Sales and Marketing

Master of Sales: 4 Things You Can Learn From Strategic Account Managers

strategic account manager

Fred Jamieson has only one client and is a very successful strategic account manager for a large communications company. In my early years at IBM, I also had one large client, and it made my career.

While having one client is a lot of leverage for Fred, reps from smaller companies may have one or many clients also; the learning points from dealing with one mega client and about client service and revenue growth are exactly the same for all sales reps. Infrequently though, the wisdom of the single client account rep is rarely shared to benefit of all sales reps. Here they are the key points, rule by rule.

  1. The Product Works as Promised

Whether you have one or many clients, each client expects that your product or service, and any supplemental services you provide, all work as promised. This, very basic benefit of the bargain, is often not a reality. Truly, things can go wrong that are not your doing, but a lot of sales behaviors are formative in the variance between what is represented and the actual performance of the product/service. For example, as a rep, you may know that your product will perform weakly on the client’s desired application, but you puff your way to getting the order signed. Shoot your right foot. Puffing does not make a product work. You probably lose the client.

When you sign an order with your one client, you must ensure that it’s the best choice for them. If there is any question of some less than stellar performance, you may, as part of a large company, have the product/service modified to work as promised. Barring that, if you want to retain the client, you will cement the relationship by recommending a competitor’s product. If your management does not understand this principle, you may have a political problem that requires your attention: losing one order for the sake of many has to be made clear to your manager.

Also read: 4 Ways to Build a Sales Relationship

  1. Performance Benchmarks Deserve Frequent Evaluation

Products/Services often need servicing during the course of their use. With your one or your most important clients, the dates of the review of service and performance histories should be negotiated. While most companies promote such a review as quarterly or twice a year, a very important client may need a shorter interval between performance reviews; your products/services may be a new buy for the client, and to support her or his job stability, a monthly review of service performance may be necessary. As time goes on, that interval may stretch as you prove the quality of your product and service responses.

The important sales principle to remember is that you have to earn the right to be the biggest supplier to a strategic account. The performance review allows you to earn the right. While such reviews are labor intensive for many people on your side, it is up to you to keep your people focused on the expandability of the account, which can only be done by educating and negotiating with your own team.

Also read: Master of Sales: Leadership in a Price Sensitive Market

  1. Clients Exit for Small Annoyances

In the run up to cracking a large account, you probably have had to demonstrate your products/services in many ways: on site trials, references from other strategic accounts, objective industry evaluations and more. As a result, it’s unusual for a product/service to fail in a big way after that much inspection, although I have seen just plain defective products do that. Yes, the customer may cancel, but the more usual reason for a key client to stop doing business with you is a litany of small annoyances. People remember small annoyances just like you do as a consumer: a slow response to a question, an executive not checking in when they said they would, a mistake in billing or a cranky or a disinterested seeming person who answered the phone/email/text. Most importantly, you cannot win back a key client when they exit for a list of annoyances for at least 2 years or longer. And sometimes, never.

  1. Know the Client’s Business

This should be Rule #1 because you won’t get in the door without knowing the client’s business. In a more serious vein, however, once you are a major supplier to a key client, it is up to you to know as much as possible about their business as possible. If your client attends a particular trade association or conference, you should attend. You need to read, research and interview all key stakeholders in the account to ascertain their business goals and strategy, changes in personnel, changes in the organizational structure, some from mergers, acquisitions, spin offs, and new product planning and more. In a publicly traded client company, you should also be reading 10Ks and Qs. As a strategic account manager, it is your job to know as much about your client as humanly possible and never reveal sensitive, confidential or non-public information to anyone. In fact, many key clients require that you sign a confidentiality agreement. Consider yourself on the same team. Act like it.

Reputations are made by dealing with one mega client. With that much professional leverage, the opposite is also true. The lessons learned from large client management apply to all types of sales, no matter how many clients you have. Unfortunately, only a few people ever get to manage one large account. If you are new in sales, learn from the people that manage one client; ask to travel with them if feasible, talk with them about how they handle certain situations and problems. You will be well served.

Cross Industry Learning Points

  • Strategic account reps who work with one client exhibit common behaviors. They are curious, collaborative, detailed oriented problem solvers who are not afraid to talk to all stakeholders in a purchase decision and anyone else from the CEO on down. As a result, they are reliable forecasters of future revenues and margins.
  • People who manage one account are experts at managing their own company. They negotiate what they need using objective data and framing positions with financial outcomes balanced by costs to their own company.
  • IF you are a manager of a strategic account rep or reps, think of your big clients as a portfolio of investments. Spend a lot of time with the client and all of the stakeholders to the buying decision, as well as the C suite executives of the company. You will learn of those petty annoyances that only you may be able to remedy, as well as reinforcing your position as a very important supplier. You never want to receive the unhappy news of a client cancellation second hand; you want to be able to offset such a result in your portfolio.

About the Author

Chris Filip is a business development expert improving revenue and gross margin results for B2B and professional services firms. She is an active speaker, published author and media commentator on all aspects of competitive strategy.