In difficult times, sometimes red tape turns orange

By Saleh Al-Ben Saleh

Strategic Account Manager, Emerson Automation Solutions

It is quite rare you get into a global economic struggle with two, simultaneous disruptive factors, but we have just this situation now with the combination of the COVID 19 pandemic and the deterioration of the price of oil. As if one of them wouldn’t be enough to wreak havoc around the globe, it’s almost like they joined together to achieve their goal of maximum disruption.

The overall impact of these two simultaneous disruptors is something I doubt any of us will forget any time soon. It has forced decision makers to enact abrupt cost cuts (fixed and variable), encourage remote working, reduce active manpower on sites, adopt high dependence on virtual communications and virtual teamwork technologies, and finally to acknowledge the harmful impact of the pandemic and seek to at least minimize the damage. Only a lucky few end-users are still on the upper side of the revenue/cost chart. 

I would say there has never been a more important time for strategic account managers to proactively steer business efforts aimed at creating new business value for both the supplier and the customer. While SAMs have surely already created and captured real business value for his or her accounts, it’s time to take these efforts to the next level. But how?

1. Look backward. Start by going back to your old notes, and you will be sure to find a few topics and suggestions that you addressed with the client in the past that — for whatever reason, unfortunately — were rejected at the time. (Some of these justifications for rejection will still exist; others may not.) You just might find that much of the red tape created at the time has become orange — if not green! Conditions have changed in unpredictable ways, and you just might find your key customer contacts more receptive now.

2. Ask your key contact(s) if they’re open to having a conversation. You don’t want to push against a closed door.

3. Be direct. With this affirmative confirmation in place, ask bluntly for the opportunity to help by offering suggestions in light of new developments.

4. Make sure you can execute first. This is critical: Before doing anything else with the customer, first lay the groundwork internally to make sure (1) your organization is prepared to act quickly should your “red” tape turn “green” and (2) any suggested action or solution will still be a sound investment — and strong reference case — once the economic situation has improved.

5. Focus on the risk of inaction. Once you get in front of your customer, it will be imperative to make a very explicit case for the need to move forward and the risk of doing nothing.

6. Make sure you presentation is hyper-focused. You’re not likely to get face to face time with your key customer stakeholders, so you will be relying on virtual business meeting tools. Yes, this can sap some of the power of your communication, so you will need to compensate by having a focused agenda and set strategy for conveying your key messages to your various stakeholders.

7. Be prepared to escalate. You should not take any step that could potentially negatively impact relationships with your customer stakeholders. However, if your proposals are getting rejected with no clear reason, and you truly believe the risk of “no action” to be severe, be prepared to escalate to a higher level within the customer organization — while stressing at all times that you’re acting in good faith and genuine to desire to help.

Results-oriented clients will surely understand your persistence in wanting to help them through these difficult times.


By Robert Hueber, Business Unit Director, Packaging, Herrmann Ultraschall

Artur Wagner, Founder and Partner, MP Consulting

Today, an increasing number of medium-sized B2B technology companies are establishing a global strategic account management (SAM) program for their most important customers. This was not always so. In the past, CEOs of such companies did not believe that customers, vastly larger than themselves in size, would be interested and willing to engage in a partnering and co-development process.

The SAMA slogan “It’s not about size, but all about relevance!” can become reality if the foundations for such a program are laid and a systematic process for building a SAM program is established.

We are convinced that our findings are perfectly applicable to larger companies as well. Many of these have already implemented a SAM initiative, but not all are reaping its benefits. This, we will argue, is mostly due to a sub-standard design and/or faulty implementation.

The aim here is to provide a specific methodology for assessing an optimal level of customer-centricity and the best way for integrating the SAM organization into the matrix organization.

The methodology

1. Secure CEO engagement. Due to the strategic and all-encompassing nature of SAM, it is not enough to have executive-level support. You need CEO support. The CEO needs to understand the need for SAM and fully support the journey, not only because it represents a considerable investment but also because it touches all dimensions of a company. The CEO should not only be a supporter but a raving promoter of SAM within the company!

