Customer success 2.0? Sounds a lot like SAM.

By Bernard Quancard

President & CEO


I recently came across an article in the January 2018 McKinsey Quarterly titled “Introducing Customer Success 2.0: The New Growth Engine.” I am pleased to say that McKinsey & Co.’s view of managing customers differently completely aligns with SAMA’s view of strategic account management. Welcome aboard!

McKinsey reports that companies — especially in the software industry — are increasingly turning to so-called customer success managers (CSMs) to be their companies’ most powerful assets in coordinating internal resources to make their customers successful and fuel organic growth.

The CSM role is not new. As the McKinsey article details, software companies established the function in the mid-2000s to take a more proactive approach to customer retention as they moved to a more subscription-based business model. What IS new, according to McKinsey, is that many high-tech companies are now looking to their CSMs not only to reduce customer churn but also to be a catalyst for growth.

“By artfully drawing on a CSM’s intimate customer knowledge,” the piece states, “companies can surface opportunities to provide relevant solutions and expand customer value.”

This sounds an awful lot like the animating principle of strategic account management.

The similarities don’t stop here. McKinsey proposes five critical elements of “customer success 2.0,” which you can see in this chart below:

These are all critical components of SAMA’s organizational enablers, which our work with hundreds of the world’s most sophisticated SAM companies identifies as the most critical components of a successful SAM initiative. Again, I am happy to see SAMA’s work validated by the business management experts at McKinsey.

Although SAMA has focused the bulk of its efforts on perfecting a process for co-creating value with a company’s most strategic customers, we also push the idea of imbuing the entire organization with the principals of customer-centricity. One way of doing this is by leveraging the SAM mindset by taking best practices that originate there and migrating them to customers outside the SAM program.

For just one example of this, read my interview with former Zurich Insurance Global Corporate CEO Thomas Hurlimann, under whose watch Zurich built a program to leverage best practices developed inside the SAM program. Zurich created a new segment, just below strategic accounts, of large and/or important accounts and assigned a “part-time SAM” to service them. These part-timers came from the ranks of Zurich’s absolute best product people, who volunteered to service one or two accounts in this segment in addition to their day jobs.

The initiative, Hurlimann told me, has been a huge success — in part because it injects the philosophy of customer-centricity into the larger organization. “In their day jobs doing a product job, these people realize, ‘Wow, I actually need to change the way I work and always have the customer in mind,” Hurlimann said. “When they play the SAM role, they realize how important it is to work as a team.”

McKinsey devotes a great deal of ink to both the importance and difficulty of identifying the right talent to fill the role of customer success manager. They talk about knowledge of advanced analytics and digital tools, but, more importantly, they identify the criticality of having the ability to derive, from deep strategic customer understanding, the critical insights that will co-create value for both parties.

Would you care to guess which trait SAMA has identified — through its years of benchmarking with the most advanced SAM companies in the world — as the most strongly correlated with SAM success? It’s strategic thinking. As SAMA’s Senior Knowledge Content Developer wrote in last year’s “Customer Value Co-Creation: Powering the Future through Strategic Relationship Management”:

“Both an attribute and a skill, strategic thinking is essential in account planning and many other SAM activities in order to connect the dots between knowledge of the customer and knowledge of one’s own company. Strategic thinking may be the most important asset to a SAM, though one of the least understood.”

Is McKinsey passing off as new thought leadership wisdom that’s been known to the SAMA community for the past 20 years? Is your company leveraging learning developed in the SAM initiative and deploying it across your entire organization? I would love to hear your thoughts, either in the comments or in SAMA’s LinkedIn group.

5 predictions for the future of strategic account management

Delivered at SAMA’s 2017 Annual Conference in National Harbor, Md., watch as Francis Gouillart, President and Co-Founder of Experience Co-Creation Partnership (ECC Partnership) lays out five bold predictions for the future of SAMs and the SAM profession.

Read more, join our mailing list and be kept current on the trends affecting strategic account management.

Three Awesome Tips to Improve your Client Relationships and Results

1. Spend more time thinking or executing on those higher-value activities with the client

This is where the give-to-get technique comes in. Think through your client needs. What aspects of your expertise are they missing? Where do they need to think about a new way of doing something? Where would they benefit from a new service you offer? What things should they be thinking about in six months that they aren’t thinking about now? With the give-to-get approach, you’re not trying to get married on the first date. Instead, you’re figuring out the next fun date you can go on. This has a much higher chance of acceptance and takes most of the pressure off you and your team. Once you’ve answered these questions, think about this: What two-hour working session could an expert from your company lead for the client – without extra charge – that would accomplish the following three things?

  • It’s relatively easy for you to prepare for and conduct the session.
  • The client would find it valuable and would be excited about it.
  • It would expose the client to the need for further exploration of the concept, thus leading to the next step.

Don’t focus on selling something to the client. Instead, worry about how you can be helpful to them. Tweet: Don’t focus on selling something to the client. Instead, worry about how you can be helpful to them. @SAMAtweet

If you do that, you’ll add value and create goodwill. And if the give-to-get idea is strong enough, you’ll elevate your relationships by getting higher-level clients involved with the meeting. For most of our clients’ industries, the give-to-get will lead to what we call a paid selling effort, i.e., a pilot or “test” rollout. The give-to-get concept should be designed to lead to the paid selling effort. And if the pilot goes well, the client will typically want to hire you for the entire additional solution, i.e., whatever your “Big Project” is.

