Inherit Another Account Manager's Mess? 12 Ways to Clean it Up Now

There’s nothing worse than inheriting a mess left behind by another key account manager. They're OK - they've moved on and don't have to deal with the fallout. But as the new key account manager, you're left to figure out where things went wrong, how to fix them and restore the client's trust... fast.

If there's one thing I can guarantee every key account manager it's this: you will inherit clients.

And not all of them will be in good shape.

You might take over clients because the former key account manager was promoted. Or there was a reshuffle of accounts to distribute the workload.

When that's the case, the good news is: you're predecessor is still in the business. So you can ask them questions about how certain things came to be. And hold them accountable for their mistakes and get help to clean them up.

Sometimes you take over clients because the former key account manager left. The bad news: you may find yourself in the middle of a hornet's nest of problems they've hidden.

Either way, guess who's job it is to sort them out?

(*hint* Yours!)

Yep, you have to say sorry for problems you didn't cause and repair a relationship you didn't damage.

It's frustrating, stressful and challenging.

Don't worry, I got you covered.

Here are 12 tips to help you fix the problems of the past and restore your client's trust.

What To Do When You Inherit a Mess at Work

  1. Accept responsibility. Regardless of what happened, when and by who, the first step in fixing a problem is to take ownership of it.
  2. Understand the past. Find out how things are done and want went on with your client before you arrived to avoid making the same mistakes.
  3. Form your own opinion. Don't take things at face value. There are a lot of factors that led to the point where things are in a mess, so form your own opinion.
  4. Don't badmouth anyone. No-one knows what really happened except the people who lived the experience. So don't point the finger of blame.
  5. Avoid over-servicing. Going above and beyond sets unrealistic expectations for the future. Your client just wants things to work as promised.
  6. Don't emotionally distance yourself. Recognize there are emotional factors to consider when things are a mess and be sensitive to them.
  7. Be transparent. Don't hide mistakes or bad decisions and communicate what you're doing to get things back on track.
  8. Change what needs changing. If you see opportunities to fix something, take them.
  9. Start small. Break up tasks into small steps and focus on incremental changes.
  10. Ask for help. Reach out to others for insights, resources and help. Don't go it alone.
  11. Follow through on commitments. Deliver on your promises. Reliability creates trust.
  12. Stay positive. Don't blame yourself for the situation. Look for the lessons and maintain a positive outlook.

1. Accept responsibility

No matter what state your accounts are in, it’s up to you—the key account manager—to do what it takes to get things back on track. If you approach your new role with honesty and integrity, restoring trust will be easier.

To restore trust, you have to take responsibility for what’s happened. Don't continue to cover up any problems. You’re now in charge and anything that went wrong under your predecessor falls on you as well.

Show some humility and recognize that it won’t happen again.

Express confidence in how you will fix things.

And reassure everyone that they can trust your judgement moving forward.

2. Understand the past

As the expression goes:

Those who do not learn history are doomed to repeat it.

Find out what tools your predecessor used and how they did things. Read emails, meeting notes, business reviews and other important documents they left behind. This will give you an idea of what went on before you came along and help you avoid making the same mistakes.

Talk with people in your company who worked with your predecessor on a regular basis. Ask if they have any suggestions for how you can make sure they are comfortable working with you.

And ask your client if there's anything you can do to make their job easier moving forward.

(Do this over a call or Zoom; don't send emails. You'll get more information if you have a conversation).

3. Form your own opinion

Whenever you inherit a mess at work, your first instinct may be to clean it up right away. But let’s face it: your predecessor had reasons for doing things their way.

You don't know the full story.

Don't make any decisions until you’ve had time to observe and learn from what your predecessor did in their position.

It's rare that one person was useless and entirely to blame. You have to ask why did this mess happen in the first place?

  • Why was the relationship strained, why did it go undetected?
  • Why weren't solutions in place?
  • Are the issues the root cause or the symptoms of something much bigger?

Reserve judgement on the situation.

4. Don't badmouth anyone

It's easy to blame the previous key account manager when entering a chaotic situation at work. In one meeting, while reviewing the previous quarterly review my client said, “What was he thinking?”

Since “he” is no longer present, everyone else in the room is guilty by association.

Nobody knows better than the people living in it how it came to be. You should avoid mentioning prior decisions or actions.

