In thinking about the best account managers; those managing growing, profitable customer accounts, thoughts naturally go to being skilled in communicating, relationship-building and sharing product knowledge. But the 2014 Report on Current Trends & Practices in Strategic Account Management conducted by Walker for the Strategic Account Management Association suggest a broader skill set than that.
Another skill set needed by strategic account managers (SAMs) or Key or Global Account Managers (KAMs or GAMs) is in risk management — spotting emerging risks to the ongoing business relationship and how to marshal resources to overcome those. Think here of being able to answer customer questions about the value of your solution compared to a competitor's or putting out unexpected “fires” related to quality or service issues. A surprising finding in this study was that seven in ten companies had to save or restore customers through their strategic account manager resources recently. The effort and skills by SAMs were central to salvaging these customers — in fact the most frequent ways accounts were saved was by intervention of the SAM, such as dealing with Procurement questioning cost/value, collaborating to achieve value on both sides of the relationship or aligning internal resources to right a quality problem.
Of course SAMs are not just saving their customer accounts but rather very much proactively building value and commitment on both sides of the relationship over time. The same study showed that strategic accounts tend to have double digit growth compared to just 7% growth for other accounts and be increasingly profitable to the vendors. Respondents directly summed up the remarkable skill set of the account managers involved by giving detailed descriptions of "successful SAMs". Those attributes and behaviors fall into six categories roughly equal in terms of frequency given:
- Creating internal alignment for the strategic customer
- Engaging strategically with customers (including with executives)
- Business acumen
- Communications skills
More detailed attributes given verbatim are shown in the diagram below, from which I took away a couple of points about effective strategic account managers:
1. The SAM has to be equally effective in collaborating with and leading people on both sides of the business relationship — aligning resources from one's own company for the sake of meeting the customer's needs, but engaging various players at the customer as well, ranging from the main practitioner contact to the executive decision-makers and other influencers.
2. While Communications and Leadership traits may have been expected, Business Acumen and Integrity may be more surprising requirements for SAM success. The need for Business Acumen goes hand in hand with showing that one can have executive presence at the account and the ability to engage strategically to assist customers in meeting their financial goals. Integrity as a must-have for a SAM was attributed taking responsibility for commitments made on both sides of the relationship, being transparent about issues and mistakes and simply proving one's trustworthiness over time.
One has to conclude that SAMs should be unusually gifted people with added special training as well. They must be uniquely equipped for success because the demands of the job and the mix of traits and required behaviors are out of the norm for typical salespeople or temperment profiles. Therefore, good SAMs are unusually valuable to find or keep, but so critical as to pay back for locating and developing them.