Creating joint solutions: The WHAT and the HOW of becoming and remaining relevant

By Phil Styrlund and James Robertson, The Summit Group

As a SAM, you are the orchestrator of co-creation as you align the assets of your firm with the priorities of your customer. Co-author Phil Styrlund will present a keynote on May 22 as part of SAMA’s 2019 Annual Conference (May 20-22 in Orlando, Fla.). In it, Phil will speak to the need for a heightened level of business and personal relevance in order to be able to influence people in all aspects of your life.

If relevance is the why, then this blog series on creating joint solutions with customers is the what and the how.  In it, Phil and his colleague James Robertson will provide a comprehensive overview of the critical components, approaches and roadmap to making co-creation a central part of the relationship with your strategic customers. This is part one of a four-part series.

Persistent, disruptive forces impacting profitable growth are intensifying and, as a result, companies in many industries face slower growth and accelerating commoditization of product and service margins.

Given marketplace complexity and dynamic shifts in how customers buy, traditional business models are threatened, and new strategies and capabilities for driving growth must be more intentionally developed. In this series of posts,  we will outline a pragmatic yet powerful framework for co-creating solutions with strategic customers.

Traditional sources of growth such as internal research and development of products and services, pricing, and branding — in other words, the capabilities within the firm’s direct control — remain important, but they are no longer sufficient to sustain growth. Increasingly, leading firms are engaging with customers and partners along their value chain to co-create new sources of value by deepening insights, aligning goals, developing joint solutions, leveraging mutual capabilities and executing together.


Figure 12: Sources of growth, both traditional/internal and new/external

Successful joint solution creation requires an iterative, non-prescriptive, collaborative operating system by integrating a framework, principles and tools, and distinguishing competencies that enable business alignment, customer-driven insights, collaborative relationship development and co-creation.

Companies should not underestimate the barriers to successfully developing joint solutions with customers. The legacy products, competencies, organizational structure, mindset and culture that enabled success in the past are likely to get in the way of collaboratively creating joint solutions and rethinking how value is created with customers. Creating joint solutions is a team sport. For many organizations, the level of collaboration and trust required — both with strategic customers as well as internally across the enterprise — is highly challenging. Yet the rewards for developing this capability can be substantial, with leading companies reporting growth at up to three times the market rate and double the progression of their business with other customers.

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The easy growth is over. As marketplace change accelerates, complexity increases, commoditization intensifies and technology disrupts previously successful business models, companies seek new strategies to invigorate and sustain profitable growth — to survive and thrive in this “new normal” environment. Considering the seismic shifts that continue to impact how companies go to market and grow, creating joint solutions with customers has emerged as arguably the most compelling and powerful strategy for companies to accelerate and sustain profitable growth.

Beyond accelerating and sustaining growth, creating joint solutions enables companies to:

  • Use the customer to guide, shape and accelerate company change and transformation. Possibly the “grandest why” is to leverage the customer as the central source of navigation for your company’s strategy and culture shift from “inside-out” to customer-driven.
  • Distinguish how they engage with customers, creating value through the co-creation process, not only by what they sell. Done right, co-creation is a differentiating competitive strategy that’s hard to imitate.
  • Elevate and sustain relevance by dialing up their agility to align with and collaboratively create solutions that impact their customers’ most critical clinical/technical, business and financial priorities, unmet needs and “CareAbouts.” Importantly, customer expectations are shifting fast — and there is little tolerance for “telling me what I already know” or not being highly relevant. 
  • Strengthen, expand and deepen strategic relationships, moving well beyond “preferred supplier” status to being seen as trusted co-innovators and business advisors.
  • Create and sustain mutual value beyond the product by developing new revenue streams, developing new business models, reducing costs and improving efficiencies. Paradoxically, leading companies find that as they create value beyond the core product, sales of core products and services increase.  Also, by quantifying and communicating value beyond the product, companies counter commoditization and price pressure. While price remains important, it need not be the only factor.
  • Innovate more effectively by bringing new-to-company ideas, capabilities and insights that result in new products, services and solutions.
  • Mitigate risks inherent in traditional innovation by reducing market access and demand uncertainty.
  • Accelerate entry into new markets.
  • Expand value and impact by replicating, cascading and scaling to other customers and new accounts.

