B2B Sales

Account Executive (AE): What Do They Do?

Account executives are essential members of modern sales teams. 

However, many businesses don’t understand the account executive role well enough. Some companies think account executives act as an extension of customer support, which is wrong. Others assume that they should only focus on selling—again, not correct. 

In this guide, you will learn what an account executive (AE) really does, how their role differs from account managers, and what skills they should have (if you are hiring):

Let’s start.

What Is an Account Executive?

An account executive (AE) is a team member who connects with prospects and engages with them to close deals. AEs work hand-in-hand with sales development representatives (SDR) to manage the entire sales pipeline, a common sales structure used in businesses today.

AEs contribute heavily to the success of a sales team. They meet with prospects, handle conversations, and run demos to convince prospects among a list of other responsibilities. AEs often take care of after-sales service to maintain customer satisfaction and generate opportunities to upsell. 

AEs may be responsible for generating leads in startups or smaller companies. Some even double up as managers by leading teams and tweaking strategies to improve their organization’s sales.

Differences Between Account Executives and Account Managers

Some people interchange the roles of Account Executives (AE) and Account Managers (AM). Their responsibilities do overlap. But, these two positions have specific skills and responsibilities that set them apart. 

The following are differences between AEs and AMs:

1. Account Executives

AEs interact with clients after the hand-off of the sales development representatives (SDRs). Then, AEs become the main points of contact by prospects. AEs spend most of their effort convincing prospects to buy. When they close a deal, they transfer the ownership of the client over to AMs. 

AEs still keep in touch with their clients to maintain good relations and uncover opportunities in the future. However, AEs should limit interactions with clients. This ensures they can focus on chasing new deals instead of managing existing accounts. 

In short, an AE’s job is a never-ending cycle of meeting, convincing, and upselling prospects.

2. Account Managers

Account Managers take care of clients after they sign the check. One AM can manage multiple accounts at one time. AMs usually handle non-sales related tasks like renegotiating expired contracts, addressing technical issues, providing ad-hoc support, and so on.

They are responsible for maintaining and nurturing the relationships of clients. They also ensure the quality delivery of products and services. AMs ensure that your company meets the service-level agreements (SLA) as agreed upon in the contract. 

AMs don’t close deals, though. They only maintain client relationships after the sale.

AEs may take on AM-specific tasks and vice versa as they operate in the same domain.

What Does an Account Executive Do?

Now you know what an AE is, let’s discuss their responsibilities in detail to help you grasp the role better. 

1. Open New Accounts

AEs utilize their expertise to convert prospects into paying customers. They work closely with SDRs to acquire leads and close deals. In smaller companies, AEs may take on prospecting work to generate new accounts.

One of the core activities related to this task is giving product demos. Good AEs excel at running effective demos that convert. They achieve this through immense product and industry knowledge, which helps them answer prospect questions. 

They are also masters at handling objections and negotiating prices without being too aggressive or, conversely, too submissive.

Patience is a sought-after trait in AEs. It can take months or even years to get a contract signed. Good AEs remain persistent despite this difficulty. They don’t stop pursuing opportunities until they get a definite no from prospects.

2. Care for Current Customers

AEs keep in touch with clients even after the contract sign-off. They need to make customers feel important after the sale. When clients have questions, they often call AEs to get answers. 

This doesn’t mean AEs should handle every request. When they are stuck, AEs should escalate the matter to the appropriate person, such as AMs or a more senior AE.

AEs must leverage their domain knowledge to manage customers well. They need empathy too to understand customer problems and propose helpful solutions. Good AEs often act as trusted consultants to their clients instead of purely selling.

3. Upsell and Grow Existing Accounts

Acquiring a new customer costs 5 to 15 times more compared to retaining an existing one. This alone explains why AEs must grow existing accounts.

AEs need to know their client’s business inside out to upsell or cross-sell. They need to identify pain points and find out how their solution fills the gaps. 

Just because a prospect bought your solution, doesn’t mean all their problems go away. New issues can surface due to various reasons like economic changes, competition, and so on.

Good AEs act proactively to address this challenge. They don’t wait for customers to come to them. Instead, they enrich customers with valuable information to educate them. This ensures AEs can upsell solutions before competitors have a chance to swoop in.

Growing existing accounts can also be an AE task depending on your company’s goals. You can have a target of, say, increasing revenue from existing clients by 25%. Your AEs then have two quotas to achieve: closing new deals and upselling.

4. Work With Sales Tools

Soft skills alone are not enough to help AEs succeed. You need hard skills to close deals, one of which is tech literacy. AEs will fall behind if they don’t use the right tools to work in today’s tech-driven landscape.

