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Want to Become an Account Executive? Here’s What It Takes

Woman account executive smiling and talking on the phone in an office setting.
Account executives are the closers, generating revenue and building long-term customer relationships. [Adobe/Skyword]

Successful AEs boast exceptional communication skills, a self-starter mentality, and a solid sales methodology.

Are you a curious person?

Are you someone who enjoys actively listening deeply to a customer to understand an organization’s goals, pain points, and objectives?

Do you like having open conversations with prospects where you share relevant solutions to the challenges they’re facing?

Are you self-driven, comfortable with a little risk, and can create structure in ambiguity?

If you answered yes to any of these, you might be a great fit for an account executive in your sales department.

Want to see if you have what it takes?

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What is an account executive?

An account executive (AE) is fundamentally a relationship architect. They are salespeople who maintain business relationships with prospective and current customers. Once the sales team finds leads (and qualifies those leads), account executives step in to build on the initial connection, close deals, and nurture relationships.

What does an account executive do?

Account executives are the closers, generating revenue and building long-term customer relationships. They start with information from the sales development representatives (SDRs) on their team, who are largely responsible for finding prospects who can become qualified leads. AEs then engage with those leads, leading them through the sales funnel. They present solutions, negotiate contracts, and close deals.

Sales development representatives and account executives work together and play critical roles in the success of a deal. Let’s take a closer look.

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The difference between a sales development representative and an account executive

A sales development representative is the pre-sales resource, responsible for qualifying leads generated by identifying potential customers. Both sales development reps and account executives work with qualified leads. However, they differ in how they divide up the sales funnel.

  • Focus: Sales development representatives focus on the top of the sales funnel — prospecting, lead generation, and qualification. AEs focus on the middle and bottom of the funnel — nurturing leads, presenting solutions, and closing deals.
  • Skills: Sales development representatives excel in outbound outreach like cold calling, emailing, and social media prospecting. They use qualification techniques such as asking high-gain questions to understand the prospect’s level of interest in their solution. Account executives excel in building rapport, consultative selling, negotiation, and closing deals. We’ll dive into more details about these skills further down.
  • Metrics: Sales development representatives are typically measured by the number of qualified leads generated and meetings booked. Account executives are measured by conversion rates, deal size, and revenue generated.

How sales development representatives help account executives

Sales development representatives can support account executives in many ways:

  • Qualified leads: Sales development representatives act as a filter, ensuring account executives only spend time with qualified prospects with genuine interest and purchasing power.
  • Warmed-up leads: A good sales development representative will initiate conversations, understand lead needs, and get them ready for future sales conversations. This saves account executives valuable time and increases their success rate.
  • Meeting setting: Sales development representatives schedule qualified appointments with decision-makers, allowing account executives to jump right into the sales conversation.

A personal example

As an account executive myself, I’ll share how I typically work with a sales development representative.

Imagine a scenario where the sales development representative — let’s call her Hannah — discovers a prospect’s organization is struggling with outdated software. She chats with them a bit. Drawing on some sales best practices, Hannah learns about their challenges and confirms their interest in upgrading their tech.

Hannah then hands off this qualified lead to me. Hannah does more than just notify me of this lead. She provides me with detailed notes, communication cadence, company information, and pain points.

As the account executive, I contact this prospect and share my full knowledge of their situation. I tailor my pitch to their specific challenges and highlight how our solution is the best fit.

Once the business is convinced of our value proposition, I negotiate a contract that fits their budget. To sweeten the deal, I use any information Hannah provided me, including company finances, to expedite the process and answer any lingering questions.

I close the deal with a happy customer.

In this scenario, Hannah, our sales development representative, acts as a lead generator and a bridge, connecting the right prospects with the right account executives. Our combined efforts ensure a smooth and successful sales process.

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What types of skills does an account executive need?

Without a sales team, you would have a difficult time separating cold and warm leads, presenting relevant information, and creating an authentic relationship with a prospect. For this reason, being a team player and working to break down sales team silos are important skills for an account executive. Other important knowledge and skills you should have are:

  • Exceptional communication: Clear and concise communication ensures your message resonates.

How to develop this: Practice active listening to understand your client’s needs. This means being fully engaged in the conversation. You aren’t on the other end of the call waiting to speak. You’re asking meaningful questions and demonstrating that you understand your customer’s pain point.

  • A solid sales methodology: Understand and implement your company’s sales process effectively. This ensures an efficient customer journey.

How to develop this: Learn from other account executives in your company about what works for them. Make sure you’re aligned with the goals of your vice president of sales. Also, turn to other team members to discover what they need to do their jobs well.

  • Relationship building: Sales is all about building trust. Focus on developing genuine relationships with your clients and becoming a trusted advisor, not just a salesperson.

How to develop this: Don’t lose touch with people and never burn bridges. Just because someone isn’t ready to buy now from you, doesn’t mean they won’t be in the future. Be empathetic in your conversations with customers even when you’re not closing a deal with them.

  • Self-starter mentality: As an account executive, you need to contend with a fair bit of ambiguity. For example, perhaps your prospect isn’t the only decision-maker needed to make the deal happen. Take the initiative to learn more about your potential customer’s needs so that when it’s time to negotiate, the relationship is primed and ready to go.

How to develop this: Become a problem-solver. Embrace the fact there will always be challenges. If you don’t know something, ask (see skill two).

Bonus tip: Believe in what you are selling. Your pitches will be more authentic if your customers know you will buy what you are selling. While not a skill, it is useful advice.

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How to prepare for an account executive interview

Ready to hit the ground running on your future as an account executive? You need to secure a position first. Don’t worry, we have you covered with six common questions you’ll get during an AE interview. (Teaser: Come prepared with examples of how you addressed challenges — and how you overcame failure to meet a goal.)

How to succeed as an account executive

Let’s jump ahead to your future. You made it. You’re an account executive. Congrats! Now, how do you ensure a productive career path?

  • Identify a mentor: Find a working or recently retired account executive to become your mentor. This means they would be available for questions about the position, tips, tricks, and, most importantly, lessons learned. One of the best things a mentor can do is share with you what they wished someone had told them.
  • Ask for advice: Ask your mentor specific questions about their career journey. How did they end up as an account executive? What was their greatest challenge? What are they most proud of? Where did they gain their knowledge?
  • Gain company product expertise: Become an internal champion for your company’s offerings. In-depth knowledge allows you to tailor solutions to specific customer needs.
  • Become the industry expert: Stay current on industry trends and competitor landscapes. This empowers you to position your product as the best fit for your clients.
  • Embrace the grind: Rejection is inevitable in sales. Develop resilience and maintain a persistent approach. Follow up strategically and don’t give up easily on qualified leads.
  • Set and track goals: Set S.M.A.R.T. goals (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-bound) to stay motivated and track your progress. Regularly analyze your performance and adapt your strategies for continuous improvement
  • Use sales enablement tools: Utilize your company’s customer relationship management (CRM) system and sales tools effectively. These can streamline tasks, improve communication, and boost your overall productivity.

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Build relationships that last

Account executives are the quarterbacks of the sales team. As an AE, you are responsible for successfully navigating the negotiation process and closing deals. Beyond that, you maintain lasting relationships with customers by providing them with solutions that will positively impact their business. Remember, your customer’s success is your success. If you can convey that sentiment, then an account executive role could be in your future.

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