As one respondent to the most recent SAMA “Report on Current Trends and Practices in Strategic Account Management” put it: “Only a true customer-focused approach that unites and aligns our company’s resources on co-value creation for both parties can differentiate us and sustain our growth in the medium to longer term. It’s also an approach that can dissolve internal barriers along the way, if strongly led by the CEO downwards.”

Ultimately, creating joint solutions is about increasing customer value and accelerating and sustaining profitable growth, which fuels the lifeblood of business. As compelling as the logic may be, though, creating joint solutions can be one of the toughest strategies to execute.

Creating joint solutions is the collaborative development and deployment of new products, services, solutions, processes and/or business models that impact mutually prioritized opportunities to create value, differentiation and profitable growth for the company, the company’s customers and the customer’s customer. 

Phil Styrlund is the founder and CEO of The Summit Group. James Robertson is the company’s president.

The four pillars of work a SAM must execute on to be successful

By Jerry Alderman



The world of strategic or key account management (SAM/KAM) is the growth area of sales, which makes sense given how technology is overtaking so much of the transactional sales space. With customers no longer in need of someone to educate them on products or services, they need salespeople who can step beyond the information available online by delivering real insights that help them solve real problems. Welcome to SAM.

SAM is new to many companies. In others, it is transforming from relationship management to becoming a true problem-solving resource. During this time of transformation there is no better resource than SAMA (Strategic Account Management Association). They have been at the center of the universe for all things related to SAM research, learning and networking for more than 50 years….before SAM was cool!

Over that time, SAMA has benchmarked hundreds of B2B companies to identify what the best SAMs do differently. Keep in mind: I’m not talking about all the critical SAM program elements like executive sponsorship, account selection, compensation and the like. I am talking about the actual nuts-and-bolts work that a SAM must do with his or her internal and customer teams to be successful.

Too often, I think SAMs and their managers can lose sight of the actual work that needs to take place in order to make a SAM successful. These are the “Tier One” work activities absolutely indispensable to doing the job right. Without mastering these, no SAM can successfully drive growth with and for their strategic customers.

The Four Pillars of Work a SAM Must Execute To Be Successful

  1. Developing account plans
  2. Working with customers on account plan development
  3. Implementing account plans
  4. Creating value solutions for key customers



Seems straightforward, right? It isn’t! I have had the privilege of facilitating workshops for SAMA’s SAMA Academy training curriculum as well as founding a company that builds software tools to enable SAM. Through this work, I’ve interacted with thousands of SAMs and reviewed more versions of account planning than I can remember. I’ve witnessed account planning tools that either don’t work the way they’re supposed to or don’t adequately encompass the real-life work of a SAM.

So let’s focus on each of the four pillars and what they actually mean. 

#1: Developing account plans. That there needs to be an account plan is something, I think, every SAM I’ve ever met understands. The danger here is that the account plan becomes far more geared towards management than for the SAM. With SAM, it not about how many leads go into the top of the funnel and how many deals come out the bottom, but rather about how many customer challenges go into the top and how many solutions come out the bottom.

I think we could learn something from the general idea of a “sales process,” insofar as the work of a SAM is an ongoing process — not a static plan. Someday the overwhelming catch-all vernacular of the “account plan” will morph into “account process,” but not today.

#2: Working with customers on account plan development. There is not a SAM out there who does not talk to his or her customer; they all do. But the talking IS the problem insofar as too many SAMs are talking when they should be listening and understanding. This listening mindset is hard to achieve.

In the SAMA Academy workshop my company facilitates with Adrian Davis (of Whetstone), we talk about becoming a part of the customers so-called tribe. The point here is that if you are not aligned with and helping with your customer’s objectives and challenges, then you are not part of their tribe. And when the chips are down, the Tribe will band together and you’ll be kicked aside. Needless to say, this is not where you want to be as a SAM.  I think a test here is one of transparency. Do you openly share your plan with your customer, and does the plan reflect that you are part of their tribe?

#3: Implementing account plans. This is where the wheels start to come off. Ideally, the SAM should be able to tell anyone who asks, “This year we tackled 10 significant customer challenges, completed six, two are underway, and the other two are still being considered or canceled.” That is the mark of good activity tracking. The next level would include quantified customer results, such as, These solved challenges yielded $1 million of customer benefit. And after that, the efforts helped us to increase our share in Product X yielding Y revenue and Z profit.” Come time for the next customer negotiation, the SAM would bring several years of this data to the table. And when that time comes when the SAM’s CEO or BU president questions the need for an expensive sales resource, the answer is right there in the implementation data.

