Step One: Identify critical strategic account management performance needs within the context of the sales and account management processes.
Step Two: Identify and speak to noncompetitive firms that have successfully implemented technology solutions for their strategic account management programs.
Step Three: Filter—which of the identified strategic account management performance needs identified in step one could best be met by technology?
Step Four: Assess the technology-readiness of both the strategic account managers and anyone else who will be using the system.
Step Five: Develop and support tech-based solutions.
Step Six: Implementation-pilot, then rollout.
Step Seven: Review and revise tools.
To determine the best tools for the job, it is critical that your firm conduct a thorough needs analysis, working through its sales and account management processes to determine performance needs of the strategic account management group. This needs analysis must also provide a list of how account management team members are currently meeting those needs. This is hands-down the best place to start, although, in our experience, it is not a common starting place. A surprising number of firms assume they already know what their strategic account management team members could use. Time and again, though, we have seen that, if the CRM system does not speak directly to their needs, strategic account team members will ignore their laptops or do just enough work on the system to keep management off their backs. This is not irresponsibility on their part; indeed, assuming the system really doesn't help, it is the height of responsibility.
Getting the strategic account team members' buy-in for any sort of automation that impacts them is as important as getting cross-functional buy-in for the strategic account management program. We said earlier that the best a VP of strategic accounts can sometimes hope for is to serve on the committee that selects the CRM system and its functional uses. We strongly suggest that the VP of strategic Accounts lobby for this position because if there is no one on the committee speaking for strategic accounts, only luck will allow strategic account managers and their team members to get anything they need. Whoever does the CRM needs analysis must be able to listen carefully to what the account management people say they need and then translate those needs into tools.
You can usually learn a great deal about implementing CRM and other strategic account management tools by speaking to those who have already done it. Ask your vendors for the names of firms that have successfully implemented their product and then do your own search for other noncompetitive firms on the Internet, at conferences, and in print. Look for firms that have a salesforce similar to yours. Ask those firms what they would do differently if they were to implement such tools again and, ideally, how they handled some of your company's needs. Six weeks of research here can save years of lost opportunity costs.
Here is a step too often left out. When systems people conduct a needs analysis, they tend to see automation as a solution, even when it is inappropriate. Automation is what IT folks do. In too many systems implementations, bad processes get automated, which results in employees making bad decisions that much faster. At the same time, a CRM system cannot help with performance needs caused by poor compensation design, lack of training, or unrealistic account assignments, all challenges previously mentioned.
Someone—usually outside the IT department—needs to ask questions carefully about where to spend system-development dollars. In too many cases, IT folks, unable to downshift their technical vocabulary, smack into sales executives who have a limited tolerance for techno-babble, and the critical filter question can get answered by the IT people alone. When that happens, strategic account managers can find themselves hampered by a system that was supposed to help them. We recall one firm, hip-deep in putting together design specifications for its CRM system, which could see that the system was not going to meet some of the most critical strategic account manager needs. The firm's VP of strategic accounts then bought business intelligence software, which allowed the account managers to pull data and generate reports from most of the firm's other systems. To the strategic account managers, these were the most critical needs.
In too many cases, systems developers tend to treat system users as the single most flexible part of the system, an error that can—and usually does—have huge negative repercussions. An employee with no past experience with technology, who is uncomfortable with computers, or who finds it very difficult to change work habits, will not view a new system with delight.
Training and documentation . . . are rungs, which, left out of the implementation ladder, can lead to a nasty fall.
Seldom have we seen systems developers conduct any sort of technology-readiness assessment to determine how comfortable the targeted users are with automation. This kind of assessment should answer questions such as: How technology-savvy are the system's potential users? How technology-savvy is the firm within which the system will operate? How technology-ready are the strategic account managers? If your firm's account managers are all middle-aged and depend on their children to help them with computers (as does one of our authors), they will need hands-on training when the company rolls out the system. We know a consultant who spent years helping organizations write, evaluate, and analyze requests for proposals regarding systems implementations. He told us that he never saw a proposal for a system implementation that hadn't underestimated the time the process would take and that hadn't underfunded the training and documentation side of the implementation. These are rungs, which, left out of the implementation ladder, can lead to a nasty fall.
So far, the firm in our example has identified the critical performance issues, identified which of those issues technology can best solve, and determined the technological-readiness of the targeted users. Now it is time to develop the tech-based solutions. Such solutions may or may not be part of a CRM system, but all relate back to the firm's and users' needs. Lately we have seen collaborative web-based Internet tools that allow SAMs to collaborate in ways never before possible. Sophisticated databases can also track and mine massive amounts of relationship information. And firms—such as Holland Hitch and Boise Office Solutions—use that data to create performance baselines for their customers, developing a competitive advantage in the process. Without having gone through those first three steps, though, resources could easily be diverted to develop solutions that should not be tech-based or that might be very different if the user's computer readiness had been considered.
The role of strategic account leadership here is to make sure their firm applies resources to some of the tools required by account managers. Recall our earlier suggestion: executives in strategic account management programs should attend and participate in systems project-review meetings to make sure that the people purchasing and developing the technology address their needs. As we've said, unless strategic account management is vigorous in defending its needs, CRM solutions will typically be geared at the firm's larger salesforces.
Unless strategic account management is vigorous in defending its needs, CRM solutions will typically be geared at the firm's larger sales forces.
Second, we suggest that directors not wait until the end of systems development to state needs or make requests. The further along the systems-development process is, the more expensive it is to make changes. Systems people may sometimes be difficult to interact with, but it will be much more difficult for strategic account managers to work with a system whose design had little or no input from them.
To support those solutions, a firm that fails to invest in training and support for systems will pay for the lack of them. Hidden costs are costs nonetheless.
. . . a firm that fails to invest in training and support for systems will pay for the lack of them.
These paragraphs could be the thesis for another book. It's enough to say that there are many sources about developing and supporting tech-based solutions.
Sadly, many systems implementations, after a study of system-design specifications, start here, and many even skip the pilot. When this happens, the SAM suddenly finds himself with a program that has been thrust upon him. Is it any wonder that strategic account managers have sometimes resisted technology?
Getting the strategic account managers' blessing is critical when a system offers them solutions. It seems obvious, but very few firms conduct these sorts of needs and technology-readiness assessments. Nor have they implemented systems in waves—setting up pilots that generate system improvements before full rollout. Ideally, a firm might take a small cross-section of SAMs and team members to help identify the system's kinks. It's much easier to deal with system problems before many people start using it.
Once the firm rolls out the system to all users, it needs to systematically collect user feedback to make changes on an ongoing basis. Few things are more dispiriting than facing a system that makes the same mistake day after day. If users are not technology-oriented, they may blame themselves for the errors, which can lead to much lengthier and more expensive implementations.
These are the seven steps we have seen organizations take in successful systems implementations. They are certainly not the only way to have such success, but they provide a picture many firms lack when they invest in systems.
Let's examine an excellent example of a firm that successfully implemented a communication system to support strategic account management—UPS and its LINK program.