These should be the best of times for account representatives at IT consultancies. After all, if the trade press is right, there’s a lot of business out there, just waiting to be written up into new contracts. In fact, many small to midsize firms are actually turning business away.

All of this should be good news to account reps. However, many of the ones I talk to seem vaguely dispirited. After sitting through a number of vendor presentations lately, I think I know one reason why consultancy account reps may be discontented.

I’m increasingly struck by how little control account reps have over sales presentations to new clients. In this column, I’ll explain the reasons for this, and why I think it’s a bad idea, both for the reps and their firms.

Sales team inflation
I started thinking about this topic recently when I wrote a column for our IT Manager Republic called “Meeting with vendors: Less is more.” Of course, there I was talking to the folks on the other side of the table, the ones you have to pitch to. In that column, I noted that sales presentation teams seemed to be getting bigger every day. In the piece, I listed several arguments against sales team inflation. I even named a law about the practice, shown in the graphic below.

In passing, I mentioned a corollary to that law of sales team inflation: If you, as a decision maker, choose this vendor, your account rep will invariably end up being one of the sales team members who is completely silent during the presentation.

I don’t think this is just my personal experience. As consulting firms send ever-larger teams to pitch potential clients, they increasingly marginalize their own account reps.

As recently as two or three years ago, an account rep only brought in the big guns for a major prospect. Even then, the account rep did most of the presentation, bringing his or her boss into the conversation only to help the close or answer client questions.

Now, it’s a whole new ballgame. No matter how big or small the contract, the account rep is not allowed to run the presentation. The consulting firm pads the sales team, adding sales managers, regional directors, sales VPs, whomever—this is in addition to the technical support folks, who actually add value to the process.

Why they do it
Recently, I’ve been asking consultants the reasons for this trend. The answers tend to fall into these categories:

  • It shows we care about their business. By sending high-powered sales brass, the argument goes, a consulting firm demonstrates its commitment to the client.
  • The other guys are doing it. Closely related to the previous argument, this reasoning points out that if a firm’s competitors send out the sales VP on a call to a prospect, you’re going to look bad by comparison.
  • The reps are too green. Proponents of this argument relate the high turnover rates among account reps, and say that many of them are simply too inexperienced to handle an unassisted sales call.
  • It’s a tougher call. As the products get more expensive and more complex, the sales cycle gets drawn out, and the sale becomes more challenging.

To be fair, I think that last argument has some merit to it.

Why it’s dumb
Even granting the validity of some of these points, I still think consulting firms are misguided when they muzzle their account reps during client meetings. Here are my arguments against the practice:

  • It prevents the account rep from growing. Even if too many account reps lack the necessary experience, they’ll never get the experience if they never get the chance to contribute. For that matter, they have to be given the opportunity to fail on occasion. Further, if you’re worried about turnover, how long do you think your really aggressive sales reps are going to stay around if you don’t give them meaningful control over their own client relationships?
  • It demeans the account rep in the eyes of the client. While you may think that having the regional director give the presentation is a plus for a client, that’s not always the case. After all, it’s hard to argue on the one hand that the account rep isn’t strong enough to make the sale, while on the other hand arguing that same rep can handle the after-sale support and service.
  • It’s not who comes; it’s who talks. This is the most important point. I would never argue there aren’t occasions when it helps to have the big sales guns attending sales presentations. My point is that just because they attend doesn’t mean they have to dominate. Have the VP there, if you want, but make sure that account rep has a meaningful part to play in the presentation. After all, the rep remains the single point of contact between a consultancy and most of its clients.

What do you think?
Well, now you know what I think. I’d like to know what you think about this question of the role of the account rep in a client presentation. Here are some of the things I’m curious about:

  1. Is your firm bringing more people to client presentations?
  2. What are the job titles of the people you’re bringing?
  3. Do you think account reps are feeling marginalized these days?
  4. What’s turnover like for account reps at your firm?

Post a comment to this article, or send a note and let me know what you’re thinking about these points or any other thoughts you have on this topic. We’ll feature the best responses in a future article.

Bob Artner is vice president for content development at TechRepublic.