#4: Creating value solutions for key customers. This point is somewhat like #2 except deeper, more active and game changing. In our SAMA course, we use “The Hero’s Journey” to make this point. The Hero’s Journey is a framework for the path that all good adventures follow, the same one that George Lucas uses to tell the Star Wars stories. In The Hero’s Journey the customer is the hero. Point one is to get the SAM to realize that he or she is not the hero of the story. The customer is. In this scenario, the role of the SAM is to be the helper/mentor who brings the special weapon that allows the customer/hero to overcome great obstacles and move on to transformation and success. To extend the Star Wars example, the SAM isn’t Luke Skywalker. The customer is. The SAM here stars as Obi Won or Yoda. On this point the SAM or his coach needs to look at the customer plan and ask whether they are really working to bring the customer that secret weapon they need to become the hero.

The primary questions a SAM needs to be able to answer, rendered in my shorthand are:

  • Do I understand the customer’s challenges? If I shared them with the customer right now, would they agree?
  • Do I have ideas on how I might solve those challenges? Some of those ideas might be somewhat tactical, as that’s getting me into the customer tribe. Hopefully some of my ideas approach the “special weapons” category. Is there rigor put into describing, quantifying and prioritizing these ideas?
  • Am I clear with my customer and internally on which ideas we are executing?  And, just as importantly, on those we are not? Is there commitment on both sides to execute?
  • And finally, do I have an account plan that embodies these critical points? Does it help me stay on track with my work of understanding challenges, generating ideas and executing?

If your SAMs have the discipline, mindset and capability to use these four questions as a guide, then they will be successful in advancing the business for both you and your customer. Once again, this work is about putting customer challenges into the top of the funnel and getting solutions to come out the bottom.

A Couple Points of Common Confusion…

#1: SAM is not the same as BIG DEAL manager

Unfortunately, there is a class of SAMs out there whose companies treat them as BIG DEAL managers. I’m not saying having someone manage big deals is not important. It is. But it is not the core work of a SAM. Big deals arise from the work of SAM outlined above, but the SAM role should not revolve around managing the big deal.

#2: Account Plans That Don’t Reflect a SAMs Job

There is also a contingent out there who believes that a SAMs job is significantly defined by their ability to produce: relationship maps, SWOT analysis, product penetration, customer profitability, competitive analysis, meeting dates, tasks, deals, contracts, crazy scores, etc. Sure all of these concepts are important and certainly are part of a plan. But they are also mostly internal and significantly secondary to the four work activities you want a SAM to tackle with their customers first thing in the morning.

So a word of advice: Be excellent on the four work activities that lead to success and be good enough on all of these other points that can choke a good SAM. On the other hand, don’t be fooled by a SAM who is amazing at filling in 60 pages of boxes but struggles to work with a live customer to solve real business problems. 

Jerry Alderman is the co-founder and CEO of Valkre, a cloud software developer that builds SAM/KAM enabling systems to help companies compete on value. If you like what you’ve just read, consider attending CORE 0, a foundational course for strategic account managers at an upcoming SAMA Academy training event. You can see the full schedule, course descriptions and more here

When Challenging the Customer Backfires

By Nick Lee, Professor of Marketing, Warwick Business School and Tim Riesterer, Chief Strategy and Research Officer, Corporate Visions

Challenging or provoking your customer has become all the rage due to popular books and magazine articles.  In fact, our own decision science-based research demonstrates that when you are trying to displace an incumbent or defeat a competitor, you need to use an approach that deliberately disrupts your prospect’s status quo bias.

But new customer acquisition isn’t the only selling situation strategic account managers face — far from it. Most times, you are the incumbent, which begs the question: Should you continue to challenge and disrupt the status quo when you are the status quo?

That question drove our recent research aimed at determining the best messaging approach to communicate a price increase while also securing the all-important contract renewal with an existing customer.

Interestingly, we discovered that the challenging, provocative approach — which fared so well in the “why change” selling situation — didn’t hold up when it came to securing renewals and communicating a price increase.

In fact, the challenging approach appears to backfire in existing customer-selling simulations – making existing customers more likely to switch and less likely to renew – compared to a messaging approach that reinforces the causes of status quo bias.

We’ll take a detailed look at this research and provide a practical messaging framework to use in renewal and price increase conversations that has been shown to significantly outperform the challenging approach.

