A big part of running any business is looking after your customers and ensuring they’re satisfied with your product or service. However, some clients are inevitably more valuable than others. With strategic account management, you can give these most important customers the tailored service they need.
In this article, you’ll learn what strategic account management is, how to use it in your sales organization and the skills needed to manage and upsell your biggest accounts.
Strategic account management is a specialized approach to building and nurturing high-value customer relationships, with the goal of increasing both customer satisfaction and overall revenue.
By identifying the customers who have the biggest impact on growth, you can work alongside them to create mutually beneficial partnerships. By offering a best-in-class customer experience and support, your clients are more likely to reach their goals. In return, you’re more likely to hit your revenue targets or other key objectives.
Building these business relationships involves thoroughly understanding your client’s industry, identifying opportunities for collaboration and aligning your offer with the client’s goals.
A strategic account manager (SAM) serves as the primary point of contact between you and your clients. They ensure the business delivers a world-class service that meets (or exceeds) the customer needs and expectations. By working closely with internal teams such as sales, marketing and customer service, the SAM can develop tailored strategies for each account.
Implementing strategic account management takes up additional resources, but it has significant benefits (when done correctly). By actively building strong customer relations and delivering above expectations, SAMs improve customer retention and increase revenue.
While the account management definition can cover a broad range of clients, strategic account management specifically targets a small number of high-value clients who have the most growth potential.
In contrast to the one-size-fits-all approach of traditional sales, strategic account management develops customized plans for each key account, taking into consideration their unique needs and objectives.
Strategic account management requires a significant investment of time and effort from both SAMs and other internal teams. Ensure you get a good return on your investment by following these best practices.
If you categorize the majority of your accounts as strategic, you’ll spread your resources too thin. Without sufficient resources, you won’t be able to give any clients the extra attention or value they need. As a result, properly identifying and categorizing your accounts is an essential first step.
Assess your client base and determine which existing accounts have the greatest potential for growth and long-term value. The exact criteria will depend on your specific company goals but will typically include:
Revenue potential. Clients that represent a significant portion of your current or future revenue.
Market influence. Clients who are industry leaders or have the potential to become market disruptors.
Relationship strength. Clients with whom you have an existing strong relationship or have otherwise demonstrated a high level of trust and collaboration.
Strategic fit. Clients whose goals and objectives align well with your company's offerings and capabilities.
Once you have identified your strategic accounts, look for shared commonalities that you can use to segment them.
For example, your strategic accounts might share characteristics such as:
A SAM could then be dedicated to the top accounts in a category, so they can deepen their understanding of that specific market and increase their expertise.
The overall goal of strategic account management is simple: building relationships and increasing revenue. However, you’ll need more detailed objectives along the way.
In line with the SMART goal-setting methodology, your sales goals should be:
When it comes to relevancy in particular, any strategic account goals should be aligned with both your company’s and the account’s overall strategies.
Examples of smart goals for strategic accounts include:
Revenue growth targets. Within the next 12 months, increase account revenue by $25,000.
Market share expansion. Capture 5% of market share in the real estate segment by the end of the quarter.
Product adoption. Increase cross-sell rate by 20% over the next six months.
Customer satisfaction. Have a customer satisfaction score of over 85% for each strategic account by the end of the month.
By setting clear goals and objectives, you maintain focus and ensure your strategic account management efforts are driving tangible results.
While you should classify and categorize your accounts, you are still dealing with individuals. You’ll likely end up talking to multiple contacts within each account, including end users, buyers, C-suite and other decision-makers.
Each one will have their own unique set of challenges, goals and requirements. As a SAM, you need to understand these nuances and develop customized solutions to address them.
Start by conducting a thorough account analysis. Learn everything you can about the client’s industry, competitors and relevant market trends. What specific challenges does your client face? What are their biggest pain points?
Next, look at your existing products and services. How could you adjust them to better meet your account’s needs?
For example, a software company specializing in healthcare solutions might discover that one of its strategic accounts needs to track patient wait times in their facilities. To address this need, the SAM might work with the internal product team to create a new software module that integrates with the client’s existing tech.
By taking a tailored approach, you can demonstrate a deep understanding of your client's business and provide greater value, leading to stronger, more enduring partnerships.
Trust and credibility are the cornerstones of successful strategic account management, but they won’t appear overnight. Like any good relationship, you need to communicate regularly with your strategic accounts.
Keeping in contact means you’ll build rapport and be in a better position to offer guidance. Without regular communication, you’re more likely to miss out on opportunities, potentially damaging your reputation as a trusted advisor.