2. Evaluate SAM-readiness. Before you embark on the SAM journey, you need to ask a certain number of questions: Is the go-to-market organization ready for SAM, or do you need to first change its mindset towards a stronger customer orientation? Does my company have customers for which a SAM approach will bring tangible value? Are we at this point willing and able to add another strategic initiative to those that currently engage us?

3. Plan thoroughly and be patient. The SAM process should definitely not be rushed. Be decisive but patient, and do not skip any developmental phases. Furthermore, if you don’t have experienced people to design and build the program, do not hesitate to hire core competencies or get outside help.

4. Understand your starting point. Analyze before you start. First, understand your current position with your key customers, the level of customer-centricity required and the time and resources to reach the desired level.

5. Integrate SAM into the whole picture. Your SAM program should be deeply integrated not only into your sales and channel strategy but also into your corporate strategy. Make sure it always stays high on the agenda. Furthermore, embed your SAM program into a culture journey to secure awareness, communication and collaboration.

6. Properly position and leverage SAM to increase customer-centricity. Properly positioning and embedding your SAM initiative within the overall organization should not be based on a trial-and-error process. It must result from a conceptual understanding of how matrix organizations work and how best to organize around your top customers. Furthermore, use the occasion to rethink your overall go-to-market and channel strategy.

7. Build coalitions. Find peers and higher-level executives from other BUs and departments who are not only supportive but willing to “get on the bus.” Critical mass and funds are needed to make it happen.

8. Identify talent early. As soon as you have a clear picture of the SAM organization, actively start filling the SAM positions. This is time sensitive, as it is difficult to find the right candidates. The profile of the SAM has a strong leadership component and is crucial for the overall success of the company.

9. Manage expectations. Managing expectations internally and externally with the customer is one of the most critical tasks of the SAM. The ability to communicate clearly and quickly and to openly address critical issues is one of the key requirements for gaining the status of a trusted advisor.

In summary, any company building a SAM program must expect it to significantly advance its organization. Once strategic partnerships are being established with key customers, momentum and pressure will build up. They will push you to the next level. This can result in “growing pains,” which can be overcome by your willingness to adapt quickly to their needs. The end result will be an organization that is truly customer-centric and fully customer responsive. It will ensure you stay or become number one in your market.

Interesting!: New research shows male and female account managers take different paths to SAM success

By Tania Lennon, Global Space Lead, Talent Assessment and Leadership, ZS Associates, and Namita Powers, Principal, Customer Engagement Excellence, ZS

ZS has conducted extensive research into strategic account management success profiles. Using in-depth profiling, behavioral observations and manager reviews, ZS has identified critical competencies, skills and characteristics that drive high-performance outcomes in SAM roles, such as a shift in focus from achieving goals to achieving success and a more sophisticated approach that ZS identified in women account managers.

Men and women: Different paths to success

While there were some clear themes in the drivers of success for SAM roles, there were also some gender differences in how they achieved success. The graph highlights the key areas of difference between successful men and women SAMs.

Gender differences in how SAMx achieved success

Women SAMs demonstrated more sophisticated skills in three key areas important for success.

Shaping solutions.  Women SAMs were more prepared to adapt value propositions to align with customer needs. In some cases this involved adapting the way that the product or proposition was described so that it aligned with and reflected the espoused issues and concerns of customers (influence).  In other cases, SAMs adapted the proposition itself, whether by combining existing products and services in new ways or even co-creating new ideas with the customer. Women SAMs did this more often than men. 

Connecting with customers. Women SAMs demonstrated higher levels of customer insight than men. At a personal level they were more effective at tuning into the needs, drivers and aspirations of their customers.  At a business level, they picked up on customers’ levers of success in supporting them to achieve their goals. This aligns with other research (e.g., Woolley et al., 2010) showing that women have higher levels of social sensitivity than men.  This supports them in more readily grasping the underlying challenges and needs of their customers, both at a personal and business level.

