Just before the lockdown we hosted a dinner at The Athenaeum Club on London’s Pall Mall. The guests were about 30 leaders from leading professional service firms and financial institutions with a smaller number of entrepreneurs from a range of sectors.
The theme was strategic account management (SAM) and we looked at the subject through three lenses: the heart, the head and the hands.
“Ask why before you ask how” is a useful saying from author Simon Sinek. Before we immerse ourselves in the processes, planning and execution of strategic account management we should step back and reflect on why we do this. Are our hearts in the right place? Doing SAM well demands effort, commitment and resource. It only works well if our purpose is clear, good and centred on the customer. Anyone involved needs to be able to see that this is not just a set of tricks to boost sales and increase profit. There needs to be strong integrity and sound intent. Everyone, from your clients, your organisation itself, through to your supply chain should benefit from your SAM approach if it is to be sustainable.
There should also be a heartfelt passion in the way we make SAM work in our organisations. People like Bart Logghe, (who was instrumental in transforming Philips’ work with their strategic customers) and Bernard Quancaid who led SAM are successful because they are passionate about the importance of managing strategic relationships well.
“It’s all about trust”
The third aspect of heartfelt SAM Is a commitment to build trust – both internally and externally. Rachel Botsman in her excellent book “Who can you trust?” and her various TED talks explains the three phases of trust. When we all lived in villages we knew personally the people we could trust - local trust, phase 1.
Along came the industrial revolution, urbanisation, globalisation and we couldn’t know everyone personally so we placed our trust in institutions and experts – institutional trust, phase 2.
But over recent years we have stopped trusting institutions, whether banks, governments, media, the church”¦ and we now place our trust in peer reviews, third-party sites etc whether it’s AirBnB or Glass Door.
We are in the third phase of trust – distributed trust. In our strategic account management, we need to figure how to flourish in this new phase of trust. We need to learn lessons from the likes of Stephen MR Covey in “The Speed of Trust” where he argues that we need to actively work on and communicate our integrity, our intent, our capabilities and our results.
We need to apply David Maister’s trust equation. Trust = (Credibility + Reliability + Intimacy) divided by Self Orientation.
We need to think harder about Strategic Account Management. We would highlight two aspects of this.
There is a pressing need for skilled execution. We need to develop the capabilities of strategic account managers and the tools available to them. There are three ways of understanding the role of the strategic account manager:
We need not only specialised depth but commercial breadth the so-called T, where the vertical is your deep expertise and the horizontal is your business acumen, your ability to make connections, to think in a strategic and innovative way. Andrew Sobel says that Deep Generalists:
See and make connections that specialists often miss;
Synthesise information into insights not just do data;
Put their products into the client’s context.
Don’t focus on the specialists they feel comfortable with but engage with business leaders who see their value.
General manager of a horizontal business unit
It’s not an elegant phrase but it’s an important one. Many strategic account managers come from a sales background. But the role is very different from “big selling”. A strategic account needs most or all of the skills needed in a traditional vertical unit, sales yes but also finance, marketing, contracts, pricing, production, logistics, and so on and on. So, the SAM needs to be a general manager who can bring all these capabilities into alignment for the benefit of the customer and company.
Interpreter of space
Thomas Muller the outstanding German footballer put it like this “I’m not a forward. I’m not a midfielder. I’m an interpreter of space” .
Barney Ronay of the Guardian wrote: “Not quite a playmaker, some way short of a striker, and blessed with no extreme qualities of power or technique, Muller is instead the world’s first Raumdeuter, which is German for “space investigator.” His special power is to find space, space invisible to the non-Raumdeuter, and spread into it like a plume of smoke”.
Talk about SAM
Here are some of the themes that emerged from our guests at the dinner:
We need to focus on execution. Talking and thinking is good but the real challenge is to make it happen.
It’s important to develop people earlier to play in this space. Experience is important but the energy and passion of younger professionals will be a critically important asset for businesses.
It’s essential to involve the whole business in SAM decisions – this is much more than “big selling”
Look to some of the innovations that can make a difference: account -centred marketing, co-innovation, AI tools.
Focus is all important. Don’t try to over-extend your SAM programme. Just because it is successful don’t scale it up by diluting the efforts of your best people. More accounts demand more resources.
We need to be “reflective practitioners” – doing the work of strategic account management but taking the time to step back and think about what we are doing and why we are doing it.