Don’t leave these conversations to chance. Establish a structured communication plan with regular follow-ups, progress updates and opportunities for feedback.
At the same time, you don’t have to wait for a scheduled check-in to talk to your clients. If one of your strategic accounts drops you a message, respond promptly. Better yet, anticipate potential issues and proactively reach out to address them.
For example, if you learn about a new set of regulations that will affect your accounts, drop them a message to confirm you’re aware of the situation and that you’re working on a plan on their behalf.
The key is to develop a genuine interest in your strategic customers and their business. If you’re purely motivated by self-interest, it will be obvious to your clients. Instead, take the time to understand your client’s business. If they face challenges, help them overcome them.
If they get a big win, celebrate with them. Show by your words and actions that you’re truly invested in the relationship and delivering a positive outcome.
Generating results from your strategic account management efforts won’t happen overnight. Without a way to track your progress, it’s easy to stall and miss out on the long-term benefits.
This ties back to the goals and objectives you’ve already established. If you’ve followed best practices and made them measurable, you’ll already know what sales metrics and key performance indicators (KPIs) you need to track.
Examples of KPIs include:
Customer satisfaction scores
Product adoption rates
Customer retention rates
Once you’ve identified your metrics, you need a way to track them. With customer relationship management (CRM) software, you can monitor KPIs and view account progress.
For example, Pipedrive offers real-time sales reporting with visual reports and custom sales dashboards, so you can see your account performance at a glance.
Schedule periodic reviews on a monthly, quarterly and annual basis (depending on the nature of your goals and the client’s preferences). Monthly reviews will help you keep your finger on the pulse, gauging the health of the relationship and highlighting any potential issues.
Quarterly reviews enable you to spot recurring obstacles and new opportunities. In your annual meetings, you can look back at the big picture, reviewing any long-term trends and patterns while collecting feedback from your clients.
By diligently tracking progress and adjusting your strategies based on data-driven insights, your strategic account management efforts will remain agile and responsive to your key clients’ changing needs.
While knowing the practical steps and best practices for strategic account management is important, you’ll also need the right skills to execute your plan. By developing the following skills and competencies, you’ll be able to effectively manage your strategic accounts.
Sales communication may seem like a straightforward activity, but it’s still an important sales skill that you need to develop and practice to get the best results.
As a SAM, you must convey your message but also actively listen to your client’s needs and concerns. Active listening means being fully present in the conversation and giving your full attention to the client. One way to do this is by using open-ended questions that encourage deeper conversations.
For example, asking a client, “Is our service currently meeting your organization’s needs?” will get you a simple yes or no response. In contrast, an open-ended question such as “In what ways could we improve our service to better meet your organization’s needs?” requires a more thoughtful answer.
The client is more likely to share their thoughts and give specific examples of ways you provide a better service, revealing potential opportunities that would otherwise have gone unnoticed.
SAMs must be able to address challenges and find creative ways to meet their client’s unique needs. Coming up with a tailored solution will often require working with internal teams and using their different skill sets to find the right solution.
As you face more complex scenarios and requests, you’ll often need to employ critical thinking. By being open to new ideas and adjusting your strategies as needed, you’ll be more likely to find the solution that addresses the root cause of the problem.
Rather than jumping to conclusions, gather all the necessary information and make a carefully-considered decision that takes into account your client’s unique circumstances.
For example, if you are the SAM for an HR company and a client’s employees aren’t productive, developing an employee engagement program might seem like an obvious solution. However, by carefully analyzing the situation and reviewing the current management practices, you’re more likely to uncover the root cause and core issues, enabling you to provide a more effective solution.
Although SAMs will normally handle a small number of accounts, you’ll still need to choose how you spend your time carefully to give those clients the VIP treatment.
To balance competing demands and ensure that you’re focusing on the most critical tasks, have clear goals with realistic deadlines in place. Identify the exact steps you’ll need to take (and when) to reach those goals. Use this information to plan out your daily activities.
One popular time-management technique is time blocking, where you break down your day into smaller units of time. Planning out your work this way makes it easier to see what you should be doing at any given time, helping you focus on what’s important while avoiding multi-tasking or any other distractions.
Regularly review how you’re spending your time and assess whether you’re reaching your goals. If there never seems to be enough time in the day or you’re not making enough progress, you likely need to adjust your priorities and either delegate or reduce other activities.
While both customer success and account management roles look to build relationships with customers, SAMs are also responsible for increasing revenue (usually through contract renewal or cross-sell and upsell opportunities). To get the best possible outcome, SAMs need strong sales and negotiation skills.
