The modern account manager must possess sophisticated communication skills in order to deliver, says Tony Philip The scene is a familiar one. Stern-faced buyer behind desk, glancing not so furtively at his watch while sales rep ­ order-pad in hand, samples bag by his side ­ deferentially asks: "Perhaps I can interest you in­" Thankfully, the days of the glorified order-taker are well behind us. Or are they? Our customers and our business demand more in today's challenging commercial environment. Today's successful business managers need a somewhat more sophisticated approach to account management if they are to make a serious contribution to the profitable growth of their own business. They need to meet their customer's needs, as well as their own. They must understand strategy, profit, the category. They need to understand the customer and the consumer ­ in depth. So skilled has the art of customer management become that only those who are truly great can expect to be in the forefront of the commercial debate and joint working interface, prerequisites of today's supplier/retailer relationships. But what is it that differentiates a great business manager from the pack? As the managing director of Glendinning's training arm I see 1,000 or so delegates from leading blue-chip suppliers and manufacturers during a typical training year. What distinguishes the good from the great is the recognition that to deliver in this high-tech, data-loaded environment, a back to basics' approach is required in terms of personal skill development if they aspire to become one of the truly leading edge account handlers. Major retailers endorse this need to address account-handling fundamentals. Take questioning and listening for example. Our retail clients tell us that most account managers don't ask good questions. Those who do, often don't listen to the answer and in many cases don't make use of the valuable information they receive. They neither capture it for themselves, nor co-ordinate and feed it back through their relevant communication channels. This often leaves retailers wondering why they should tell them if they don't make information add value to the relationship?" There is nothing new about questioning. Most sales people do it, but very often it is top line and uncoordinated. "I asked them, how's business'?" Then straight into the presentation. How can you sell at the highest level if you don't understand your customers' needs, their complex business, category and personal needs? Such understanding demands high level skills, well thought through and structured questions that involve the customer, that probe the answers, that demonstrate listening. And then tailors the commercial proposition to meet the needs of both parties. Great account managers are an invaluable source of knowledge and should be the prime source of market intelligence, although there is also a place for formal market research, EPoS data and so on. The skill lies in converting this information into competitive advantage. So how do leading edge account managers capture and build upon their information bank? With a hierarchy of customer needs captured in a manner that is unique to each customer. The truly great account manager will probe to understand his customers' needs at every level. So how do you start to make the difference and become one of the great account handlers and business managers? By thinking customer management. What can we do that will help our customers meet consumer needs? You need to know your retailer at all levels. More importantly you need to listen and capture quality information and action the information in a proactive way. It may sound easy, but with the challenging dynamics that exist between supplier, retailer and consumer, can your company afford simply to be good? Today's best practice retailers demand leading edge customer managers. The art of great customer management is at the heart of great selling, understanding needs and delivering a robust commercial solution through the matching of your organisation's features into benefits for your customer and their consumer. Tony Philp is managing director, Glendinning Direct information bank - Prime business need ­ profit - Supporting business needs ­ value, price and margin - Unique business needs ­ very customer specific - Personal needs ­ specific to each customer contact {{MANAGEMENT FEATURE }}