Involving Colleagues.  Both men and women readily shared information with their colleagues about customers and accounts.  In addition, both sought input from peers from different functions,  knitting these together to reinforce the value proposition to customers.   However,  women tended to put more focus on creating and aligning cross-functional teams. They set out a clear vision for success and helped each team member feel engaged in delivering this vision.   As a consequence,  they were more likely to elicit unsolicited ideas and suggestions from colleagues to help them be successful with colleagues.   The ZS research found a similar theme with women front-line managers,  where they showed a greater propensity to set out a vision and align team members around common goals.

Are these capabilities making a difference?

The comparative achievements of men and women in account management are difficult to track due the complexity and long-term nature of these roles.  However, data from the broader sales arena would suggest that the more sophisticated capabilities that ZS identified in women account managers are making a difference in results.

According to Xactly Insights, women-led sales teams achieve higher quota attainment. An Xactly Insights study of sales performance data showed that women achieve 8 percent higher quota attainment and earn a slightly higher commission rate but earn a lower base salary (86 percent of women and 78 percent of men achieved quota (2019).  Xactly data also shows that women-led sales teams are more gender-balanced (45 percent women vs. 24 percent women on male-led teams); they recruit and retain more women to work with them. ZS found that in the high performing populations of the organizations in their study, 55 percent were female versus 45 percent male.

The implications for SAM talent The ZS research underlines the vital capabilities and talent that women bring to the account manager role. These capabilities align with the direction of the market as it becomes more connected, complex and competitive. 

Why might women sales professionals be achieving better results?   From ZS’ perspective, there are three main reasons:

  1. Buyer needs are changing. Enabled by the internet, buyers are more informed and self-sufficient. Buyers want to work with salespeople who understand their business needs, who can provide tailored solutions and insights, and who create business value. As the ZS data shows, women are better attuned to understanding these needs than men.
  2. Customer engagement has become a team sport.  To meet changing buyer needs,  different roles must work together to create the best outcomes.  Skills in engaging and facilitating teams to meet these needs successfully therefore have a stronger influence on the outcomes achieved.  
  3. Customers are becoming more gender-balanced.  Organizations with a more diverse workforce provide superior service because they better understand customer needs (Wentling and Palmas-Rivas, 2000), are better at tapping into niche markets (Mueller, 1998) and diversified market segments (Fleury, 1999).   Women also tend to stay longer in role (CEB Global), enabling the continuity of relationships that many customers value, in addition to their higher level of concern with enabling the success of their customers.

For much more on ZS’s research, be sure to check out the May issue of Velocity magazine, SAMA’s quarterly membership magazine.

Crafting the right sales message for every customer-supplier situation

By Nicolas Zimmerman, Editor-in-Chief, SAMA

To challenge or not to challenge? That is the question.

Ever since CEB published its seminal book, “The Challenger Sale,” the challenger paradigm has reigned supreme. It has been taken as gospel that the best way to win more deals is to disrupt the status quo by taking control of customer conversations and introducing new, provocative ideas. (On the other hand, SAMA has always considered the idea of “taking control” of your customer to be misguided at best, disastrous at worst.)

Corporate Visions has been at the vanguard of partnering with academics on research designed to test whether challenging actually does what it’s supposed to — and if so, under what conditions. In other words, challenging may work when you’re trying to convince a prospect to move business to you. But does challenging also work when you’re trying to convince existing customers to:

  • Stay with you?
  • Pay more for your products/services?
  • Do more business with you?
  • Forgive you for a lapse in service?

(Hint: The answer is NO.)

If you missed the SAMA/CVI next-practice symposium Feb. 12 in Chicago, first of all: Shame on you. But second of all: You’re in luck, because I’m going to lay out many of the key takeaways here. Read on…

Customer acquisition  ≠ customer expansion

Why it’s important: The top 20% of your customers are responsible for 90% of your firm’s total customer lifetime value (CLV). Read that again. What this means is that if you’re creating messaging for your existing customers that’s identical to your messaging for winning new business, you’d better be EXTREMELY confident that it’s a winning formula.