“I want you to renew, and I need you to pay more.”

No matter how you spin it, this message is one of the most delicate that SAMs will ever have to communicate to customers. But, for companies with aggressive growth goals who need to get more value from their top accounts, it’s also one of the most essential.

We conducted a survey to understand how customers are handling these conversations today. The survey found that nearly two-thirds of B2B professionals believe price increases are “very important” or “mission critical” for maintaining desired profitability and revenue growth. And yet, almost 70 percent of companies in our survey say their success rate is “50-50” or worse in terms of how their price increase messaging is received by customers.

With this in mind, we set out to get answers to the following question: What is the most effective message for communicating a price increase?

The experiment we developed was structured to assess three areas critical to the effectiveness and reception of a renewal price increase message:

  • Positive or negative attitudes
  • How likely a customer is to renew
  • How likely they are to switch to a competitor

To begin, we recruited participants to take part in an online experiment where participants were instructed to imagine that they ran a small business and that two years ago they had taken steps to improve employee satisfaction and retention rates to stem high turnover. Participants were further instructed to imagine that they, as business owners, had signed a two-year contract with a vendor to help promote the company’s health and wellness program for employees — with the hope that increasing employee participation would increase employee satisfaction and reduce turnover.

The two-year contract was nearing its conclusion, and it was time to renew with that vendor or choose an alternative. Participants were told they’d recently met with some of the other providers. These providers had all made improvements and introduced new capabilities, and while some of the improvements were appealing, nothing really stood out. In addition, pricing appeared to be similar to what they were already paying. However, the current vendor partner is now asking for a price increase for the next two-year agreement.

But here’s what participants didn’t know: They were divided randomly into six groups and placed into different message conditions, each of which took a different approach to framing the price increase. Importantly, in each condition, the message opened by documenting the business results to date, and all of them proposed the same four percent rate of increase to the annual cost of the program.

The six approaches are described in the table.

Screen Shot 2019-01-24 at 10.55.50 AM.pngThe Results

The experiment revealed that the challenging, provocation-based message that introduced an unconsidered need was the least effective in terms of communicating a renewal price increase by a statistically significant margin.

Participants in the challenging condition were found to have:

  • 18.8 percent less favorable attitudes toward the message, compared to participants in the new capabilities with timed discount condition, which performed the best in this regard.

In addition, participants in the challenging-based message were:

  • 15.5 percent less likely to renew with their current vendor, compared to participants in the new capabilities with time discount condition, the highest performing message in this area.
  • 16.3 percent more likely to switch to another vendor, relative to participants in the status quo bias reinforcement condition, which performed the best in this measure.

The results reveal that the winning messaging framework embodies two things:

  1. It will reinforce the status quo biases while introducing key, new capabilities to solve existing needs – not introduce new needs.
  2. It will also anchor high with the new price, before giving a timed, loyalty discount to sign the renewal.


There’s an appropriate time to challenge your buyers—it’s just not when you’re trying to renew them and convince them to pay more. The results of the study are clear and compelling, and it’s rare to see such strong and consistent results across such a large sample audience and so many different conditions and categories of measurement.

Above all, the findings serve as confirmation that communicating with prospects and customers across the buying lifecycle isn’t a one-size-fits-all thing. While a disruptive message plays well when you’re trying to defeat the status quo bias and displace an incumbent, it shouldn’t be applied universally—no matter how popular the approach might be.


International sales: Getting to know your customer through the lens of culture

By Ray Cavanagh

Global Accounts Senior Program Manager, Kronos

Jesse Rowell

Managing Director of Global Mobility and Market Development, Aperian Global

Some research has shown that the majority of buyers prefer to interact with suppliers through virtual means – primarily email and some type of voice call. And though the handshake is not dead (roughly a quarter of respondents included it among their preferences), buyers overwhelmingly prefer being contacted by email and phone. These results demonstrate the importance of making sure what is “said” in writing or voicemail is well thought out and articulated clearly.

Being thoughtful and clear in every virtual setting can be a challenge even in our most comfortable work settings. But imagine the added complexity when working with people from other cultures and countries.

