Goutam Challagalla, Brad Family associate professor of marketing
Ajay Kohili, professor of marketing and the Gary T. and Elizabeth R. Jones Chair holder
Published on: 05-16-2011
While account teams often serve as the critical link between
a firm and its most important business-to-business customers, the effectiveness
of these teams can be impeded by perceived threats from within, according to a
The account managers responsible for the overall customer
relationship often block their team members' access to customers and related
information because of concerns about conflicting agendas, found Georgia Tech
marketing professors Goutam Challagalla and Ajay Kohli, who conducted the study
with Brian Murtha of the
University of Kentucky (who earned his PhD at Georgia Tech).
phenomenon is a conundrum in that account managers interested in stronger
performance with customers appear to block the very functional specialists who
can help them attain better performance," write the researchers in their
study, titled "The Threat from
Within: Account Managers' Concern about Opportunism by Their Own Team Members."
publication in the leading journal Management
Science, the study describes the typical makeup of these account teams,
which firms often employ to better engage with customers. In addition to the
account manager, teams usually include a number of functional specialists with
deep technical and/or product expertise. For example, a turbine manufacturer's
account team might include a finance specialist with expertise in leasing, a
supply chain and manufacturing specialist with expertise in plant
reconfiguration, and an IT
specialist with expertise in tracking real-time turbine performance.
specialists don't report directly to the account manager, they might have
individual goals that aren't necessarily in the best interests of the customer.
In addition to a salary, functional specialists often receive a commission
based on the sale of their respective products. So an IT specialist might push
a solution that's more expensive than what the customer needs, for example, or
a finance specialist might try to meet his/her sales goals by advocating an
inappropriate financial product.
refer to this internal threat from within as 'internal opportunism,'" note
the researchers. Account managers fear that if customers catch on to it, they
might take their business elsewhere.
Concerns about Opportunism
study, the researchers didn't focus on whether actual opportunism was taking
place. Instead, they examined account managers' concern about possible opportunism. Data was collected from a
Fortune 500 business-to-business reseller of office equipment. "The organization was
particularly suitable because it provides solutions to customers by integrating
technologies and products from a variety of different manufacturers, while
offering a variety of financing options," according to the researchers.
350 account managers in three U.S.-based divisions of the firm, achieving a
response rate of 49 percent. They also surveyed the supervisors of responding
accounting managers, getting a response of 91 percent.
shows that the more time account managers invest in learning about and
developing customers, the more concerned they become about internal opportunism
by functional specialists on their teams. That's likely because hours spent
learning about such details as the customer's organizational hierarchy and
unique buying processes – as well as developing rapport with key individuals – are
"sunk costs" for the account manager that can't be applied to other
also shows that the more concerned account managers become about internal
opportunism, the more likely they are to engage in blocking specialists from customer
information or contact. This blocking could impede efforts to develop better
products and solutions and result in specialists generating fewer ideas that
could develop the customer relationship.
blocking defeats the purpose of having specialists on an account team in the
first place," write the researchers. "Clearly, firms must find ways
to reduce account managers' concerns about internal opportunism, recognizing
that the resulting blocking behaviors negatively affect performance."
Dealing with Threats
managers are likely to be hesitant about expressing their concerns about
internal opportunism to their team members for fear of being disliked or having
their worries be dismissed as purely speculative, say the researchers.
supervisors of account managers could help solve this problem through the
development of more cohesive teams as well as writing scripts (standard
outlines of key points) for addressing opportunism concerns with team
specialists, the researchers add. Prior research has shown that such scripts
can reduce reluctance to share bad news.
strategies might be particularly relevant for account managers who expect to
work with customers for extended periods, according to the study. That's
because the study's results show that internal opportunism concerns grow as
account managers invest more and more time in customers.
account managers concerns about internal opportunism decline somewhat if they
expect the same specialists to work regularly with particular clients.
Functional specialists typically support several account managers while
reporting to other supervisors. "An account manager who believes that a
specialist will have a long-term relationship with a customer is likely to
think that the specialist will make efforts to instill trust and act
cooperatively in his or her dealings with the customer," write the
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