Recommended reading: The Best B2B Sales Tools to Level Up Your Sales Game

Good AEs take their time to pick up sales tools. Not only does it save time, but they also sell better through improved customer insights. Here are some tools AEs should consider to make their work easier:

4.1 Prospecting Tools

AEs need a healthy pipeline to close deals consistently. While SDRs carry out most of the prospecting work, AEs can chime in like helping SDRs to qualify leads, for example. 

Prospecting tools solve the inefficiency of manual prospecting by automating the prospect search process. Tools like Soleadify automatically generate prospect lists based on your requirements. This saves a lot of time and effort, thus allowing AEs (and SDRs) to focus more on their core tasks.

4.2 Quote and Proposal Generators

Aside from product demos, AE work involves the preparation of quotes and proposals. Like prospecting, you need to use technology to speed up the process.

Some tools offer smart features to help AEs draft better proposals. When you enter information into the tool, you will get a suggested quote on the info entered. This helps AEs determine accurate quotes that contribute to improved margins.

4.3 Pipeline Management

Your pipeline is your lifeline” saying is almost a cliché at this point. But, the advice still rings true. AEs cannot close deals without a recurring flow of leads. Similarly, they can’t sell well if their pipeline is messy. Pipeline management tools come in handy here.

With this tool, AEs can visualize their entire sales pipeline and determine what actions to take based on their position in the pipeline. Most CRM tools have pipeline management tools integrated already. Make sure to check your CRM contains such a feature before you invest in one.

4.4 Customer Relationship Management (CRM) Tools

Working without a CRM today is like riding a bicycle on the highway. It’s slow and risky. A good CRM has everything an AE needs to work. This includes contact management, outreach tools, reports, and so on.

CRMs are also crucial for prospect hand-offs. SDRs usually enrich their CRM with lead’s data, which AEs use to engage with prospects during sales conversations. Imagine the chaos if AEs and SDRs don’t use a CRM to sync prospect information.

4.5 Project Management

AEs are a part of the team where everyone needs to share the same goals to achieve results.

Project management tools enable seamless interactions between team members. You can see who is doing what, as well as the status of every task, keeping up with project updates easily, avoiding confusion and mix-ups when dealing with prospects. 

What Is the Average Salary for an Account Executive?

AEs make $59,000 per year on average. AEs earn approximately $37,000 on the low-end and up to $88,000 on the opposite end, according to Glassdoor. 

One payscale survey concluded that some AEs rake in mid to high six-figure incomes.

AE salaries based on locations in the U.S. (Info Source)

The salary of an AE varies depending on the:

  • Industry
  • Experience
  • Responsibilities
  • Bonuses
  • Commission structure

Some industries pay more than others. For example, AEs get better compensation in SaaS companies compared to an industry tight margins like retail. SMEs also pay less than enterprises —  although that is not the case with some startups. 

Case in point, AEs in the Bay Area earn 20% more than the average AE.

Most salary reports do not include commission payouts. A rule of thumb is to add on 30%-40% of the base salary to determine the actual pay with commissions. 

On top of that, AEs may earn bonuses for hitting individual and team quotas. Some startups and early-stage companies even include stock options to attract top AEs.

Key Skills Every Account Executive Should Have

1. Being Personable

Excellent AEs excel at making prospects feel comfortable so they are happy to share facts about themselves. This information is priceless in helping AEs seal deals. 

AEs can use these insights to address pain points and convince prospects during conversations or demos. 

If you are an Account Executive, be careful not to be too intrusive, however. You don’t want to interrogate prospects and scare them out of deals.

It’s OK if you don’t close deals in the end. If you did make a sale, great! If you didn’t, that’s fine too. 

But, make sure to leave a good, long-lasting impression for your prospects. When they do need a solution in the future, you’ll be the first person they contact because they like you!

2. Good Organization

AEs handle multiple prospects at one time. You have to book meetings, convince prospects, close deals, and juggle different tasks. You need strong organizational skills to stay focused and not crumble under pressure.

Being organized also benefits customers in the sense that you respect them by addressing their requests on time. 

Your peers will appreciate your organizational skills too as you can manage tasks effectively—a win-win for your team and the company.

3. Will to Learn

As you deal with more prospects, you will make mistakes that sometimes cost you the deal. It’s not the end of the world if you lose a prospect. It is bad, however, if you repeat the same mistake in the future.

Good AEs use their mistakes as learning experiences to get better—developing professionally and personally. 

You should also adopt a continuous learning mindset. Don’t rest on your laurels and feel too comfortable. Find ways to improve yourself as an AE. 

