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5 Ways Strategic Account Management and Selling Are Different

Account Management and Selling Are Different in These 5 Ways

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Written by Mike Schultz
President, RAIN Group

Ask the question, “What needs to happen at your company to maximize your success with your strategic accounts?” and you’re likely to get answers like this:

  • Account managers need to know about the value we can bring them besides what we’re doing for them right now.
  • We need to penetrate different divisions of the accounts.
  • Our relationships need to be deeper if we want to keep competitors out.
  • We need to work directly with decision makers at the enterprise level.

Nice list, but not unique to account management.

Indeed, the answers tend to be the same as those to the question, “What would you like your salespeople to do more of?"

Company leaders often ask the question, look at this list, and decide, “Okay – looks like we need sales training. Let’s put something on the agenda.”

This is a mistake.

While on their face, many of the outcomes of strategic account management and sales are the same (e.g. higher revenue, higher margins, longer contracts, deeper penetration, more mindshare, stronger relationships) and some of the concepts are the same, the paths to get there can be quite different. Before we get into these differences, let's define account management.

What is Account Management?

5 Ways Account Management and Sales Are Different

Category Sales Strategic Account Management (SAM)
1. Strategy Narrow focus on creating and capturing specific opportunities

Broader focus on creating value for account over and above specific opportunities, often including value co-creation, customer satisfaction improvement, rigorous application of company resources, and operational and structural alignment with account direction and needs

2. Timeframe Pressure to focus on shorter-term Focus on longer-term
3. Team Typically individuals or smaller teams form ad hoc to win opportunities Mix of dedicated strategic account managers and fluid extended teams focus on execution of account strategy
4. Labels

Similar concepts are often labeled differently:

  • “Needs discovery” conversations in sales become “facilitated strategy sessions,” “working meetings,” and “value creation sessions” in SAM
  • While each organization is different, and many service organizations don’t have “sales” titles, labels of team members are typically “sales” oriented in sales roles whereas SAM labels are client-oriented and often operational
  • “Capability” discussions and updates in sales become “deep dive” strategy and alignment discussions in SAM
5. Connotation in Minds of Buyer Buyers can be defensive and wary when dealing with sales; sellers must overcome Buyers often more open to trust quickly, share openly, and work collaboratively

Indeed, while they can share similar measures and language, if you look closely at selling and strategic account management, they’re not the same.

Questions to Develop a Strategic Account Plan

  • If we were to invest time and energy into working with our clients to collaborate on their success and the value we can create together, what might that yield?
  • Where are the pockets of opportunity for creating and delivering more value at this strategic account with our current buyers?
  • Where are the pockets of opportunity for creating and delivering more value at this strategic account with new buying centers?
  • What are the resources we need, and what do we need to do, to unseat a competitor vying for our business in this account?
  • Are we as embedded as we could be in this account? What would it look like if we were? Why would the customer want us to work with them even more deeply?
  • What should we do over the next 18 months to strengthen our standing in the account?
  • What should our goals be for this account?
  • Along with delivering the maximum value to this account, how can we make sure they see that value in its entirety?
  • Are we sure our account plan is as strong and as tight as it should be? What are we missing?

While some of these questions are not dissimilar to selling, there’s quite a different skill set required to make sure these questions are answered, and answered properly, by strategic account management teams.

And this is just a brief list of example questions for working with a single account.

Other questions must be answered to maximize the success of strategic account management as a system and part of the culture at your company.

  • What constitutes a strategic account?
  • What should our strategic account management priorities be?
  • What do we need to change at our company to ensure the success of strategic account management implementation?

At most organizations, even if the sales team is in charge of strategic account management, answering these big picture questions properly requires augmentation of the typical sales strategy and execution skill sets.

While it doesn’t happen everywhere, it happens often enough that companies equate “strategic account management” with “selling.” When they do, they don’t ask the right questions, and don’t build the right skills.

And they don’t get the results they should.


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Last Updated March 13, 2023

Topics: Strategic Account Management