Death of the AE Role

Peter Catalano

Companies continue to struggle to align their sales teams to modern selling situations. Customers have more information, options, and barriers to making the purchase decision. And traditional selling strategies aren’t getting the job done.

Bring in the Account Executive (AE). Traditionally, the AE was a one-man band. As deals became more complex, support was needed. Companies started investing in specialized players to surround the AE. When I worked as an AE, I felt the early rumblings that something was broken with the role. What value was I personally driving? In many complex deals, the sale seemed most influenced by my solutions or technical colleagues. In smaller opportunities, I was often left handling transactional issues – pricing and customer complaints. The era of the generalist AE was coming to an end.

Today, specialized sales roles have exploded – sales engineers, solutions consultants, product experts, and other technical specialists. A recent McKinsey study found that the number of specialized pre-sales roles was correlated with higher performance in tech firms. Today’s complex solutions and sophisticated buyers demand a deep bench of experts. And lots of them.

The evolution from the lone-wolf AE to a team model shouldn’t come as a shock. But, more isn’t always more when it comes to team selling. Coordination issues can escalate dramatically for every new role. The number of people lining up for commissions on team deals can be staggering. When even rockstar AE’s face challenges flying solo, team structures can make your best reps struggle.

Every role in the team selling approach must have clear responsibilities, working within a well-choreographed process. This is especially true for AEs, who risk devolving into overpaid meeting organizers in complex deals. Moving from an AE to a consultant, I witness many of the same team selling issues.

There are 3 common signs that your team selling model might be broken and your AE role needs sharpening:

1. Poor Meeting Strategy – AEs get “excited” when a big deal is in play. Typically, it’s the AE that secures the big meeting and then rallies various sales resource attendees. But AEs need common sense and situational awareness around who and when to bring into the opportunity. Too many companies load up the “sales bus” for any remotely promising prospect meeting. You can easily end up with an approach that does more harm than good.

As an AE, I once pursued an opportunity involving a complex supply chain issue. I invited my partners in product marketing, services, operations, and even my manager to the first meeting. When we settled into the conference room, there was 5 of us to 1 one person at the prospect. The meeting dynamics were completely wrong. Not an ideal setting for a collaborative business conversation. Even worse, every specialist wanted equal airtime – information overload for the poor prospect.

2. Just an Empty Suit – It’s common for an AE to open a meeting, lead introductions, and outline the agenda. But it’s a major red flag when the AE's only role is handling the meeting opener. Far too often we see AEs in team selling situations wrap up a flashy introduction and then disappear into their seat. They become empty suits, adding no discernible value.

I also fell into this same trap as an AE. I recall one meeting where I started with a well-rehearsed intro, but then didn’t speak again until we shook hands to leave. My credibility was gone once I introduced my team as the subject-matter experts. It would be right for the prospect to question why I was even in the room.

3. There is No “I” in Team – Team selling takes as much discipline (if not more) than selling solo. It’s up to the AE to lead this charge. Part of the discipline is resisting the urge to be the lone hero. Just as AEs should not bring in specialists too early, AEs also need to know when to not go it alone.

Deal strategy starts early in the pursuit with a focus assessing the key situational factors. Where are you in the buyer’s journey and what is the next sales action? What role can and should others play in guiding the customer one step forward? 

So, how can sales leaders organize their teams to succeed? What are the implications on the AE and the various pre-sales roles?

Three important things to consider:

  • Drive Business Expertise. Your AE can no longer be a generalist. While AEs won't necessarily have the deep technical knowledge of every product, they need to do more than coordinate meeting logistics. Top-performing AEs must be seen as consultants, facilitating problem definition and influencer alignment.

  • Build a Support Structure. Pre-sales roles and AEs should not compete. Instead they should be complementary partners in executing a differentiated sales experience for your customers. Clearly define their roles and responsibilities. These players should not feel “foreign” to each other. As partners, they need to see the big picture, while also knowing their individual parts.

  • Define the Sales Process. The most critical part of deal strategy is on the front end. Proper qualification and discovery set the tone for the sales experience. Investing in the front end will lead to positive results in deal size, velocity, and other KPIs. Track the appropriate KPIs and coach the behaviors required for all of the resources to be successful.    

It may be too early to declare the death of the AE role. But their responsibilities in team selling structures must evolve. A strong team of pre-sales resources - coordinated by a customer business-oriented AE - is key to closing larger deals, faster.

Contact us to learn more about how top-performing sales organizations are executing differentiated sales experiences in team models. 

Peter Catalano

Peter Catalano

Senior consultant with significant expertise in sales strategy, training, enablement, and transformations. Peter combines his background as a sales practitioner with practical consulting experience to drive successful client engagements.