Account managers must forget about quick-fixes to a customer's problems and learn to listen to his or her concerns to improve the relationship.

"Account management is the pinnacle-and the future-of the sales profession." So wrote Steve Hartkopf in the August "Speaking Out." He is right on target in defining the essential role of account manager as the keeper of the relationships between two organizations. Unlike the garden-variety sales rep, an account manager offers more than knowledge of products, market conditions, technology direction and the competition. He or she must also understand people, with all the influences, personalities, politics and personal priorities that define them. Customer buying behavior has changed, and an account manager today must be seen as consistently delivering value. Since relationships are at the heart of this role, the account manager will succeed or fail in direct proportion to how much "soul" he or she brings to the task.

Soul is defined by Webster's as the "spiritual entity of humans; seat of the feelings, emotions; a person, essential element." When we manage relationships, we must deal with feelings and emotions, an area some of us would rather avoid altogether. Many who are drawn to technology love the predictable logic of it. Electrical components and automation products never yell at us or refuse our calls. Their feelings don't get hurt. They don't have egos that get in the way of solving problems. They just do the work that we build or program them to do and leave the messy stuff of feelings out of it. But if soul, the "seat of feelings," is an "essential element" of the person, we must develop empathy and become comfortable dealing with feelings.

Empathy demands that we appreciate the position of the other person and the feelings generated by their situation. It requires that we do so without judging or attempting to "fix" those emotions. Instead, we need to understand and acknowledge the feelings, knowing that this is a prerequisite to moving beyond them. Only then can we can work together to find the best solution to the problem at hand.

We build customer relationships through careful listening, thoughtful recommendations, and a track record of follow-through. Each of these is a daunting challenge in itself. Listening well is the account manager's essential skill. It is only through listening that he or she comes to the knowledge required to do the job. All of us are listening-challenged, however, by our backgrounds, biases, and prejudices. Differences in communication styles between genders, races, cultures, and different regions of the country complicate what should be the simple task of hearing what is said, as well as what is not said. The account manager with soul learns through careful self-analysis what his or her "filters" are, and works hard to improve listening skills, testing any assumptions with the customer so that what was heard was what was meant.

Making thoughtful recommendations demands that we understand the customer's business as well as our own. While someone else at the company may know more about any particular product, no one should know more about the customer than the account manager. Only by taking the time to understand critical applications can an account manager lead their customer along the technology curve and help them realize the potential that new products may offer for improving efficiencies and reducing costs. Only by understanding the customer's business drivers can the account manager time product introductions and technology enhancements to provide the customer with maximum payback and minimum risk.

Finally, at the core of relationships is integrity. Integrity is largely judged by how well we keep our commitments. Just as relationships in our personal life suffer when we break a promise, professional trust is easily damaged by missing shipping dates, disappointing product performance, or failing to deliver post-installation services. The account manager with soul knows that a sale is a promise, and he or she will do everything to deliver on that promise. When circumstances beyond their control intervene, account managers quickly notify customers. They rise to the challenge of contingency planning or finding an acceptable work-around for the customer.

Account managers appreciate in value and, unfortunately for our industry, they are in short supply. Hiring from the competitors is difficult since the best account managers have established relationships with their customers and may not want to risk losing those relationships or their credibility by "jumping ship" to represent another brand. As managers, we are increasingly challenged to find and develop skilled people for this crucial role. But every time we mentor a sales representative and help him or her to develop the skills needed to become an effective account manager, we benefit both our customers and our own companies.