Before we look at specific companies' approaches to alignment, let's consider why it is so difficult to gain organizational commitment to an account management strategy. When we create organizations, we tend to reflect our humanity. Organizations, like people, tend to be inherently selfish. We—and our firms—tend to worry most about how things affect us directly, how we can be recognized, and how we can avoid frustration and confusion. It is, therefore, often more important for us to please our boss, who directly determines our raises, rather than pleasing the customer, whom we may never see. Because of those priorities, it is sometimes easier for us to see account requests as nuisances.
We tend to prefer predictability over change, so we create processes to make things more predictable. And, anyway, companies are always trying some new management program or strategy. Many employees believe that if they keep their head down long enough, account management, like other programs, will just blow away, until it gets replaced by some new program, which will also blow away. Many employees undoubtedly wish that their CEO would stop reading management books.
There is some exaggeration here, but not much. Alignment's first challenge is getting executives from many departments to create the common vision, which ideally speaks to a firm's largest customer relationships. Creating this vision requires strong dialog skills, something often lacking in management teams. The team requires strong trust among the team members so people can safely and productively disagree. It requires that management focus as much on the process of working together to create a vision as they do on the task itself. And because few management teams function this effectively, great visions that generate enthusiasm and commitment are hard to come by. Great visions require hard work and soul searching, but the payoff in terms of organizational performance is huge.
Once a company communicates the vision, its second challenge is permeating that message throughout the company and translating that vision into specific tasks. Vision builders need to present why the firm has chosen the vision so employees become committed to that direction. It's the most challenging kind of sale—one that asks people to do their work differently and to reframe their definitions of "account" and "success."
The company must reinforce its commitment to that vision again and again, a vigilant reinforcement that is exceedingly tough. One firm we know actually started measuring the amounts of time executives spent visiting and speaking to customers. Other firms recognize people for their commitment to the vision. Several of these firms have extra-mile clubs, in which employees receive recognition and sometimes prizes for having gone the extra mile in helping customers. These employees see to it that their company tracks down a strategic account order, solves a problem, or answers a question in a timely manner.
Implementing the vision requires creativity, internal sales skills, high levels of accountability, the right accounts, and constant reinforcement. Each of these items requires tremendous self-and organizational discipline, a particularly challenging requirement at a time when a firm's short-term bottom line can rule. In too many firms, "the urgent drives out the important."  We have seen companies in which one executive destroyed great visions and relationships by making a short-term resources decision with a strategic account. Consider the sales executive who scrapped long-term program goals by offering huge incentive bonuses for exceeding one quarter's sales forecast. Strategic account management was essentially put on hold, customer relationships weakened as it became increasingly difficult to reach account executives, and the firm's commitment to the program withered.
Hamel, G. and C. K. Prahalad (1994). Competing for the Future: Breakthrough Strategies for Seizing Control of Your Industry and Creating the Markets of Tomorrow (p. 4). Cambridge: Harvard Business School Press.