We continue our journey through strategic account management by examining the best practices in coaching strategic account managers. Because these are positions that require distinctly different skills from sales reps and sales managers, it makes sense that the areas of coaching focus will likewise be separate from your typical sales coaching and training approaches.
- Coach to communication skills.
The single most important skillset to have as a strategic account manager is communication. You can know processes inside out, you can rattle off everything about a client from memory, you can conduct the most insightful review ever, and you can still fail as an account manager if you don’t know how to communicate effectively with your clients. In fact, if you’re just building your strategic account division, one option worth pursuing is to make your best communicators your initial managers and work on building up the other skillsets later. That’s how essential communication is to this position.
Naturally, it’s important to make sure account managers have a firm grasp of the primary communication styles. Coach them in how to identify what mix of communication styles they themselves use and the ones that key stakeholders in their client organizations use. Reinforce communicating in the styles that are most comfortable for each person they’re collaborating with (strategic account management is, after all, a partnership – even more than sales).
Part of this, too, is recognizing contact length and cadence preferences. While the cadence is dictated by the terms of the account management plan, it’s helpful to learn the preferred frequency and type of outreach (phone, face-to-face, email, text, Zoom, etc.). Regarding length, some people will prefer short, succinct messages. Others, faced with a comparatively brief message, might be upset at what they perceive as missing information and respond requesting more details or further elaboration.
Formatting can also be a part of communication preferences as well, even if we don’t think of it that way. In the TV show The Wire, Major Rawls informs McNulty that when writing up a report of cases, he should, “Put a little dot next to each one. The deputy likes dots.” A hilarious line and scene, but also true that some clients will prefer bullet points.
Incidentally, that scene also highlights the importance of using a client’s language. While you might know dots as bullet points (the technical term), if a client refers to them as dots, you’ll want to mirror their language and also refer to bullet points as dots when communicating with them.
- See the overall strategic picture.
Next to communication, the ability to keep in mind the overall strategic view is arguably the second most important skill for a strategic account manager to master. A subset of this is having analytical skills. An analytical manager will be able to surmise where clients are in their business and financial sequence and be able to identify when an opportunity exists for adding more business from that account.
To expand on the larger picture idea, adopting that mindset involves being able to hunt for new opportunities and contacts and assess the viability of new potential strategic accounts. It means to always be moving forward – networking and identifying and anticipating buying needs based on a variety of market factors, such as the economy, competitors, acquisitions and mergers, etc. so it’s not just about pursuing the next contract – it’s examining things from the perspective of current clients, potential partners, the industries they’re involved in, the bigger picture of regional, national, and global business conditions, the mindset and behaviors of clients’ own buyers and consumers, etc.
Additionally, a strategic account manager should also be able to perform risk analysis. In previous eras, that primarily meant looking closely at a client’s financial statements and overall trendlines, studying the effect of regulatory changes, etc. – exercises in review and reaction. This is still a vital step to take – the old chestnut about past performance predictive of future performance.
But increasingly, risk analysis is becoming about anticipating potential negative outcomes, their probability of occurrence, and how to react to those events should they come to pass. Being able to do this successfully involves a strategic account manager not only knowing about their clients and said clients’ industries, but being aware of the overall economic, political, and social climate. Thus, while no one anticipated the current pandemic happening when it did, the most analytical business professionals have likely given some thought to what would happen if one broke out at some point, what the effects could be, and how they might respond to it.
As you’ve probably gleaned from the above example, the forward-thinking elements involved in a big picture strategic view also require the use of imagination. Being able to envision all these possible scenarios, their consequences, and the counters to those consequences require the ability to imagine them and to think creatively about how to deal with them. While this is applicable to virtually any business situation, it’s especially important for strategic account managers.
To sum this point in a pithy phrase: Know the current situation and what the future scenarios might be.
- Perfect the process.
In order for a strategic account manager to be as successful as possible, they’ll also need to understand processes. From your organization’s end, that means knowing the process and cadence for servicing and growing accounts. This includes, but isn’t limited to things like knowing how to onboard new clients, what departments and people to contact for specific issues, how to align your offerings to newly discovered needs as the relationship develops, etc.
After all, if a strategic account manager is skilled in communication and analytical but doesn’t know the processes, they’ll develop relationships and create opportunities, but then potentially cause significant delays in carrying out the job duties – which can hurt the relationship or cause the client to start looking for a provider who is swifter on the ball.
This also applies to understanding client processes such as knowing who are the key people to cultivate relationships with, how does each client make decisions, where the client is in their business life cycle, when they’ll launch new products or services of their own, what inefficiencies or gaps are present in a client’s processes that could represent opportunities for business growth, etc.
The best strategic account managers will thoroughly know both your own processes and those of each of their clients – to both deliver excellent customer service and create or identify opportunities for more business. And naturally, each client is going to have a different set of processes, so it’s vital for the account manager to know how each client’s process differs.
- Step into a service mindset.
While strategic account managers have the endgame of growing the business with existing accounts – and consequently have selling skills – that’s merely the final goal. It’s the culmination of hours upon hours of hard work. The bulk of that hard work comes in the form of customer service. So while sales is the objective, service is the methodology that gets a strategic account manager to that destination.
Therefore think first and foremost about how you can build and strengthen relationships with the key stakeholders in your portfolio. In particular, figure out how you can provide service beyond what’s expected, and how that can help you eventually parlay that into growing the account.
- Act authentically and as a trusted advisor.
In addition to all of the above qualities, it’s important for strategic account managers to conduct themselves sincerely and authentically in dealing with their clients – acting as a Trusted Advisor in a consultative capacity. While this is important for all sales professionals, it is perhaps even more so for strategic account managers.
After all, these are accounts that have already been won. Yes, the goal of SAM is to grow the account and generate even more revenue, but this is a service role as much as it is a sales one (as indicated in the previous point). It’s the opportunity and point at which strategic account managers not only fulfill the promises of the original sales negotiation, but go above and beyond those initial promises – thereby demonstrating the capacity, willingness, and drive to deliver added value.
Cultivating, developing, and mastering these essential traits and habits will in turn help strategic account managers be the best they are capable of. Communication, strategy, and service are the three core elements of the role, and becoming an expert in all three can lead to highly profitable, mutually beneficial relationships that result in success for both the manager’s organization and the clients being served.