Should There Be Overlap Between Account Management and Project Management?
Tom Stimson
July 8, 2022
An account manager and project manager looking over their company's project outline.

The role of a “project manager” is to manage a process called “project management.”

The process of project management begins in sales, carries through operations, and finishes in finance. It touches all aspects of the business.

So, how is project management related to account management? And where does project management fit into the classic three-pronged model of business?

The Three-Legged Stool

The three departments we traditionally consider crucial to any business are sales (i.e., account management), operations, and finance. They’re like the legs of a three-legged stool: perfectly balanced, so you can sit comfortably.

Trouble comes when you try to locate project management on this stool. Which leg does it belong in? The truth is, the stool is missing a critical piece.

Especially in a service-oriented business, trying to nest the role of project management into one of the three existing legs just doesn’t work — nor can you split it into two parts. It has its own specific role and works in conjunction with all the others.

Project management is so mission-critical that I propose we embrace a new model a stool with four perfectly even legs.

This is much more difficult than creating a stool with three legs. We all know when we sit at a restaurant table with four legs that it’s probably going to wobble.

The Relationship Between Account Management and Operations

Companies tend to view sales and operations as two separate roles without any overlap.

Because of this, they try to create a perfect handoff point between the two where account management hands over information to project management as part of operations. The account manager withdraws and operations takes over as the primary point of contact for the customer.

Operationally, that sounds great. In practice, it doesn’t work. It also creates a number of problems. The first big problem is that the sales relationship with the customer never ends. You can’t put it on pause.

The first time a customer has a problem, they want to talk to their salesperson. This means the handoff between account management and operations can never take full effect. Account management has to remain involved because that’s what sales relationships are all about.

Another problem is that this creates an “Us vs. Them” relationship between account management and operations, when — in fact — account management and operations need to collaborate to succeed.

Operations’ job is to support whatever account management sells. Account management’s job is to sell what operations can support.

The project manager is the interface for this collaboration. Their job is to keep the project moving; their internal customer is the project itself, which needs various things from the organization.

Sometimes the project needs information from the account manager. Sometimes it needs accounting to pay a bill. Sometimes it needs operations to prep an order. The project manager’s job is to make sure all those things happen for the project.

Project management never lives completely inside sales, operations, or finance. It deserves to be its own leg because it collaborates with the other three to hold up the business.

The Primary Roles of Account Managers and Project Managers

To distinguish what each of these roles does, we first have to believe that the customer is smart enough to handle two customer-facing roles.

When you sit down at a restaurant, for example, you understand that a waiter will take your order, but a helper might refill your water. You don’t have a meltdown when somebody besides the waiter shows up at your table.

Thinking the customer only wants to deal with one person, whether that’s the account manager or the project manager, is just a little lie we sometimes tell ourselves.

But the account manager and the project manager do have distinct roles to fulfill. They have distinct outputs, though they’re always working in tandem together.

In a situation where the account manager and project manager are the same person, which happens from time to time, all of these roles and outputs still have to get done. But when you have the luxury of a dedicated project manager, this is what the project manager and account manager roles look like.

Account Manager

  • Finds new business
    • Closes new relationships
  • Speaks for the client
    • Helps interpret client wants and needs to the organization in the organization’s terms
  • Gathers information
    • Learns about the project, client goals, etc.
  • Grows the account
    • Aligns the customer with as many services as possible
  • Sells the company’s recommendations to the client
    • In addition to speaking for the client, speaks for the company and gets customer buy-in

Project Manager

  • Establishes pricing (from cost basis)
    • Connects to the supply chain to know costs that influence pricing for the customer
  • Manages resources and capacity
    • Reserves and allocates internal and external resources based on capacity
  • Coordinates suppliers
    • Manages logistical and timing requirements
  • Maintains quality and preserves the scope of work
    • Makes sure the company delivers the correct scope of work at an appropriate quality level
  • Watches the bottom line
  • Meets deadlines
    • Ensures on-time delivery per the set schedule
Infographic: IS NL - 07/11/22

The Roles in Practice

In organizations with established account management and project management, most account managers will have to draw on project managers as a subject-matter experts to develop a project for a customer. The project manager provides input about man-hours, scheduling, supply chain, and what will be involved from a technical standpoint.

Account managers and project managers work in collaboration to help determine what the costs — and, therefore, the price — should be for a given project.

To see what these roles look like in action, imagine an account manager and a customer talking about an exhibit booth project.

The client envisions a giant, curved screen that goes all the way around the exhibit booth, 15 feet up in the air.

The account manager wisely says, “Yes, we can do that. Let me talk to my team.”

The account manager then calls the project manager, explains what the customer wants, and asks for numbers.

The project manager says, “Let’s figure out some dimensions. Then I’ll get some estimated costs for hardware, consult a rigging expert, and talk to the union representative to see how many people will need to be on the call and for how long to get the work done.”

Together, they come up with a budget range, which the account manager takes back to the client. The first thing that happens is the client stops breathing. When he catches his breath he asks, “What if we did it on half the booth?”

And they go back through the process again.

Project managers are experts at getting a job done and knowing what the resources are to accomplish it. Account managers are experts at conveying the company’s best recommendations to the customer while representing the customer’s wants and needs to the company.

When they collaborate well, everyone wins.

Final Thoughts

You may be thinking, “My project managers don’t know how to do that.” Or, “We just don’t operate that way.”

That’s just fine.

Project management is a process, not an individual. So your project management process might involve multiple individuals.

Going back to our example, you might have one individual to advise on LED, one to advise on rigging, another on labor, and still another on timeline. You could have four individuals collaborating together to get the account manager the information they need.

The inverse can also happen, especially in a smaller company. Maybe your account manager is your project manager. If that’s the case, they have to fulfill all the outputs of both roles, and they need the resources to do that.

Neither scenario changes what project management looks like. It just changes how many people are involved in the process.

About Tom Stimson
Tom Stimson MBA, CTS is an authority on business and strategy for small- to medium-sized companies. He is an expert on project-based selling and a thought leader for innovative business processes.
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