Examples of Great Give-to-Gets:

Great give-to-gets vary by industry and service offering, but here are a few we’ve seen work very effectively:

Monthly new-idea meetings. Setting up monthly meetings geared toward the needs of the client and the ideas you want to expose them to, and including experts from your company, can set up what one of our clients calls “an annuity of goodwill.”

Training on a hot topic. Picking an area of expertise that your client wants to learn about that also creates exposure to new needs you can fulfill can be an awesome give-to-get. Billing the meeting as “training” can let you invite a larger number of people and elevate your relationships to higher levels.

No-cost analysis. Offering a detailed, technical analysis of a new process, service or strategic approach is a great way to help the client better understand what can and can’t be done with a new approach. Those who hold data have power and helping your client understand a complex financial scenario (with your data) can be very beneficial and can get the attention of those above your day-to-day contacts.

Networking. Introducing your client to people they’d like to meet can be a great give-to-get. It’s especially effective when you can introduce a client that is considering one of your service offerings to another client that is a raving fan of that service. Then, the prospective client will learn from the other client’s experiences, and they are likely to jointly talk about their success with the offering. Everyone wins in different ways.

Strategy setting. One of our large healthcare clients is rolling out a no charge strategy-setting process to their benefits department clients. This is especially helpful to the clients because they would typically have to pay hundreds of thousands of dollars for this process if they hired a major consulting firm. It’s helpful to the healthcare company because they can have a direct relationship with the decision makers and bypass the typical benefits-consultant community. By facilitating the strategy, the healthcare company will learn the needs and direction of their main buyer in a much deeper and more intimate way. This puts them in the driver’s seat to create demand.

Benchmarking. Another great give-to-get is benchmarking. We’ve had several clients collect data across their client base and play that data back to the clients that participated in the process. This activity positions SAMs as expert advisors. Helping the client understand the data can lead to all kinds of interesting discussions and demand-creation.”

SAMA Resource: Bunnell, Mo, A Different Approach to Winning Add-On Business and Retaining Accounts: Helping. Velocity®, Vol. 17, Issue 1, 2015.


2. Convey to the customer that there is a lot more opportunity for both of you than just buy-sell transactions.

Both sides have all sorts of different needs, priorities and stakeholders, each with different perspectives and expertise that need to be brought to the table. So the question becomes, how do we as the SAM and the SRM [Supplier Relationship Manager] come together to get the alignment in each of our organizations such that we’re working together more as strategic partners than as a vendor selling stuff to a customer who’s simply making a transactional purchase?

Set up a cadence for account management

What we’ve seen some of the best and most mature SAMs do is figure out a way to set up a cadence for their account management, though contract negotiations might be happening on an annual basis. What they’re doing is performing regular joint business reviews that don’t just look at their own individual supplier performance – i.e., “How well are we doing delivering what we agreed on?” – but look in a multifaceted way at how they’re delivering on the strategic objectives they had for this relationship; how they’re delivering the expected value; and how they’re doing in creating the kind of relationship together that enables the transfer of that value back and forth in an efficient and an effective sort of way.

These mature SAM organizations are demonstrating tremendous value through regular business reviews, and when negotiation time comes, there are no questions about the value they’ve provided. It’s about, “How can we deliver more of it?” And then they use that momentum to drive a level of joint business planning with the account and to jointly find more opportunities for collaborative innovation. Organizing in this way, and creating this sort of cadence activity, makes driving customer-supplier collaboration a systematic process rather than simply ad hoc one-offs.


3. When a sourcing department is acting as a gatekeeper, address the root cause of a customer’s resistance.

Sometimes you run into a procurement organization – and it’s usually a less sophisticated, less enlightened one – that sees its role as that of a gatekeeper. You could try to work around that group, though doing so carries its own risks and, ultimately, that is not the best approach. And realistically, you may indeed have some customers that are just not ready, willing or able to engage in a strategic partnership – at least not right now.

But often, when a SAM perceives that a sourcing department is acting as a gatekeeper, the sourcing people feel they’re guarding against what their supplier is trying to do. They say, “They’re talking about all the value they’re going to deliver, but they’re not willing to be held accountable.” A lot of times, that resistance on the customer side is, at root, a lack of trust between parties. And if that’s the case, you need to address the root cause. If there is initial resistance, it may have more to do with how they’ve felt taken advantage of in the past.

Don’t give up or get defensive. If you are really confident in your value proposition, put your money where your mouth is. Explore with your customer what kinds of KPIs and commercial terms you might jointly define and implement to increase their confidence that you can and will deliver the value that you’re promising.

SAMA Resource: Hughes, Jonathan and Chapnick, David, You Say You Want Collaboration? A Discussion with Vantage Partners of Key Trends in Customer-Supplier Partnerships. Velocity®, Vol. 18, Issue 1, 2016.