(Hint: It’s not.)

CVI set out to test this. Their hypothesis: That a challenging message designed to disrupt a customer’s status quo is a losing formula when you ARE the status quo.

The test: CVI built a test designed to pit two messaging “models” (i.e., a specific sequence of information delivered in a specific order) against each other to see which fared better for a hypothetical scenario faced by strategic account managers all the time: renewal with existing customers.

The message delivered to the test subjects came in two flavors:

  • “Why change?” This classic challenging posture aims to push a prospect to move its business to you by creating uncertainty through: 
    • Introducing new-to-them needs, problems and opportunities
    • Calling attention to the limitations of their current approach
    • Drawing a clear contrast between business-as-usual and your new approach
    • Showing a clear before vs. after, illustrating the benefit of making a change
  • “Why stay?” This messaging model leans into your current status as the incumbent by:
    • Documenting your past results, calling attention to what you’ve already achieved together
    • Reviewing the rigorous decision-making process that went into selecting you as a supplier in the first place. You want to plant the seed of regret at the thought of unwinding such a thorough process.
    • Sparking fear that by changing suppliers, all that progress will either stall or disappear. Be sure to remind them of all the investment they’ve already made into your relationship — which will have been wasted if they move their business elsewhere
    • Close with the “cool” new stuff you want to do with them to stay in front of anticipated challenges and opportunities

The results: The “Why stay?” messaging yielded 10% higher favorability than “Why change?” Test subjects said they were 13% more likely to renew after hearing this message and 11% less likely to switch.

Says Tim Reisterer, Chief Strategy Officer with CVI: “They need to hear they’re on the right, secure path and that you’re someone they can count on — not someone who’s going to come in and disrupt. By provoking your customer, you open them up to other potential customers.”

The conclusion: When renewing business, you want to leverage your position as the incumbent by leaning into and reinforcing the status quo.

Check out “When Challenging Backfires” for so much more on this piece of CVI’s research.

Why pay more

Existing customers are the lifeblood of our business. But we don’t just want them to stay. We need them to stay and pay more for all the value we’re delivering. No one likes this conversation, but considering how (a) important and (b) unpleasant the conversation can be, is there an ideal way to ask for a price increase?

(Hint: There is.)

The hypothesis: Armed with what they learned above (“Why change?” vs. “Why stay?”), CVI set out to test which messaging model fares better when suppliers request a price increase.

The test: CVI offered a similar hypothetical renewal scenario, with a four percent price increase, to see which model yielded the best results. As an added wrinkle, CVI tested whether there is any difference between (a) asking directly for the desired increase or (b) presenting a higher price increase and then offering a time-sensitive (e.g., “Renew within 30 days”) or loyalty discount.

The result: The “Why stay?” messaging model, which is built around reinforcing the existing status quo, absolutely kills the Challenger-oriented, “Why change?” message. It resulted in 19% higher favorability, 16% greater likelihood of renewal and a 16% drop in likelihood to change suppliers.

In other words, this status quo-reinforcing message fares even better when asking for a price increase than when asking for a price-neutral contract renewal.

What’s more, anchoring the message with an initial high-price “ask” with a timed or loyalty discount outperformed the “straight ask.” Interesting, right?

But it also makes sense. We’ve all bought something we might not otherwise have bought because we’re subconsciously influenced by seeing the “SALE” price versus the full retail price. It works in B2B too, but only if there’s a rationale behind the discount, e.g., it is only for existing customers.

(One important note: By far the worst-performing message was one that blamed the price increase on supply-chain costs. Says Tim: “Don’t do it.”)


Of course, we don’t want to just maintain the status quo with our most important customers. We want and need to actually grow our business with them. So what’s the best message for convincing an existing customer to not just stick with us but to evolve alongside us?

The hypothesis: that a hybrid messaging model — one that combines a focus on your existing partnership with one that leverages your insider knowledge of the customer business and your vantage point as an industry leader — would outperform both the “Why change?” and the “Why stay?” messages.