In this day and age, cultural diversity is all around us. Our personal and professional environments have dramatically shifted. Many employees work virtually now, adding to already diversified workplaces, and if you are a sales executive who has customers with global operations and workforces, you are constantly engaging in a global setting. Furthermore, the world is a melting pot of cultures, and chances are you meet people from other countries all the time. For example, that doctor at the walk-in clinic you visited last week, where is she from? The person next to you on the flight home, what is his background? The point is this: We live in an age where there is more global exposure and perspective than ever, and it infuses all aspects of our lives.

How one conducts business can also be vastly different from country to country and from culture to culture. If you are in a role that is selling and managing client relationships, you will increasingly find yourself working with people from different cultures. One does not need to be a global business traveler to have frequent cross-cultural interactions. Thus, any heightened awareness of your customer’s working style can only benefit you.

Let’s say for example that you work domestically in the U.S. and that you never travel abroad for business, and, in fact, do all of your work virtually. But you have just been introduced to your new contact at ACME Pharmaceuticals. You learn she lives in New Jersey, but she is from France and is on a long-term assignment in the U.S. What assumptions might you make about her that would influence how you communicate and build a selling relationship? Well, without knowing her personal working style, if she’s told you she’s from France and this is her first time in the U.S. for work, you can generally assume a few things that are likely true of her personal working style. The GlobeSmart Profile Cultural Work Style Inventory graph below shows a work style comparison between a typical U.S. American-born worker and a French one.

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What do you notice right away? The typical U.S. American and French worker cultures are pretty similar in how they communicate – both typically pretty direct. But the other cultural dimensions have some fairly  large gaps. And though you may not know your new contact’s personal profile, you can assume that she shares more traits with her own culture than with yours.
Looking at the Risk vs. Certainty dimension, what might this gap mean in terms of your expectation of a sales cycle? People from France tend to be more risk-averse than U.S. Americans, so you may need to alter a few things in your typical approach when corresponding with her. For example, you come to learn how people from France take assess risks and realize that the following may impact the budget and buy-in needed to agree to your proposal:

• The amount of background research and data needed in order to agree to a project

• The degree of consensus-building required before making a final decision

• The value placed on efficiency and speed vs. security and stability

Knowing this, you might state upfront that you do not wish her to consider your proposal until she and her team have everything they need to carefully review it. You might also tailor your communication to be a bit more formal and take more time getting to know her before asking for a commitment. These subtle changes just may convince her that you understand her position better than most (certainly better than most American vendors with whom she has spoken). With your credibility enhanced, the account and business has a better chance to thrive.

We refer to this as style switching. It is also a way to know your customer through the lens of culture. One definition of style switching  is adapting your style to that of your audience to achieve your desired results. Seems simple, right? But how do you do this when you are faced with multiple cultures? Can you even determine what culture an individual represents? Perhaps they are of Asian heritage but were born and raised in Europe. How do you determine what cultural perspective that individual has? The most effective method is to get them to open up about their background and work journey simply by asking probing questions. When working in virtual environments with electronic communication, it is more important than ever to do research on your audience.

Given all of the challenges we have outlined in identifying a person’s style, much less that of an audience, it is even more daunting in our ever-changing world of electronic communication. As noted earlier, technology continues to transform the workplace, and there is increasing attention paid to how we leverage that technology in our work. Because the use of online collaboration tools has substantially reduced direct, face-to-face contact, understanding someone’s cultural orientation is now more challenging than ever.

The good news is that social media can often help fill in the blanks. You can learn a lot about a person’s personal and professional background via social media, such as LinkedIn. This alone can help you make basic some assumptions, and therefore adjustments, in your sales approach. An effective way to gauge the style of an audience is to ask in advance for a list of attendees, and their titles and roles. With even  this little additional knowledge, you can find ideas and strategies to adjust your style to build rapport and influence more effectively.

But, you ask, what if I make a wrong assumption? It can certainly happen, and we’ll share a recent example: AU.S. account manager was asked to virtually present a “best and final” proposal for a global workforce management solution to the Japanese office of a major U.S. company. The account manager had done all of his homework around local labor laws, regulations, work policies and more. He knew the solution would have to adhere to things like the Japanese Labor Union Act, but what he didn’t know about was the attendees.

The attendees in Japan were all Japanese, and the account manager could not find any social media/online background to provide additional context about them. Therefore, applying some cultural awareness strategy, he prepared the presentation and all email correspondence with a formal, Japanese orientation (for example, addressing the clients by their last names plus the suffix -san (e.g., Sakurai-san).