Use what you’ve learned about your client to see where their needs align with your company’s solutions. Once you’ve spotted these possibilities, develop persuasive arguments that demonstrate the value of your proposals.
Remember, this isn’t about getting a sale at any cost. If the client doesn’t see the benefits or feels like you’ve pressured them into buying additional products, they won’t renew their contract. Rather, use your sales negotiation skills to ensure both parties come away feeling like they’ve benefited.
Knowing how to analyze your account’s metrics and other sources of sales data enables you to make smarter decisions. Taking a data-driven approach allows SAMs to identify positive patterns as well as potential issues.
For example, by looking at your client’s historical sales data, you can analyze the effectiveness of previous campaigns and identify opportunities for growth. Looking at the account’s operational data can uncover possibilities for improved efficiencies and optimized processes.
Account metrics also help you identify any accounts that may be in danger of churning so you can take appropriate action. On the other hand, being able to point out the positive results you’ve got for your clients with quantitative data will likely improve customer satisfaction and increase the chances of contract renewal.
Strategic account planning gives you a comprehensive roadmap for nurturing key customers and growing your client relationships. While every account is unique and requires a tailored approach, this template will help you get started and ensure you address all the key components of an effective account management plan.
Begin your strategic account management plan by providing an overview of the account, including essential background information and a list of key stakeholders.
Duration of partnership:
(Repeat for additional stakeholders as needed)
Conduct a SWOT analysis to evaluate the account’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats. This analysis will help you understand the account’s unique challenges and identify areas for potential growth.
What are the account’s key assets and advantages? This could be current market share, brand reputation, product portfolio or anything else that gives them a competitive edge.
What are the account’s primary challenges or limitations? For example, are they facing limited resources, a weak supply chain or increased competition?
What are the potential areas for growth or collaboration? Are they able to expand the range of products or services they offer, either directly or through a partnership?
What external factors could negatively impact the account’s performance? Will economic conditions or regulatory changes lead to higher costs or reduced profits?
Establish short-term and long-term goals and objectives for the account, using the SMART goal-setting methodology. Ideally, these will align with both the account’s objectives and your business’s overall goals.
(Repeat for additional goals/objectives as needed)
Develop a detailed action plan outlining the specific actions you will employ to achieve the above goals and objectives. For each action, describe the specific tactics and strategies you intend to use, along with a clear deadline to complete the task and the responsible team member.
Action item 1
Responsible team member(s):
Action item 2
Responsible team member(s):
(Repeat for additional action items as needed)
Decide how you’ll monitor and measure the success of your strategic account management plan. Include how you’ll track progress, how often you’ll review performance and how you’ll communicate that progress to your account.
Internal review participants:
Client update frequency:
The best SAMs are always looking for ways to improve. With the right account management resources, you’ll be able to develop your skills further, stay up-to-date on the latest trends and enhance your overall effectiveness.
If you like to learn from the written word, there are plenty of account management books worth reading. For strategic account management, consider picking up one or more of the following:
The Seven Keys to Managing Strategic Accounts, by Sallie Sherman, Joseph Sperry and Samuel Reese
Major Account Sales Strategy, by Neil Rackham
The New Successful Large Account Management, by Robert B. Miller, Stephen E. Heiman and Tad Tuleja
For additional resources, the Strategic Account Management Association (SAMA) regularly hosts webinars, conferences and other events dedicated to strategic account management. Their website also includes additional training, with a Certified Strategic Account Manager (CSAM) program.
There are other training programs available. Queen’s University currently runs a free six-week course in strategic account management, available through the edX platform. The course covers different sales processes, frameworks and skill sets used by SAMs, as well as guidance on implementing the right sales strategy.
RAIN sales training also offers an in-depth strategic account management course. Modules include growing strategic accounts, account research and strengthening relationships. Each section serves as a self-contained topic, with classroom sessions, assignments and coaching.
Strategic account management is a big investment, but with the right skills and proper planning, it’s a worthwhile one. Having a dedicated SAM who’s actively building strategic relationships with your most important clients and pursuing new initiatives within those accounts can transform your business and dramatically increase revenue.
Often, the biggest challenge is working out which accounts to focus on. While accounts are commonly picked for revenue potential, that’s not the only reason. Take the time to think carefully about your business’s long-term goals, then see which clients are most likely to help you reach those objectives.
By finding clients whose goals align with yours, you’ll naturally build stronger relationships and create a genuine win-win scenario for both parties.
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