This includes:

  • Reading sales books.
  • Attending conferences and events.
  • Getting advice from seniors and experienced sales professionals.
  • Keeping up with the latest industry news and updates.
  • Learning relevant skills (e.g. marketing, business, finance)

Recommended reading: Best Sales Books to Read in 2020

4. Negotiation

Day in day out, AEs talk to prospects to convince them and overcome blockers. Some sales conversations can go on for months or even years in enterprise deals. AEs need strong negotiation skills to manage prospects over long sales cycles. 

Can you picture the agony of working on a year-long deal only for it to be canceled last-minute?

Negotiation skills also matter in striking favorable deals. 

You can close deals without being good at negotiation. However, you’re at risk of signing contracts that lose your company money (e.g. overly-cheap prices). Good negotiators avoid this by convincing prospects to sign-off deals that keep both parties happy.

Fortunately, you can learn to negotiate just like any other skill. That starts with research. Understand your prospect’s background, pain points, and other vital information before discussing the deal.

Also, consider how they might use their information to drive the conversation. This way, you prepare for most of your prospect’s statements ahead of time.

Pay attention to your prospect’s body language.

Though subtle, body language is an accurate indicator of your prospect’s feelings. A closed body language might mean they’re lukewarm about your proposal. A slight eyebrow raises and an open posture may indicate they want to know more. 

The 7-38-55 rule of communication (Info Source)

Of course, you shouldn’t rely solely on body language to gauge prospects. Combine it with other techniques and you will get better at negotiating over time.

5. Empathy

Empathy is the ability to grasp prospects from their point of view and understanding their feelings as if you were in their footsteps. 

Top sales professionals—including AEs—have high levels of empathy. This allows them to connect with prospects and solve their challenges.

Being empathetic is as simple as listening to prospects. Let them express their thoughts while you sit back and digest the information. The more information you gain, the easier it is for you to convince them and address objections. 

Contrary to popular belief, you can lead conversations even if you let prospects do the talking. It all boils down to smart questioning and knowing when to take over the conversation.

Don’t worry if you don’t get things right the first time. Building empathy takes time which happens naturally as you gain experience as an AE.

4 Tips to Perform Better as an Account Executive

1. Practice a Healthy Dose of Optimism

No one likes to work with a pessimist. It’s fine to be realistic, but, you shouldn’t confuse pragmatism with negativity. Instead, approach sales scenarios in a positive yet sensible manner. 

Optimism is helpful and infectious. Prospects can feel your passion and positive energy which eases sales conversations. This may sound like some new-age baloney but it is scientifically-accurate

Of course, this doesn’t mean you should put on your best impression of the Joker all the time.

2. Be Likable

People buy from people (and brands) they like. If you can make your prospect feel valued, your odds of closing the deal is very good. 

The key to making prospects like you is to show genuine interest in them. 

Encourage prospects to express themselves. Pay attention when they do talk. Shift the focus of the conversation to your prospects.

Being likable won’t guarantee you can close every deal. You still have to exercise your expertise to finalize contracts. But, it will make your life a whole lot easier when talking to prospects.

3. Respond Quickly

Respond to prospects as soon as you can, they will appreciate your timeliness. If you are busy, send a text or call prospects and let them know they can expect a response. Don’t leave them hanging. 

Don’t leave emails unread and don’t ever take a few days to respond to missed calls. 

Missing one or two calls may not seem much. Add them over time, however, and your reputation will slowly slump in the eyes of your prospects. It’s difficult—some would say impossible—to regain lost trust.

Important customer experience factors in the sales process (Info Source)

Don’t forget to deliver if you promise to get back to prospects. Breaking promises is worse compared to slow responses or not replying at all!

4. Be a Trusted Advisor

AEs need to be more than just salespeople. They should act as trusted consultants who leverage their expertise to assist clients, also known as consultative selling. Consultative selling revolves around advising clients and helping them reach a solution. 

Rather than focusing on perfect pitch, focus on having a meaningful dialogue with your prospect. This builds strong bonds that extend beyond sales. You may even get a few referrals along the way for your excellent work.

Summary

Account executives are essential members of sales teams. They take up leads from SDRs and convert them into paying customers. Their expertise in closing deals is what makes them valuable to companies.

AEs need to be analytical, empathetic, and personable to perform their work well. AEs don’t just bring in sales—they take care of clients after the sale to maintain customer satisfaction and generate upsell opportunities.

Good AEs make a world of difference to an organization’s sales performance. Use the tips mentioned above if you want to improve as an AE or looking to hire one.

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