(You guessed it. It did.)

CVI proposed a hypothetical cross-selling/upselling scenario and tested three messaging models: “Why change?,” “Why stay?” and the hybrid message, which they constructed like this:

Corporate Visions, February 2020

The results were decisive. Test subjects rated the hybrid message 10% more convincing and reported being 13% more willing to make an upgrade and 16% more willing to make a purchase. (The “Why change?” model finished second.) But why?

Prof. Nick Lee, who partnered with CVI to design the research, says it comes down to a basic human instinct: “As humans, we’re driven to reciprocate. When people give us pleasure or they give us pain, we are driven to reciprocate.”

The “pleasure” in this case is the supplier combining its insider customer knowledge, industry expertise and  work with other, similar customers to outline challenges and opportunities the strategic customer may be missing out on — and then offering prescriptive solutions. The supplier, Lee warns, has to thread the needle by making the case for change without driving the customer to look at your competitors.

 “You risk overplaying your hand and encouraging the customer to look at all options — in which case, you’ve thrown out your incumbent advantage.”

Critical note: Do not wait until right before your contract ends to initiate this conversation. If you wait until then to start giving your customer a “Why evolve?” message, then you have created a critical – and sometimes fatal – messaging gap.

Says Erik Peterson, Corporate Visions’ CEO and co-author of the new book The Expansion Sale: “When you create a messaging void, who do you think is filling it? Competitors, partners and analysts. And what kind of message are they offering? Generally, it’s ‘Why change?’ If you cede this empty space to your competition, by the time you re-engage with your customer, the competition may have reset their thinking.”

There’s so much more to the book, and I can’t recommend it highly enough for anyone working with strategic customers — whether in sales, marketing or management. You can purchase “The Expansion Salehere. 

Want to learn directly from Tim? He will deliver a keynote presentation at SAMA’s 2020 Annual Conference May 18-20 in San Diego. See speakers, sessions and special events here.

You *MIGHT* be a SAM/KAM….

By Harvey Dunham, Managing Director of Strategy, SAMA

With more than 30 years working with strategic accounts at Schneider Electric, I know first-hand that few jobs in the world are as misunderstood as that of a strategic or key account manager. People think of you as the ones who “make the big bucks” without the stress of making quotas, the ones who put their customers’ needs above their own company’s.

They also assume you were born clairvoyant, omniscient and all-powerful. No pressure, right?

Even though Schneider is one of the longest-running members of the SAMA community, I was 20 years into my career before I attended my first SAMA event.

My first reaction was: “Why didn’t I do this sooner?”

I remember having conversations on the sidelines with complete strangers (many of whom I now consider close friends and even colleagues) that yielded nuggets I immediately put to use with my own customers. It’s a powerful experience.

But what I remember most vividly is how soothing it was to finally – at last! – be surrounded by hundreds of people who “get it.” Working as a strategic or key account manager can be lonely — and that’s what makes being a part of the SAMA community such a powerful experience.

In honor of that feeling of community, and in anticipation of our upcoming Annual Conference and Pan-European Conference, I present to you my own personal top-10, “You MIGHT be a SAM…”

If you have a company car, but you only use it for driving to the airport….

If you have far more people working for your customer initiatives than your boss has direct reports – even though you have no official direct reports…

If your best years involve an audit from Finance “just to make sure” you’re not fluffing your results…

If your magic power is being yelled at by your customer’s CEO and your own CEO at the same time

If you spend dull meetings mentally calculating how many weeks it’s going to take you to recover from jet lag…

If your own spouse and kids are on a first-name basis with your main customer contacts…

If you’ve got more swag with your customer’s logo on it than your own company’s…

If your meetings bring together more of your customer’s big players than their own meetings do…

If you catch yourself calculating bar tabs in your customer’s home currency…

Then you might…just possibly…be a strategic/key/global account manager.

