Once strategic account management begins, it usually takes 3 to 12 months to understand the targeted customers' business challenges well enough to co-create value and sell strategic solutions. This is not to say you won't increase sales in the short term, but the real opportunity is to play big.
We know one strategic account manager at an energy-control firm who spent a good year learning the business of a large brewery. At the end of that time, she could discuss beer making with the master brewers and, through those discussions, she uncovered several processes that could achieve significant cost-savings with more efficient power usage. After she identified those opportunities, she worked with her internal manufacturing people to design and create the power-management control devices the brewery required. The account manager, then armed with a proposal that included cost and quantified value offered, approached the brewery decision makers, who quickly accepted her proposal.
Consider this supplier's selling situation: no RFPs and no competitors. A dedicated and determined account manager generated a custom solution that she knew met the customer's payback requirements. A committed and coordinated manufacturing group then delivered that solution. In most key account selling programs we know, the salesperson would not have been given this much time to produce results at an individual account. Strategic account management takes the longer view and, depending on the skills of the account manager, offers the greater payoff over time.
One reason the role of account managers can be so exciting and so challenging is that they have to know both the customer's business and their business in great depth. That takes time and persistence. When helping account managers take inventory of their account knowledge, we often use a five-page, 80-question self-test, focusing on:
The customer's organization.
The customer's suppliers.
The customer's customers.
The customer's competitors.
The customer's joint venture and alliance partners.
Your competitors for this account.
Answered carefully, the questions can generate opportunities for creative customer solutions. The self-test provides strategic account managers with the in-depth customer knowledge they need to produce long-term, high-payoff initiatives.
Let us now look at two firms that successfully implemented strategic account management as a business initiative: Honeywell Industrial Automation and Control Solutions and Minnesota Power.