By Noel Capon and Gus Maikish
This blog is an excerpt from an article in the Fall 2022 issue of Velocity Magazine.
In our book, Customers Win, Suppliers Win: Lessons from One of IBM’s Most Successful Strategic Account Managers, we share and analyze enduring best practices and principles of account and customer success management. We do so from our respective career perspectives as a researcher, teacher, and consultant (Noel) and an expert practitioner (Gus). Although account management has received significant attention — and is the rationale behind the growth of the Strategic Account Management Association (SAMA) — because of its obvious importance, our book takes a different tack by trying to understand what made one highly accomplished account manager consistently successful across more than three decades of change in technology, business trends, and boom and bust in the wider economy. What emerged were six skill sets, or acumens, that made this success possible. We believe our Acumen Sextet captures what account managers must master to do right by their own firms and their customers.
See the big picture for both the firm and the customer; engage in high-level resource-allocation decisions — for the firm and the customer — for both long- and short-term objectives. Strategic acumen requires a deep understanding of both organizations.
Develop a deep understanding of the customer’s organization, along with navigation skills to identify and address opportunities. Identify the various decision makers/influencers and decision-making units for all potential deals. Understand and influence the purchase decision-making process.
Essentially, this dimension is the ability to make deals, using a deep understanding of the needs of both customer and the firm to deliver value, along with the competence to make necessary financial calculations regarding both revenue and profit. Understand how both the firm and customer make money, in the short term and long term, and know what makes a good deal for both parties.
Assemble — recruit, select, train, coach — a team with the required skills. Optimize team-member placement where specific skills are required, making success likely in the short and long term. Lead and manage the account team: direct reports, dotted-line reports, those with other reporting relationships, and their own goals and objectives. When complex deals require sellers to ally with partner firms, the ability to manage and lead without direct authority becomes especially important.
Identify and secure firm (and partner) resources needed to deliver customer value. Resource acumen is especially important for account managers in large complex organizations where pockets of expertise may reside in all sorts of unlikely places. Resource acumen requires the ability to be discriminating, to secure only necessary resources and not squander them.
A potpourri of individual characteristics, anchored by leadership by example, that support and provide the basis for all other acumen dimensions. Personal acumen includes leadership, integrity, personal drive, hard work, creativity and risk-taking, managerial courage, and a passion for the business. It is a managerial and leadership style that rejects micromanagement, but embraces flexibility, empathy, unselfishness, listening and communicating, patience, and humility. A critical element of personal acumen is a sense of responsibility for completing tasks/projects. Account managers possessing this attribute feel responsible for outcomes and ensuring that promised customer value is actually delivered. When things don’t work out, they never blame others for failure. Rather, they try to figure out what went wrong, and what they could have done to secure a better outcome. Relatedly, they have the courage to take risks and/or unpopular decisions when circumstances demand.
Account managers who excel in the critical firm/customer boundary role possess all six kinds of acumen, although of course they will be stronger in some dimensions than in others. Great account managers always keep striving to improve in each dimension, enhancing their relative strengths and bolstering their relative weaknesses.
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