By Dominique Côté, Founder & CEO, Cosawi
& Principal, The Summit Group
Disruption Leads to Innovation
Disruption, although most times unwelcome, gives way to innovation. This last year has certainly proven this saying. Could the mother of creativity and innovation, in fact, be disruption?
We have seen seismic shifts in industries like events and hospitality that have been devastated by the pandemic. However, many have pivoted and transformed themselves by, for example, providing office spaces for people in need of a quiet working environment. Customer-buying behaviors have also reshaped Amazon and other retailers in delivering everyday goods.
In general, engagement models have been shattered. Although we all look forward to interacting with humans again, we know that the end of the pandemic will not mean a return to normal. This past year has created a new normal, where virtual engagement will remain even as we re-introduce face to face into our lives. Organizations are already planning for this new- or next-normal hybrid model and have worked hard to elevate the needed skill sets of their commercial teams – especially strategic account managers.
We have seen an increased interest in moving to a more focused, value-bringing and high impact engagement model. This is leading many companies to accelerate their strategic account management journeys and transformations.
Drawing some positives from the past year, COVID-19 has accelerated and catalyzed several exciting aspects of the future work and organization design. These changes would otherwise have taken years. The pandemic has forced organizations to pivot and reinvent how they engage with customers.
Companies are seeking interactions with customers that bring them new insight, knowledge, ideas and innovations. They are looking for business partners to help them return to growth. Companies that have seized the opportunity and cared for their customers have elevated their trust level and customer loyalty.
Thriving as a SAM in Today’s World
Based on our recent clients’ work and interviews, we have discovered three areas essential to the overall objective of establishing and accelerating the SAM journey. Having these pillars in place will create the key ingredient for success: the ability to differentiate yourself, sustain and ensure continued evolution while successfully and positively impacting the growth of your strategic customers.
This post focuses on the first pillar, establishing a Center of Excellence, as the lighthouse to the strategic account management journey.
Three Pillars of Success
- A Center of Excellence (COE)
- Executive “buy-in and be in”
- Account-based marketing
COE: A Critical Lighthouse to Provide Successful Journey Direction and Leadership
By COE, we mean a centralized group of SAM experts and people who “get it” and who should be leveraged as the catalyst for instilling the mindset, processes and skill sets for distinctive go-to-market and customer-centric engagement models.
These are the people responsible for the day-to-day global strategies and operational execution of the SAM roadmap, and “sherpas” of its future. These enabling structures are critical to your SAM roadmap’s success. A COE accelerates and ensures the needed transformation, evolution and sustainability plans of your organization.
Five Elements of a COE
There are five essential components and building blocks for establishing a COE.
- Establishing a dedicated, global Center of Excellence
- Having the COE report directly to the executive team
- Developing and enabling a cultural shift
- Creating customer-centric curricula
- Thinking globally and acting locally
1. Establishing a Dedicated, Global COE
Each year, SAMA issues awards for “Outstanding SAM Program of the Year.” Nearly every winner from the past two years has something in common: a dedicated COE. Is this a coincidence? We think not.
Establishing a COE is the number one most critical success factor for implementing an effective strategic account management business model. Despite this fact, only 10 percent of SAMA member companies have a COE, let alone an effective one.
When I started my career as a commercial and SAM roadmap leader, the commercial team and enabling functions collaborated daily in their customer engagement.
When we see the investment that some companies are making in pivoting their engagement model to be more strategic, customer-centric and value enabling, we are always surprised to see the enabling functions still focus on supporting the more transactional model which is based on the number of interactions as the metric. It continues to be difficult to shift the enabling structure to support the SAM journey instead.
To successfully form a COE, organizations should abide by the following principles:
- Establishing a COE is a step approach, and the structure needs to grow as the strategic account managers and strategic accounts grow in number and needs.
- Starting slow and evolving at the pace of changes in the customer landscape is critical. Structuring a COE can consist of full-time dedicated roles and part-time roles that report back to their respective departments.
- Understanding strategic account management is essential for the members of a COE who need to appreciate that it is a business model, not a sales model, and requires change management.
2. Having the COE Report Directly to the Executive Team
Reporting at the executive level enables the COE to have a broader view of the organization, including its imperatives, goals, strategies and capabilities – as well as being peer to peer with business leaders who are necessary to the execution of the SAM roadmap.
There are two models for how COEs can be formed. They can be established as a separate unit to support the SAM organization with a remit to test, iterate and pilot for speed. They then integrate this with the rest of the commercial group. Or, they can start with an already commercially integrated COE working across business units.
To effectively form a COE, many organizations must adjust their thinking.
Although we know from SAMA research that a strategic account will generate two times the revenue of a non-strategic account, we also see that strategic account management requires our corporate minds to think differently by providing value beyond products and services, aligning to what matters to our customer (as opposed to our own internal organization) and co-creating innovative value offerings that are customized to the account and customer needs.
Many different roads are possible, but two foundations are needed for COEs:
- Organizations must think outside-in, build trust and long-term objectives and focus on the customer objectives first to generate growth and revenue for the customer and the organization. This is not an easy task as the corporate world has been trained to think inside out and sell products or services.
- The COE must move its organization from a go-to-market strategy based on its own products and services to one based on creating customized solutions to respond to the unmet needs of its customers (and, in turn, their customers).
