Over the years, I have had the great experience of working with groundbreaking companies who valued strategic selling and encouraging their best key account representatives to achieve the highest level of relationship with clients.
In the 1980s the famous American academic and researcher, Neil Rackham, established the Huthwaite Institute, published “SPIN Selling” and “Major Account Sales Strategy” and developed a close relationship with IBM and Xerox. These collaborations established the foundation for modern strategic account management methods and processes. At the same time, both IBM and Xerox invested heavily in the development of their people. Around this time, your humble author was fortunate to participate in a training program in Xerox’s University situated on a spectacular campus on the banks of the Potomac River in Leesburg, VA. Such was the commitment to training by the large leaders of US corporations.
In the ensuing years, both of these Rackham publications and subsequent additions have become sales training icons and helped to spawn the myriad of publications now available on strategic account management best practice.
Currently, I have the rewarding opportunity to work with and mentor a few truly impressive account executives. You will know the well-worn cliché “80/20 rule”. Competent strategic account managers are the 20% in your team that contribute the 80% of revenue.
Since the notable Rackham contributions, one thing remains constant: engaging with clients strategically is an investment that yields higher levels of revenue and greater returns.
This prompts me to capture the essence for two questions:
What does a strategic account management plan entail?
What are the key competencies of a successful strategic account manager?
Establishing a Strategic Account Management Plan
From your client list establish the top 20% based on the potential opportunity (not historical opportunity because its…history)
Develop an account plan for each:
Who are the potential contact points? CEO, CFO, CHRO, CMO, CTO, Compliance, EAs, Line managers
Who are your internal team members who are responsible for each relationship? It’s a team effort. CEO, CFO, Marketing, HR, CFO, Account Executive, EA.
Who is in charge? One person should be responsible for managing the plan.
How often will there be an account review internally?
How often will there be an account review with the client?
What client documents and information are key? Strategic plans, financial plans.
Is all the information in the CRM? Can all the stakeholders access it?
What is the client’s decision-making process?
Who has real authority to approve business?
Who are the key influencers in the client’s decision-making process?
The Key Competencies of a Successful Strategic Account Manager.
The definition for competencies and what determines “key” for a specific role can be arbitrary. Lists and opinions abound. However, for this discussion, let’s keep it simple.
Wikijob in the UK boils it down to just ten competencies. Within these ten, the following five competencies are paramount for a successful Strategic Account Manager:
Commercial Awareness: Its impossible to be successful with strategic accounts if the client’s strategy, business and business model are not understood in detail. Financial skills, marketing capability, industry knowledge, product knowledge are all components of this.
Communication: An ability to talk credibly at all levels in the client’s organisation and one’s own company is critical. Not only talking, but in-depth questioning and active listening are critical.
Trustworthiness and Ethics: The sales and account management landscape, are strewn with ethical issues. Operating ethically, reliably and without nasty surprises, is a key competency. It takes time to build this trust, but one stumble destroys. Just be honest; always.
Results Oriented: As account managers become more senior, the popular route is to move to “business development”. To me, that is, sales without a target. A competent strategic account executive will welcome a target and achieving or exceeding the same will present a winning scenario for the client, the company and the account executive.
Problem Solving: Success in strategic account management comes from relationships and problem-solving. A lot of account executives are very good at relationships, but they need to be able to understand in detail the client’s problem and be able to solve it for them.
A long-time friend of mine has been an impressive strategic account manager for some prominent companies in the building and construction sector. Let’s call him Hugo. Over the decades, Hugo has built robust and deep relationships with clients in Australia and New Zealand. Some of his clients are the biggest product suppliers in the sector. He is now a sales and marketing division head but still takes direct responsibility for the largest accounts.
I was sharing a car ride with Hugo a few weeks ago, and he was relaying to me his jubilation from working with the internal R&D team to solve a long-standing product issue and customer complaint. The R&D had indeed been supportive and instrumental, but it was Hugo’s deep knowledge of his customers’ problem and his commitment to deliver a result for the clients that focused his company on delivering the result.
Account managers like Hugo are well above the average. It takes time and commitment from all stakeholders to develop such skills and capability. It is the Sales Pinnacle.
“Major Account Sales Strategy” Neil Rackham - 1998