“Owning” customers: The toxic-wasteland for collaboration


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Side-stepping the very obvious problematic and negative connotations stemming from the terminology, “owning” customers, prospects, or accounts is a truly terrible concept. I’ll dig into the details a little later, but the overarching consequence of “owning” is the toxicity to building a collaborative work environment among your teams and colleagues.

It’s a common story to see sales and account management teams using the “yours” vs. “mine” strategy. Companies have encouraged it and now traditional CRMs and other sales software feed into it. The method stems from a traditional sales atmosphere that is quickly proving to be antiquated. We’re working in a time where collaboration is king. Individual relationships and successes should not be put above those of the entire organization. Sadly, the consequences of a single person owning a customer affects all parts of an organization, spreading the toxicity.

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Competition & an outdated incentive structure

Traditionally, companies have created a sales environment that rewards individual activity and wins. Sales professionals often receive little to no base-salary and see their entire worth determined by the contacts and accounts they “own” and the number of deals they close. Theoretically, companies believed this would lead to greater motivation as each individual is directly and solely responsible for their own successes. Unfortunately, this atmosphere encourages individuals to put their goals before the goals of the entire organization and when individual incentives become more important than overall success, you’ve failed as a company.

Knowing this, it’s no surprise that organizations are making major changes to their sales incentive structures. There has been a shift in focus from variable compensation packages to ones that are similar to other teams: competitive base salaries with some room for additional compensation based on company performance. If you’re skeptical that paying your sales team more will lead to greater sales numbers, take a look at this Harvard Business Review case study. A technology company adopted this approach and found their cost of sales remained the same but the churn rate fell while retention grew, increasing total sales dollars.

Creation of silos and elimination of knowledge sharing

Compounding the issues that stem from such a competitive environment, “owning” customers leads to the creation of workplace silos. We’ve written about this in the past, but an effect of silos is the disintegration of collaboration.

When a sales or account rep has complete ownership over a portfolio of customers and is being driven by the above mentioned incentive program, there is little reason for them to share best practices with their teammates. Although negative, it makes total sense that this type of silo would organically form.

What it comes down to is that there is no individual who knows more about your company, your processes and your competition than your entire team, working together. If you have someone who is a total rock star at closing deals, have them train new hires or those lacking some of the confidence and finesse. Does one of your team members know the competitive landscape front to back? Give them an opportunity to present to the rest of the team and equip them with the same powerful information. When your sales team works together, you get more wins, period.

Total lack of alignment across teams

The development of silos is detrimental to your sales and accounts team. But on top of that, it’s also detrimental to cross-team alignment. The sales and account teams have a wealth of customer information at their fingertips and that information can benefit the entire organization. When a rep is strictly driven by commission, their focus will be on sending emails, making calls and providing product demos. Unfortunately, they have little to no motivation to take time from those activities to brief the marketing team or customer success team on customer data.

The domino effect is that having a well-informed marketing and customer success team leads to better, more specific marketing content and customer resources. Marketing teams can develop campaigns that can speak directly to a potential customer’s pain point, based on the information the sales and account reps have obtained through their interactions. This leads to better qualified leads. Customer success teams can create accurate help documents and educational resources to keep customers engaged, reducing churn. When there is alignment between sales, marketing and customer success, your company will see higher acquisition numbers, lower churn and better, more engaged customers.

Customers are left stranded

I’ve talked a lot about how toxic ownership is for a company, internally. But what about your customers? When a customer rep has ownership of a customer account, that customer only has one point of contact at the company. All of their interactions, engagement and feedback are directly tied to one individual. Ultimately, their relationship with your product is heavily influenced by their relationship with the sales or account rep.

It’s shortsighted to think that it’s beneficial to your customers to have only one person in the know about their accounts, activity and paint points. If they call with an urgent account issue and their rep is unavailable, what do you do? Either someone else has to go digging around, interrupting others’ workflows to find a solution. Or, the customer is left to wait until their rep is available. And what happens if your sales or account rep leaves the company? Someone is going to have to pick up the account, scrambling to get up to speed on the customer’s relationship with the product and organization. It’s labor intensive to do this and a customer may not be patient enough to start from scratch, and who could blame them?

How to contain and eliminate the toxicity

Major changes in the workplace can be difficult to implement, but if you’re serious about changing the way your teams interact with customers, it’s something that deserves attention. It’s possible to maintain responsibility for a client without having to “own” them. Just as a child has the best ability to become a healthy adult if the entire community takes an active role in contributing to the rearing of the child, a customer has the best ability to become a healthy client if the entire organization takes an active role in contributing to tending to the the customer. To move more toward the “it takes a village” model, here are some things you can start doing today.

Reward collaborators: Your organization should reward those who share and collaborate, or show the ability to adjust their processes. Recognize their collaboration and acknowledge the importance of it.

Cut loose dead-weight: On the flip side, you might have to make some tough decisions about individuals who are territorial and put their goals ahead of the organization’s. If they can’t adjust, they may no longer be a good fit.

Invest in your teams: If you’re asking your teams to let go of the “yours” vs. “mine” mentality, provide them the tools and resources that enable them to do their best work. Things like chat tools, collaborative CRMs and project management software can help with this.

Your organization, and in turn your customers, will benefit if you’re able to remove the aspect of “ownership.” By doing so you provide your sales and account teams more motivation to work towards a common goal. You offer an avenue to share knowledge and best practices. Your teams are better aligned and your customers come to the forefront of your focus, where they should be!

Molly Savage Breiner
Synap Software Labs
Digital Marketer with a bleeding heart. Focus on SaaS, software development and design.


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