Yearly rewind (and a look ahead) from the desk of SAMA’s CEO

By Denise Freier, President & CEO, SAMA

It’s hard to believe, but the holidays are nearly here. I always find it useful to look back at the year that’s passed and — more importantly — what’s ahead in the year to follow. It’s easy to forget the past year’s accomplishments amid the excitement of what’s to come, and I want to be sure SAMA is providing the insights and knowledge you need. With that in mind, I’m pleased to have a chance to do a little bit of both in this space…a quick look backward and forward.

A look back

#1. We put into words what we believe is SAMA’s entire reason for being: To equip our customers (i.e., you) with the tools, insights and knowledge you need to become indispensable to your customers. I’ve found these words incredibly helpful for clarifying our mission and ensuring our offerings meet this expectation. If we can help you become indispensable to your customers, then the business results will follow.

#2: We added 23 member companies 96 individual members to the SAMA community. This is extremely important to the insights and value we offer you.  Our community comprises, without exaggeration, the smartest, most forward-thinking B2B companies in the world, and we leverage their knowledge and expertise to synthesize and disseminate best and next practices in strategic customer management. Our strength is truly in our members, and every new company we add brings fresh potential for ideas.

#3: In 2019 SAMA minted 65 new Certified Strategic Account Managers. Not only have these exceptional SAMs invested in themselves by becoming certified, but they have transformed themselves into role models within their organizations and evangelists for the SAM approach to customer management.

#4: We developed partnerships with like-minded providers in France, Germany and Brazil. Why is this important to you? Because this will allow us to expand our ability to deliver training and thought leadership in these critical regions, further spreading the cause of strategic account management.

#5: We launched The Facilitator, a tool enabled by a process that we developed to help our customers make better strategic account selection decisions. We have had 11 engagements to date, and the results so far have been tremendous. (More on this in 2020!)

A look ahead

So what larger trends and challenges is SAMA looking at for 2020 and beyond? Keep in mind, it’s still 2019 — so this agenda can and will change. But here are five topics SAMA is looking at for the year ahead, and we think you should be too.

#1: Bulletproofing the SAM program against cost cutting. With talk of recession (shhh!  Don’t say that too often), SAM programs need to do all they can NOW to prove their value. Once you’re under pressure — whether from activist investors, a hyperactive CFO or just your Board — it’s already too late. You need to trumpet your success stories internally, continue to build the SAM brand within your organization and use the voice of the customer to demonstrate the value of the SAM approach.

#2: Customer success management is all the rage. What does it mean for strategic account managers? We believe it simply reinforces the fundamental wisdom and necessity of the SAM approach, which revolves around understanding customer pain points and value drivers, connecting them with their own internal capabilities, organizing and aligning an ecosystem capable of solving customer challenges, and then quantifying the co-created value in terms of the customer’s own metrics. It is a trend we are actively monitoring.

#3: Countering the “what now?” phenomenon. In other words, once you’ve set up your program, begun working differently with your most strategic customers and institutionalized the SAM approach across the organization, where do you go from there? Uncovering ways to unlock additional innovation and efficiency for mature SAM programs will feature prominently on the SAMA 2020 agenda.

#4: Understanding and optimizing the entire ecosystem of support around the strategic account manager. Today’s SAM is blessed with a myriad of tools in her arsenal, from digital marketing and customer success to inside sales and advanced analytics. We will be looking to make headway into understanding (a) what’s the optimal team construction and (b) how to upskill the SAM to ensure he’s able to properly leverage all these complementary skills.

#5: Technology supporting the SAM. As I mentioned earlier, we rolled out a new process-enabled tool to help customers make better, more objective decisions around whom to partner with. We also published a special issue of Velocity dedicated specifically to highlighting tools designed to enable the customer value co-creation process. We surveyed many of you earlier in the year, and one big takeaway is that our customers are looking to us to bring to the table tools that support both the SAM and the SAM organization. So this will undoubtedly be a prime focus for us in the year ahead.

Enjoy the holiday season!  Take stock in your accomplishments, and let’s all anticipate greatness in the new year.