Solutions Selling: Four Key Steps to Develop the Accidental Account Manager

imagesOne of the keys of successful solutions selling in Develop the Accidental Account Manager is having experienced, well rounded talent in key sales roles. When it comes to managing your top accounts—the crown jewels of your customer base—the capabilities of the account managers will often be the single most important factor in hitting your account sales targets (and maybe even a company’s quarterly performance!).

I’ve been privileged to work with a wide range of account managers across a variety of industries and geographies, including well established blue-chip B2B firms such as AT&T, IBM, GE, Marriott and Dow Chemicals. As a result, I’ve concluded that there are basically two types of account managers/executives. The first group is highly seasoned and has gone through rigorous career development. These senior executives have been molded by countless sales training programs and workshops, and cleared all the required hurdles from entry-level field positions to a branch manager role and then up through the ranks to a top account management position. They have earned their badges the hard way as life-long professional sales executives with years of preparation and experience.

The Accidental Account Manager

The second group, however, has a much different profile. The account managers in this group tend to work at younger, fast growing technology, industrial and service companies. They are often put in an account management position more because of their technical and/or market expertise than their career sales experience. This group contains a different profile of roles, like SME’s – Subject Matter Experts – who can explain their company’s complex suite of solutions in a way that the customer can understand, or market experts who understand the specific geographic or industry segment in which their customer operates. Skills like this are very useful when understanding a customers solutions or market needs.accmanagers

The downside is that they don’t have years of fundamental sales experience, making them what I call in essence “Accidental Account Managers". This phenomenon can often create a gap in talent and experience that can hurt them in certain scenarios, such as:

  • Building relationships with top executives within the account
  • Negotiating key deals
  • Looking for new business opportunities inside the account
  • Managing change and adversity within the account (M&A activity, change in leadership, technological disruption, etc.

The knee-jerk reaction to this potentially hazardous skills gap is often --you guessed it -- more training! However, the right response is often more complicated and effective than an additional day or two in the classroom.

Four Critical Tools for Accidental Account Manager Skills Improvement

For these Accidental Account Managers, companies need to find an efficient and effective way to complement their strong content and subject matter expertise with important account management and solutions selling capabilities. Based on my experience, here are four key areas to focus on to shore up their talents:

  1. Make Sure They Have a Solid Solutions Selling Foundation – Yes, this means more training. It’s nearly impossible to be a strong account manager, and manage an internal account team as well as the all of the customer relationships, without having strong consultative skills. There are certain skill sets and behavioral changes that can best be developed in a training environment. A word of advice, however -- be thoughtful in terms of the type of training you deliver. The SME’s that are newer to account management should have the strong interpersonal skills that are the basis for successful solutions selling. What they often need, however, is much more contextual training and exercises. Consider leveraging their real-world experience in the account to build context-based role-plays and scenario activities. Better yet, involve real customers in the discussion and practice of important solutions and consultative selling skills.
  2. Focus on the Three P’s of the C-Suite – One of the blind spots that Accidental Account Managers develop is an imbalanced set of relationships inside the customer executive suite. Which are usually related to their subject matter or market expertise. Couple that with the fact that complex solutions often involve a wide range of senior level managers in the evaluation and decision-making process – and you have a gap. There are three key aspects of the executive suite that the Accidental Account Managers should research and become experts on in their accounts:a. People – Mapping and charting the executive roles, their styles, their approaches to management, their stated goals, etc.b. Power – Understanding the scope of an executive’s decisions, who works for them, who they answer to and what key projects they controlc. Politics – Understanding how decisions are really made, and how the internal game of influence is played. This is the trickiest of the three, but the most important to map. It includes identifying who influences key executives, who is ascending and who is descending in power, what are some of the longer-term personal strategies of key executives, etc.There are tools out there to help in this effort, starting with Hoover’s and LinkedIn, and then moving up through some of the more involved (and expensive) research resources.  But much of this information can be captured through more structured conversations inside the customer account.  In addition, you can glean a boatload about the account-related 3 P’s through discussions with your own implementation and service delivery staff who interact with key customer contacts on a regular basis.
  3. Shadowing and Mentoring – Although seemingly obvious, it is surprising how few mentoring programs I see in solutions selling and account talent development programs.  The key is to try and place your Accidental Account Manager with one of the life-long sales professionals we mentioned before – not to re-teach them on how to sell, but to expose them to the characteristics and traits of a seasoned professional. I often push these account managers to identify what they saw that was different in the approach of the senior team member compared to their day-to-day approach.  Once the have identified a few key differences, then they can map them back to a core set of consultative and solutions selling approaches, so they can help improve on those areas, and incorporate those new skills and techniques in their day-to-day account management.
  4. Create a Career Path – Embrace the role of the Accidental Account Manager by focusing on their potential for long-term success.  They were likely given the position because of their ability to decipher and interpret the components of one or more complex solutions or niche markets in a way that the key stakeholders within the account could understand.   Eventually, however, customers enter new markets and some solutions are “sunsetted” – that doesn’t mean, however, that you have to sunset the account manager.   Create a career path for them.  Like a seasoned, professional top account manager that may have passed through planned stages to reach their position, an Accidental Account Manager should have an individualized skill development plan, which may include a clear process for them to achieve new and different posts inside sales.  Embrace their role and continue to give them a path for success.

Think about your account managers.  Did any of them reach their positions as a result of their technical/market expertise?   Did they enter their account management role through the side door?  If you have some of them, remember our 4 keys to retain them and enhance their ability to grow your key accounts.

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