And even if you're not a fan, you may find the previous key account manager had lots of friends. That means you could make some enemies as you point fingers.

“We can't change what happened then, but we can change what we do now,” is the best response when tempted to blame predecessors.

Take the high road.

5. Avoid over-servicing

So you've inherited an unhappy client. First instinct is to win them over at all costs.

Beware of creating more problems by over-servicing them. Don't jump through rings of fire to prove you're worthy. All that does is turn you into a doormat and establish unhealthy patterns in your new relationship in which your client has all the power.

Clients want things to work as you promised them.

No more, no less.

View everything through a customer improvement lens. Take action to increase your client's confidence in the value of your partnership. Sometimes that may mean telling your client to do things differently.

Build your client relationships on mutual trust and respect.

6. Don't emotionally distance yourself

Depending on the kind of mess you've inherited your client may have some feelings:

  • Anger for hiding problems.
  • Frustration they're not resolved.
  • Anxiety about changes.
  • Stress about the workload to fix things.
  • And lots more.

I've been introduced to clients who's first words to me were, "I know it's not your fault, but" and then launch into a tirade of complaints.

Lack of communication is the cause of most problems. So, your priority when inheriting another account manager’s mess is to listen.

Let your client express their issues and concerns and how they see your role in resolving them.

Show empathy for how they feel.

And recognize the contribution your organization has made to that response.

7. Be transparent

When you inherit someone else’s account, you take on their responsibilities.

Transparency is key—don’t try to hide any mistakes or bad decisions made by your predecessor.

Explain your next steps, keep them informed and be honest about where things stand.

Let everyone know that their trust in you will help get them back on track.

What lies behind you and what lies in front of you, pales in comparison to what lies inside of you.

Ralph Waldo Emerson

8. Change what needs changing

If you've inherited a mess, there are inevitable questions about how and why things were done. Investigate the situation to understand what happened and how to prevent it re-occurring.

If you see an opportunity to fix something, don't be shy about making changes. Your primary goal is to do right by your client. Try new things; you can always change course if it’s not working.

Naturally, you should respect policies, procedures and boundaries. If anything appears outside of standard practices, bring it up with colleagues. Ask for advice on how to proceed or alternatives and then make your decision.

Be willing to compromise. You might find that adjusting expectations is in everyone’s best interest.

Knowing what will—and won’t—be realistic is key for working out solutions.

9. Start small

If you inherit a client relationship that's damaged, it may take time to repair.

Sweeping, radical change may be necessary (see Change what needs changing above).

But more likely, you'll need to make incremental change to solve problems. Break up your big tasks into small, systematic steps and set generous deadlines.

You may be under pressure from your client to get this mess sorted NOW, but don't over commit. If you're too ambitious with your promises you'll risk under-delivery, and in the process lose what little trust you have as the new key account manager.

Your speed doesn’t matter. Forward is forward.

10. Ask for help

When you inherit a mess at work, it can be challenging - even overwhelming - as you navigate the situation. If you're feeling out of your depth, or stuck, there's no shame in admitting it.

I can tell you from experience it's much better to ask for help when your client is at risk, then to make excuses after they've left.

Have you heard the expression, "A problem shared is a problem halved?"

Colleagues can point you toward resources or offer insights on managing your client.

When your client has issues, you must relay those to people within your organization to fix them. Don't do the work on their behalf.

Hold them accountable and get their commitment to resolve the complaints. 

11. Follow through

Making good on your promises is fundamental for building trust.

Don’t promise what you can do—deliver. If someone has your word that you’ll get something done by next week, then get it done by next week.

Consistency creates trust because there are no surprises. Your clients know that you're reliable and what to expect from you.

12. Stay positive

It's draining to fix a mess you didn't create. You're in the firing line of all that bad energy. The temptation is to complain to yourself, "What did I do to deserve this?"

Keep an eye on your emotions. Try not to take things personally. You didn’t create this situation, so don’t blame yourself for things that are out of your control.

There’s always something positive you can do even when faced by challenges like these.

What to do when you inherit another key account managers mess

Warwick Brown


Warwick Brown has led business development and account management teams in Australia and Europe for more than 15 years and worked with some of the world's most prestigious firms, including Merck & Co, Deutsche Bank, McKinsey & Company and Vodafone. As the founder at Account Manager Tips, his mission is to help organisations leverage the power of key account management to accelerate client retention and revenue.


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