3. Developing and Enabling the Cultural Shift
The COE is an essential unit for driving the cultural shift required to have a successful SAM business model. Its members must be:
- Experts in the strategic account management world and dedicated to driving this journey. They are part of the strategy and lead the operational steps, from outlining the vision/mission to creating business processes, building the structure, outlining the desired competencies and equipping the SAMs.
- Instrumental in selecting the account team and extended teams as well as the departmental point of contact. These points of contact are technical experts who provide support for specific topics.
- Responsible for identifying champions who understand the SAM journey and purpose and who have the right mindset and willingness to be part of the transformation.
- Collaborative with groups like human resources and line managers to define competencies and traits needed to be successful in the SAM role. Finding those individuals with the right mindset, passion and resiliency to drive change will be a catalyst for the strategic account organization’s success.
- Able to break internal silos by providing an aligned business process and communication. Members need to drive the passion/resilience to think outside-in for revenue generation. Being a centralized expert group, they can work across units to align matrix and complex organizations to the strategic accounts that have been identified. They can provide change management, business processes and a strategic account toolbox for an aligned way of working.
In leading the cultural shift, the COE can then establish the mid- to long-term roadmap and next steps of the journey. They can prioritize what needs to be done, from aligning business leaders and upskilling the strategic account managers to providing an aligned, integrated business process.
4: Creating Customer-centric Curricula
When looking at the SAM’s competencies and skill set, many of our clients struggle to integrate and connect with the diverse competency models used by the different commercial or customer-facing teams. Each of these teams often has its own curriculum. This complex set-up divides the customer-facing groups in the way they engage.
By incorporating the Learning & Development function in the COE, four benefits occur:
- Resources and efforts are in place to support SAMs in developing their skill sets which elevates their interactions with their most important customers.
- SAMs are aligned and use the same curriculum to engage, communicate with and plan their complex accounts.
- The curriculum is customer centric and serves all commercial-facing teams.
- Performance metrics and measures on the SAM role and impact of training investment are available. Having a way to measure the behaviors and performance impact of the SAM on revenue and growth is critical in sustaining the organization’s attention and focus on driving this business transformation.
The core principles used in complex accounts can certainly be used in more transactional one-on-one interactions. Principles like understanding your customer, being focused on their needs, being authentic and providing value, to name a few, are done at a different level of depth and details – but are universally useful.
This creates simplicity and focus in people’s development, provides continuity in career pathing and facilitates personalized learning journeys.
5: Thinking Globally and Acting Locally
In addition to everything we’ve covered, the global COE is also responsible for connecting global groups within the company to the local affiliates. They are accountable for aligning the organization to the business and strategic account planning processes, as well as connecting and aligning how the strategic accounts engage with the rest of the commercial teams in the markets and local affiliates.
By providing this central leadership and process, the COE demonstrates the Pareto principle of 80/20 by providing the 80 percent to enable the local affiliates to customize to their local needs but saving them from having to start from scratch and duplicate efforts. The COE can also provide capability and training development and help local affiliates establish their customized strategic account management roadmap aligned with the organization’s global strategy.
In return, local teams can look at their market environments and from them prioritize their local roadmaps. The more the marketplace is integrated and features complex customers, the more they will need to move from a transactional sales model to a strategic account management business model. It is by helping the local teams – who are focused on their market and customer understanding, customer journey and decision making – that the global COE can support localization of the roadmap and prioritize the help and support needed to preserve and enhance local customer intimacy while being the guardian of the “one voice” at the corporate level.
The global COE can also help foster the creation of communities of practice to exchange best practices and scale them. These communities help accelerate the SAM journey, connectivity and dissemination of ideas. They can be the anchor point for business case creation, communication and scaling opportunities across the organization.
Having worked with many organizations in this cultural shift and business transformation, our experience is that without a COE, we find the project and transformation are at significant risk of being derailed by lack of resources, lack of focus or lack of leadership needed to instill the required change.
We have also seen that, in this acceleration of adapting how we do business and how we engage with customers in our new reality, some pillars of the COEs are taking on a front-line role. For example, learning and development investment is increasing in these times when SAMs are working from home and the skills needed in this new environment are shifting.
Finally, in creating your SAM Center of Excellence in line with these critical success factors, you will end up with a COE that spans across the organization, breaking silos and driving the SAM roadmap and journey today and for the future. A COE can bring expertise for more customer value and differentiation. Your customer will remember that you care about their success. The COE helps SAMs build trusted partnerships by supporting their processes and needs, focusing on what is important to their customers and enabling customer-facing teams to show up as one organization in a coordinated manner. In short, the COE helps SAMs elevate their game.
Dominique Côté, founder of Cosawi, brings 30 years of experience leading global commercial teams. As a former practitioner, she is an accomplished international business leader. She is recognized as a chief architect of global account program journeys, leading corporate changes and cultural shifts for customer-centric innovations and patient value.
Côté’s consultancy firm Cosawi guides organizations on their go-to-market strategies, KAM/SAM roadmaps and journeys, and account-based marketing. Côté is also a certified executive coach, helping leaders find their purpose through transformational leadership.
Côté is a principal at the Summit Group where she specializes in SAM certification and training. She is an international speaker and a sought-after writer in customer centricity, strategic account management and commercial excellence. She has sat on the SAMA board since 2011.