Becoming an Account Executive in 5 Totally-Doable Steps
At the crossroad of sales, marketing, and customer service lies the account executive, a lucrative and challenging position that will test your personal and professional skills on every axis.
Becoming an account executive is a matter of sharpening the necessary communication skills and proving to a recruiter that you can find and foster client relationships.
This guide will take you through the duties of an account executive. We’ll go over the pay, education, experience, and career path that will carry you exactly where you want to go.
What does an account executive do?
How exactly does an account executive spend their day? An “account executive” sounds vague enough that it seems like it could fit anywhere in the corporate hierarchy, but it’s actually a relatively well-defined position.
First, let’s start with the typical duties of an account executive. Because an account executive lives in the world of marketing and sales, any given day for an account executive brings a wide assortment of job responsibilities.
Account executives prospect for leads any way they can. While they may not be buying media directly or posting on social media, they are often responsible and/or deeply involved in the media process for the company. After all, finding leads is a part of their job, and social media is just as ripe for leads as more traditional channels.
“As an account executive working for a startup, I spend a lot of time prospecting for new customers, which means I’m on the computer trying to connect with customers.” — Chad Whitman, account executive at Inscripta
Account executives must at least be able to work with the marketing department, know what they’re talking about, and help formulate strategies.
This includes knowing when to send out press releases or pay for advertising, aiding with promotional events, reaching out to bloggers, contacting relevant influencers, and at least being familiar with the research on your customers and your competition.
At a smaller company, the account executive might be handling the lion’s share of the marketing work.
Account executives help retain and grow client relationships. This is where the account executive job overlaps with the “account manager” role that it’s often confused with. As an account executive, you’ll be arranging regular meetings with clients (digital and in-person), putting out fires for customers, and providing customer service whenever needed.
An account executive is the primary point of contact for most of the client communication. In larger companies, or with larger clients, an account executive may delegate this to a member of their team. But, either way, the buck stops at the account executive — if the client leaves, you’re the one in the hot seat.
Nurturing leads AND nurturing clients is all in a day’s work for your average account executive.
The salary of an account executive
Before you consider diving into a long-term career as an account executive, you need to find out if the juice is worth the squeeze. How much money can an account executive expect to make, or, more importantly, what kind of lifestyle can a career as an account executive provide?
Job satisfaction and growth opportunities are all well and good, but now it’s time to get down to brass tacks: what is your paycheck going to look like?
According to Glassdoor, with data pulled from over 69,000 salaries, the average account executive salary is $60,260 a year.
As with all salaries, beware of an “average.” The salary can change greatly depending on the region and industry. And it’s also important to remember that account executives usually get a commission of some sort. While ~$60,000 might be the average salary, additional compensation in the form of commissions, bonuses, tips, and stock options often push the take-home much, much higher.
Your salary potential as an account executive will also depend on your field. Just to show you the breadth of options, we grabbed some data from that same Glassdoor link. An account executive for biotech and pharma averages $74,030 a year in base salary, one of the higher averages by field. The average base salary for an account executive in the field of arts and entertainment, however, pulls down $40,204, on the low end.
We grabbed a couple of actual account executive jobs that are available right now to show you exactly what you might run into in your future job search.
- Salesforce Account Executive (marketing and sales): $76,050 base salary, $66,674 in extra compensation
- Aramark Account Executive (customer service): $50,030 base salary, $18,170 in extra compensation
- Travelers Account Executive (travel): $88,548 base salary, $6,496 in extra compensation
- Dell Technologies Account Executive (technology): $106,267 base salary, $77,405 in extra compensation
If those responsibilities and pay work for you, let’s move on. How do you actually become an account executive?
Step 1: Be honest about your skillset
Because an account executive is a bit of a hybrid position between a salesperson, marketer, and customer service rep, you’ll need to possess a unique set of skills. Now, you don’t have to have ALL of these skills right now. In fact, contrary to popular belief, sales skills aren’t innate — you can learn them.
But before you start paying for classes, ask yourself a serious question: do you think you have or can learn these skills?
Communication. Do you like to talk to clients, customers, and team members? Are you a natural negotiator or want to learn to become one? Persuasion, education, and compromise are the three pillars of account management. Extroverts will exceed here, as will introverts who know how to manage their energy levels.
Tech-savvy. CRM management, social media, email, messenger apps, and newsletters are a huge part of modern lead prospecting and client relations. You don’t have to be a programmer or an IT tech, but you do need to be comfortable learning new software tools and integrating them into your daily workflow. “I’m not a computer person” is no longer an acceptable excuse in 2021.
Marketing. Account executives deal with the sales funnel on a daily basis, and they’re involved in every step of the funnel. They need to know marketing principles, advertising, lead prospecting, and SEO marketing. They need to be able to formulate and help execute marketing strategies based on these principles.
Sales. Account executives are also part-time sales reps, so they have to understand every step of the sales process. They are tasked with taking leads through prospecting, qualifying, presenting, closing, and, of course, the follow-up and long-term maintenance of the account.
