainty for your customers and is NOT something you discuss via the telephone or via email. I recommend that the first meeting would be the two of you to explain what you plan to do (this will go smoother if you have talking points prepared in advance) and to ask the customer about any concerns they have. Listen very carefully to the customers’ feedback and concerns and work EXTRA HARD to understand their concerns and avoid any temptation to make excuses or persuade the customer that their fears or concerns are invalid. Listen intently, with the intention to understand their concerns. When they are finished, tell them how much you appreciate them sharing their concerns with you and that you will do everything you can to address them and ensure that the relationship moves forward. Again, I suggest having a set of talking points worked out in advance of this meeting, anticipating any questions or concerns they might have with your proposed transition plan. This first meeting must appropriately address the customer’s concerns and provides them some time to plan for the transition.
- Select the New AE – Now, it’s time to begin the transition on your end. Select the new AE, and begin preparing them for their new duties. Update the client’s data in the CRM database, making sure that all is up-to-date and accurate. Don’t allow any gaps or any surprises that impact the customer’s account representation experience. Select the new AE carefully, thinking about not just their technical knowledge, but also their behavior style, selling style, customer handling skills, etc. Ensure that they are OVER-PREPARED to handle this strategic account. Find the best fit you can. Customers won’t accept a bad fit. They vote with their feet if you force them to accept representation that isn’t valuable for them. Expect that your first choice might not stick and be prepared to make a change if necessary. Have an alternative AE in mind, if the first proposed AE runs into a personality conflict. With assertive preparation, you should be able to avoid that by using behavioral analysis profiling tools, etc. to select the right fit for the customer. Still, if there is a misstep, be ready to handle it quickly and appropriately.
- Begin the Transition – Plan for a long, gradual transition, rather than a short and abrupt one. The idea is to make this a positive experience for the customer and for all within YOUR company, CEO, VP of Sales, and for the new AE. Give everyone time to warm up to one another, and to be well-prepared for the transition. When you’ve made the rep selection, and the AE is ready to transition into the account and take the relationship to a higher level, schedule a second meeting and get out to the customer’s offices with the three of you. Again, using solid talking points, introduce the new AE and give him or her your solid endorsement. Tell the customer that you are delighted to be able to provide them with a valuable resource that will become a part of their team, and drive the business relationship to a new higher level. Plan and budget for some extras to allow the new AE to generate some excitement, such as a gold outing or a ball game, or a free session in your training center on an exciting new technology, or a workshop in your training center with your favorite business coach on a topic that would add value for your customer. Generate some excitement during the first 90 days of this new relationship, and give the customer a reason to be positive and excited about the change, not demoralized. They will miss working regularly with the CEO, but they will understand that this step is necessary if you handle it proactively. They will also accept it more readily if the experience becomes a positive, valuable experience.
- Stay in Contact with Customer – Remember, you must both remain personally engaged in this transition and not abandon the customer at any point. Customers need to feel the love from their strategic partners. During a time of transition like this, they need to feel extra love! Build into the calendar a couple of face to face meetings, a couple of phone calls from the CEO, a couple of phone calls from the VP of Sales, a visit from the CTO, and weekly attention from the new AE until you are convinced that the customer is warming up to the new AE. Remind the customer that you are both going to remain engaged as Strategic Executive Sponsors to ensure that the account gets “white glove” treatment from the new AE. Increase the love that the customer experiences, don’t let it dwindle.
- Smooth Transition – Most important, do not allow for any measurable drop in the amount of value or Customer Service that the customer experiences. Prepare the new AE and their support team (DGR/ISR/SE) with everything they need to know about the customer, and a solid handover of notes, CRM data, folders, account information, introductions to key account personnel, etc. Leave nothing to chance. At the end of the day, this type of transition goes best when the customer is impressed with a perceived INCREASE in their profile and the amount of love and attention that they’re receiving. If it feels like something valuable has been taken away from them, and replaced with something lesser, expect them to complain at best, or to find another partner, at worst. I am very confident that you can manage your way through this so that you turn this into a positive for your organization and for the accounts that need to be transitioned.
Michael is an Executive Business Coach and an award-winning member of the Professional Business Coaches Alliance. He works closely with small and medium-sized businesses and their owners and leadership teams to help them run more profitable businesses. Are you preparing your next generation of leaders? If not, send us an email to find out more information on our Emerging Leader’s Program by emailing us at firstname.lastname@example.org, where we Deliver Ambitious Results!