Then the virtual meeting happened. Right away during introductions, the Japanese spoke with U.S. American accents and said first names would be OK.

The account manager assumed a more traditional Japanese meeting, but the audience presented themselves with a Western orientation. It turned out that each Japanese attendee had spent significant time in the U.S. and was very adept at style switching for Americans. But the account manager had gained their respect by preparing to meet them according to their local customs. The presentation went smoothly, and the account manager won the business.

The lesson: Once you know the predominant style of the audience with whom you’re working, adapting to that style will go a long way to disarming your audience. Another example is that, in the U.S., it is typical to start a meeting with a humorous anecdote, but in certain cultures in Asia, this could be considered inappropriate and cause a person to lose credibility. To this Asian audience, starting a meeting by apologizing may be a way to show humility and ingratiate oneself. We recently heard of a consultant from the U.S. who had vast experience in intercultural training, who addressed a Japanese-American audience by discussing the difference between the two cultures and then apologizing for not telling a joke, thereby covering both cultural examples in the same breath.

All of these examples show that cultural sensitivity and awareness is crucial in doing business. All of us are unique and exhibit some evidence of cultural orientation. The key to success is identifying that and adapting to make your customers and colleagues feel comfortable doing business with you.

Of course, style switching requires you to understand your own style first. People develop their personal style in a number of ways. Orientation begins in a person’s earliest years but is subject to change, so assumptions can lead to misinterpretation. The important thing is to approach our work with a global mindset, which starts first with self-awareness. After all, how can you effectively style switch if you don’t know your own style to begin with? Or how you are perceived by others?

Fortunately, there are myriad tools available to help you determine your work style. Are you a very direct person? Do you work best independently or in a group? Are you analytical? Confrontational? Determined? Amiable? All of these play into your style. The trick is to understand it and modify your approach to adapt to that of your audience. Once you have determined your working profile and style, you can begin to adjust to your audience, and the good news is the more you practice it the easier it becomes. As your own cultural agility improves, so will your success in working with global clients and colleagues.

Ray Cavanagh is currently the Global Accounts senior program manager at Kronos. Jesse Rowell is the Managing Director of Global Mobility and Market Development at Aperian Global. 

How to Survive and Thrive in the Age of Artificial Intelligence

By Jennifer Stanley


McKinsey & Co.

B2B sales leaders who use digital effectively enjoy five times the growth rate of their peers who don’t. But a recent McKinsey & Company survey of B2B customers highlights a more nuanced reality. What customers want are great digital interactions and the human touch, depending on what they’re trying to do.

Companies that respond to customer preferences and add the human touch to digital sales consistently outperform their peers. They capture five times more revenue, eight times more operating profit and, for public companies, twice the return to shareholders. This data holds true over a four- to five-year period.

Many sales organizations, however, have trouble putting this human-digital program into practice. The truth is that there are no tried-and-true methods, though technology lies at the heart of customer interaction models to power or inform either the digital or human interaction. Companies need to create the human-digital blend that is most appropriate for their business and their customers. This should not be a random process of trial-and-error testing. What is needed is a systematic way to evaluate the optimal human-digital balance.

This human-digital balance is thrown into particular relief when it comes to artificial intelligence (AI), which is having an impact not only on the broader selling profession but also on strategic account management (SAM). Take, for example, the case of “Andy,” a bot introduced recently by a company to help identify, contact and set up appointments for SAMs at their customers. These appointments were in customer business units that had been either unserved or underserved and that displayed decentralized, regionalized buying behaviors.

Andy’s key capability is her ability to rapidly learn what kinds of outreach and communications are working and to instantaneously adapt her methods to suit. After just a few months, new leads were up 50 percent compared to the year before, while new costs for obtaining those leads were down.

Bots are already managing relatively mundane tasks like this at many companies, but could a bot like Andy manage an end-to-end sale for something like a transactional good to a small- or medium-sized business? Researchers at McKinsey Global Institute (MGI) have studied more than 2,000 discrete human activities across 800 professions, in 50 different countries, to assess the degree of “automatability” of activities in those professions. In some cases it was 100 percent; in others, it was zero. For management professionals, like SAMs, it was around 30 percent.

Comparing skills that are most crucial for the SAM role — things like managing teams, co-creating value with a customer, managing stakeholder interactions and others — with other types of activities that we don’t traditionally think of as part of the SAM role, the three most essential SAM tasks are only marginally automatable.