Brand and product awareness. Really, this comes down to a desire and a drive to learn. You won’t come into the job knowing everything about that company’s particular product, but an inquisitive mind and a head for details help account executives know their (and their client or customers’) brand and products inside and out. A good account exec never stops learning or keeping ahead of the trends.
Persistence. Patience and persistence are two soft skills that every account exec needs. Leads will be unresponsive (always); leads will say they’re “shopping around.” But if you have the patience and can avoid being pushy, they could come back to you. Long-time customers will churn without warning — but a persistent account executive knows to keep tabs on them and reel them back in when the opportunity presents itself.
Don’t fret if you don’t have all of these skills yet; that’s what school is for.
Step 2: Get the degree recruiters want to see
The education required to land an account executive position will depend on the field you enter (and that field’s inherent complexity). But, there are a few degrees that can help any budding account executive.
The degree you’ll need to become an account executive. You’ll need, at minimum, a bachelor’s degree. The most common fields of study for would-be account executives are sales, business, or marketing degrees.
The best schools to get your degree. Let’s be clear: if you’re getting a bachelor’s degree in sales, business, or marketing, you can get it anywhere — online classes, community college, or state college. That degree will help you independent of where you got it. However, there are some highly-rated colleges in the business, sales, and marketing circles you might want to consider.
Universities.com has the full ranking for 2021, but here are the top five schools to consider for your degree:
- University of Pennsylvania. Located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Bentley University. Located in Waltham, Massachusetts
- Northwestern University. Located in Evanston, Illinois
- Georgetown University. Located in Washington, DC
- Vanderbilt University. Located in Nashville, Tennessee
Education versus experience is an old argument, but why choose one? It’s never a bad idea to pick up a sales or marketing internship during college.
Step 3: Build sales experience any way you can
Very few people will leave college and walk into an account executive position. It can happen, but most of us are going to put in on-the-job time in a few different sales positions. Luckily, gaining sales experience isn’t that difficult.
Experience required. You’ll need at least one to three years’ experience in a sales or marketing position. Ideally, this position should be client-facing to some degree. Recruiters want to know that you can assist with or make a sale AND keep the customer happy in the long-term.
Positions to start in. Entry-level is the best place to start if you don’t already have a sales position. Here are a couple of job titles and fields to look for in your hunt for experience:
- Marketing/Sales Intern
- Insurance Agent
- Entry-Level Sales Rep
- Inside Sales
- Entry-Level Sales Agent
- Retail (yes, really)
Once you’ve got a foot in the door, your fastest path to promotion (or job-hopping to account executive) is to add certs and licenses to your resume.
Step 4: Get the certifications and licenses that give you the edge
While account executives don’t always require extra certifications or licenses, there are a few reputable courses and schools that can push your resume to the top of the stack. They also, of course, teach you the skills to help you snag those big commissions.
Technical fields will require their own certs. Consider, too, that there are plenty of industry-specific certs and licenses that might be required, depending on where you land. Account executives in healthcare, medical devices, FinTech, cybersecurity, SaaS, ecommerce, and federal fields are all going to need additional education.
Certs and licenses that can benefit most account executives. Few account executives (or perspective account executives) would hurt their careers by getting any of the following:
- MEDDIC. There are three main MEDDIC courses that will teach you sales qualification methods. MEDDIC stands for metrics, economic buyer, decision process, decision criteria, identify pain, and champion. The methodology is designed to help you assess and qualify leads, manage sales campaigns, and even help speculate how sales projections will shake out.
- NASP. The National Association of Sales Professionals provides an entire catalog of well-respected certifications and online courses. Topics include sales basics, one-on-one communication, phone sales, contact marketing, relationship building, sales leadership, and sales technology.
- Khan Academy. It may sound silly to check out a free online course, but Khan is a fantastic way to learn skills without spending a dime. They have courses on sales, client management, and customer success, just to name a few.
With a couple key certifications under your belt, and the opportunity to learn and flex those new skills, you’ve put yourself on the fast track to promotion.
Step 5: Kill the interview and land the job
You’ve got the education, the experience, and the certifications, and you’re champing at the bit to see “Account Executive” on your business cards. You may have the tools to do the job, but now comes the trickiest part: proving that you can land the job and get paid what you’re worth.
We’ve collected a couple of simple guides that might help you on your job hunt:
- Build your personal brand for job seeking.
- Negotiate your pay.
- Decide on a job offer.
- Having a great first day.
Good luck, and happy hunting!
Becoming an account executive is only the beginning
One of the keys to success in any position or field is to never stop learning. You may be an account executive by the end of this article (congrats!), but there are new sales techniques and marketing tools you can fold into your strategy. And, of course, there are always sales techniques to avoid that don’t work out so well.
Check out our collection of sales education articles to learn more about a wide breadth of topics, including services marketing, networking, improving your sales emails, saving time, and training/working remotely as a salesperson.
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