“A great ambassador develops empathy for the interests and views of the nation to which he is assigned but remains the advocate only of those of his own government and nation. He courts good relations with those in authority but never forgets that his object in doing so is to persuade them to accept the views of his capital…”
Abram de Wicquefort from The Embassador and His Functions (1681)
“If you want someone to deliver your mail to a foreign government, get a postal clerk. If you want to communicate effectively, appoint an ambassador in whose professionalism and discretion you trust. Tell him what you want to accomplish and listen to his advice on persuading his hosts to agree.
Lescalopier de Nourar (1763)
A few years ago, I published a book, Ambassador to the Kingdom of Wal-Mart. It sold out, and I never republished it. I happened upon a copy this week and was struck by how relevant the lead chapter was. I think it’s time to republish it. I hope you enjoy it.
It’s time we change the title of Key Account Sales Representative to Ambassador. It should be: “Ambassador to the Kingdom of Wal-Mart” or “Ambassador to the Court of “Carrefour.” What about the designation of National Sales Manager? Let’s change that title to a more appropriate one: “Secretary of State for Consumer Products Sales.” This humorous point underscores an important question: Do we have the right kind of people representing our company’s interests to our largest customers, or any of our customers?
To bend a phrase: Customers are like a foreign country; they do things differently there. Customers, like foreign countries, often have distinct cultures. For example, in one company, we may be encouraged to go to dinner or give gifts. In another company, such behavior can result in the death penalty.
On a more subtle level, some customers may expect us to negotiate, while others may assume that they will dictate a price or policy, and we will follow. Some may want us to check with them before changing sales representatives, and others may consider such communication a breach of ethics.
Failure to appreciate and communicate such nuances back to management can be the difference between success and failure. When doing business with one of the “Superpowers,” such a failure may have catastrophic results.
The people who most frequently travel to the headquarters of these companies are key account salespeople. Let’s look at their role as our company’s ambassadors and their subsequent need to be trained as diplomats, not just hard-driving salespeople.
Let’s say we don’t call them ambassadors but think of them that way. What questions should we ask about the skill sets they will need? Should they be a super salesperson or a diplomat? Do we want a good talker or a great communicator? What is preferred, a short or a long-term thinker? Is it best that they have a great personality or skills as host and guest? Do we want them to represent just sales or the entire company? Ultimately, do we need someone whose job is to get the deal or to grow the company’s relationship with the customer?
If we need an ambassador, what type of person might this be? Consider these eight points:
- Someone who can separate themself from the bad news they may have to deliver in either direction
- Someone who cannot only intelligently meet with their buyer counterparts but with accounts payable, receiving, merchandising, logistics, and senior management.
- Someone who can anticipate and deliver information between companies exactly and productively.
- Someone who can mediate a dispute between their own company and that of the customer.
- Someone who knows not just what to say but when to say it.
- Someone who can strongly empathize with their customer without forgetting their dedication to their own company.
- Someone who can find out what the competition is up to.
- Someone who can find out what the customer is up to.
A key account salesperson calling on a superpower customer is in the position to make the company successful or sink it into oblivion. That is a great deal of responsibility for one person to have. CEOs and Sales Managers should sit down and consider whether the key account function, as it is currently designed and manned, is appropriate for the specific customer. If not, then the first step is to redesign the job responsibility.
Once done, consider the person who inhabits the position. Do they have skills, abilities, and a personality appropriate to the position and the customer? If not, are they trainable? If not trainable, should they be replaced or reassigned to customers more suitable to their strengths?
As the retailing community continues to shrink, the influence of a few superpowers will get greater. The health of a manufacturer may well hang on to how well it understands and communicates with these customers. Who is your ambassador?