JS figure 1.PNG

Figure 1. The degree of automatability of tasks by bot (left side) and by humans (right side).

But do customers want to interact with machines?  The answer depends on context, as figure 2 shows. Figure 2 shows the research on how customers buy. The answer: It depends on the context.


When working with a new supplier or vetting a new offer from an existing supplier, 75 percent of customers say they want to deal with an actual human being. As customers move into the evaluation and active-consideration stages, digital tools that provide information, such as comparison tools or online configurators, come into their own, especially when combined with a highly skilled salesforce. When it’s time to renew or update standard terms and conditions, the equation flips, with 85 percent saying they prefer a fully digitized interaction.

In essence, buyers are saying that when co-creating something new and different with a strategic supplier, they’re all for engaging with the SAM. Yet most B2B companies still reward reps more for spending time keeping customers loyal and repurchasing than for uncovering new customer needs or driving demand, which is exactly where customers say they want face-to-face expertise.

So there remains a time and a place for intimate, significant human interaction, and there is a time and a place for bot interaction. The trick is to understand which is which and to adapt the strategic account management approach accordingly.

In particular, there are five areas where humans are needed and can do a better job than AI-empowered machines:

#1: Managing exceptions to standard protocol. Advanced analytics and machines get it wrong a lot of the time, and sometimes you need a human being to actually make the call. A materials company during the height of the economic downturn faced a situation where one of its strategic accounts was experiencing a credit crunch. By any kind of financial or data-driven standard, this supplier should not have extended additional credit to this customer. Now, what a machine couldn’t know is that this was a family-owned business and that the father was getting ready to retire. One son had been tapped to take over the company, while another brother worked at a key competitor that also happened to be one of this supplier’s strategic accounts.

So while the decision not to extend credit may have been “obvious” based on the data, the head of strategic accounts, who was familiar with the situation, worked with the father to find a solution. In the end, the father was happy, which made both sons happy — and which kept both strategic accounts in play.

#2: Using judgment in situations of ambiguity. When data is new and unlike anything that a machine has seen, the machine won’t know what to do with it.  That’s where managers come in.

A company may be in an industry experiencing substantial mergers and acquisitions or business closures. In a merger situation, it is highly likely that the customer having the more advantageous terms with a supplier will ask for those same terms for the other account.  It takes human judgment to plow through those terms and conditions and to make tradeoffs based on the role the strategic account(s) plays in an overall portfolio.

#3: Shaping strategy. Humans still must shape the overall commercial strategy in light of their growth goals — even if machines take over part of the work, like analyzing buyer trends, determining new sources of growth or predicting whether accounts are at risk of full or partial churn.

#4: Nurturing a complex ecosystem of relationships. Because today’s customer-supplier ecosystem is so complex, with interconnected webs of relationships including those forged digitally, it requires even more thought to select the most appropriate people to invite into the ecosystem and then to manage the content shared with them. SAMs need to determine not only who is in the network but also on whom to focus at different times and in different situations with the customer. This requires SAMs to know who are the most influential decision makers within an account and to build this knowledge into their account plans. While there are tools today that can illustrate the breadth and depth of relationships based on social media presence and suggest who are the influencers, such machine-based data still cannot replace you knowing your customer deeply –- who is on the way up, who is on the way out and who you will need in your corner. When we rely too much on the data to tell us how our customers are likely to behave and not enough on our own intuition and personal knowledge, that’s when SAMs can run into trouble.

#5: Focusing the power of advanced analytics. SAMs should embrace advanced analytics for their ability to help us to have more, and more productive, value-creating conversations with strategic customers. This is the area where AI can make our jobs not only a lot easier but also a lot more fun.

This means taking the data for what it is but then testing and retesting it. If the data suggests ways to generate additional volume, grow revenue, cut costs — whatever the outcome is that you’re looking for with your strategic account — you can pilot, you can test and you can learn.  But you still need to use good business judgment.  For example, experimenting with next-product/service-to-buy algorithms can support cross-sell activities, but if it’s not a good time to have the conversation with the customer, those activities need to wait.

To stay ahead, there are two areas where SAMs need to raise the bar in terms of using advanced analytics to help deliver on customers’ needs:

#1: Know your products, services and data offers much more intimately than you do today. Customers today have access to a wealth of information about your offerings via digital platforms and their own personal networks; if they are going to have an actual conversation with a SAM, they expect a deeper level of insight and expertise than what they can find online.

#2: Become an expert advisor. Data is best at suggesting different options, but where humans can provide the most value is in making decisions using that data. SAMs need to get good at making sense of data to make better decisions. For example, there is a global producer of wind turbines that uses AI and big data to guide decisions on where customers should locate their next round of turbines. But even with this data, succeeding with large customers still requires a SAM to have a nuanced, highly informed and consultative conversation with stakeholders whose job it is to decide where to build and place the turbines. While data like barometric pressure, predicted weather forecasts, topography, population demographics and more are critical inputs to those decisions, humans still need to choose whether or not to follow the data in light of other investment considerations.

In the end, the biggest benefit of AI to the SAM profession may be in its ability to make the job more fun. SAMs spend only about 10 percent of their time on creative pursuits, such as brainstorming new offers. With all the time SAMs currently spend making appointments, following up on invoices and putting out fires at the customer, that is time that could instead be spent coaching teams, boosting social and emotional intelligence, and on other high-value activities. This is where the bots can step in and help. SAMs should embrace the bots for what they can do to free up time that can be spent doing more interesting and creative things – like becoming more human with their customers.

Jennifer Stanley will deliver a keynote address at SAMA’s Pan-European Conference 14-15 March 2019 in Amsterdam.

A personal note from SAMA’s new CEO

By Denise Freier

President and CEO


After being at SAMA for a few months as the new CEO, I wanted to reach out and share some early observations and appreciation for your support during my transition. I believe that it is vital for SAMA to continue to find more channels of engagement so that we can make SAMA more essential to you, our SAMA community.

First, I need to share that I am very thankful for my predecessor, Bernard Quancard, and the SAMA staff for where we are today. I’ve also had the pleasure of engaging with many of you, either by phone or in person at a SAMA event. These last few months have been equal parts humbling, challenging and energizing — humbling because our community is made up of so many smart, driven and passionate individuals…challenging because the business world is changing so rapidly, and SAMA has to evolve to keep pace…and energizing because I believe more strongly than ever in SAMA’s potential to positively impact the present AND future of our members.

In all, I’ve had conversations with roughly 75 SAMA stakeholders, including customers, SAMA board members and training partners. Here are a few early observations that I want to share:

  • Many of you consider SAMA a “best-kept secret.” We need to continually evolve our offerings to remain your key business partner, further develop our value proposition, and do a better job of communicating to our members.
  • We want to nurture a wider and richer community to accelerate the discovery of changing trends and proven best practices.
  • We will continue to build our library of original research and thought leadership to make sure you have the latest insights and information you need in order to become (and remain) essential to your strategic customers.
  • We need to stay laser-focused on our on-time execution. That means producing “turnkey” insights, resources and training that you can put to immediate use with your customers.
  • We intend to do more to foster peer-to-peer exchanges with ideas such as micro-communities within the larger SAMA community for more targeted connections. SAMA will work to make it easier for you to connect with peers.

As we move into the next few months, where would YOU like to see us focus our attention? Please feel free to respond to this email, pick up the phone or bend my ear at the next SAMA event.

Thank you again for your commitment to joining our efforts to elevate our unique practice of strategic account management around the world.


Denise Freier joined SAMA in 2018 after more than 40 years of executive and sales leadership at IBM.

In the Press
Velocity profile
Crain’s announcement
Forum Magazine

Digitalization and You: The Future of Work

By Nicolas Zimmerman

SAMA Editor-in-Chief

The World Economic Forum’s Future of Jobs 2018 report estimates the proportion of total work hours performed by humans will drop by almost 20 percent by 2025, from 71% to 58%. Machines and algorithms, the authors say, will increase their contribution to specific job tasks by an average of 57%.

This will have huge implications for you, your company and the very meaning of work. Below are just a few findings from the report, the rest of which you can (and should) download here.

If you work in strategic accounts, you should actually feel pretty secure about your continued indispensability in a more digital, computer-driven world. In Table 4 below, which highlights the skills that are likely to become more and less relevant by 2022, the “in demand” skills (e.g., analytical thinking, complex problem solving, leadership and social influence) include many of the character traits found most often in top-performing SAMs.

For a deeper look at how the forces of digitalization will reshape the SAM job, see this excellent post from University of Auckland professor Kaj Storbacka and SAMA’s former senior knowledge content developer Elisabeth Cornell.