Product Development

Bringing the Strategic Account Organization into the Product Development Process

A session I moderated at the Strategic Account Management Association focused on how to bring the strategic accounts organization into the product development process. The session highlighted the importance of the strategic account voice in product and applications development. However, saying this and having actual input into product development pose some unique challenges, especially in multi-product firms. In this article, we offer some of the solutions that came out of that day’s session.

These challenges are more common when the strategic accounts function operates within a complex, global organization with other sales organizations defined along product and/or geographic lines also vying for product development’s time and resources. We see the challenges as especially acute when organizations implement a new strategic accounts program. There are two critical reasons behind ensuring that business-to-business (B2B) organizations understand and address these challenges.

  1. Strategic account managers are often in a unique position to bring new insights about solutions that cross product lines back to the organization because they are focused on customers, not specific products
  2. Strategic account managers are always the voice of some of the most important customers in articulating product needs

At the end of the conversation panelist and audience members alike agreed that a particularly effective way for strategic account managers to be part of the product development process was to have a formal structure aligned with the customer that includes a product group voice and an informal network among the strategic accounts group and individuals across the rest of the company who get things done.

The Formal

A formal structure is important for two reasons:

  • It allows product development group(s) to see a customer’s needs holistically and not as they view other customers served by a sales force that deals with representing only their line of business
  • It creates a responsiveness to strategic accounts on the part of the product groups, since they are hearing customer needs expressed directly to them and giving them responsibility for solutions

Based on the type of organization, its structure and geographic reach, there are a number of ways to approach this.

One of our panelists, Tony Stanich, Vice President of Global Corporate Accounts for Nalco’s Food and Beverage for Water and Process Services, described Nalco’s current structure.  The organization adopted an industry vertical business structure, which is at the helm. The SAM (referred to as corporate account managers within Nalco) is at the heart of those industry verticals.

Another panelist, Doni Riddle, Vice President of Global Accounts for Sherwin-Williams’ Protective & Marine Coatings division, described a similar structure. Product managers sit within the marketing department and are responsible for pushing products through from product development. Regional market segment directors who are aligned by market (regionally and globally), are considered the voice of the customer along with the SAM. Doni agreed with the positioning of the SAM within an organization, stating, “The SAMs are very much right in the middle and really are the face of our customer. We do a lot of customer advisory meetings where we gain insights from our customers regarding what products we can develop for them that will make their lives easier. There are a lot of touch points, but it very much customer focused.”

One audience member commented on how his organization took a team approach so that all key functions had, “Skin in the game.” Every one of his strategic accounts has a team attached to it with a marketing plan. Each strategic account team is composed of members from the marketing group, R&D, Operations, etc. The participant stated that, “Every time they make a move at that account, those people are involved in that move. Everyone goes into a customer as an active participant. It doesn’t always work, but seems to work with us.”

There are just as many ways to structure a strategic account organization as there are to structure a business. The most important elements, however, are ensuring that the customer is the main focus and that SAMs are given a voice within the organization and the ability to communicate customer needs directly to product development. Only by having a SAM team from across the organization is that goal fully realized in most companies.

The Informal

Having a formal process adds tremendous benefits to an organization’s strategic account strategy. However, as one audience member pointed out, nothing can quite replace the informal relationships that are created within an organization among strategic account managers and other organizational functions. Yet two challenges to understanding and maintaining these relationships come into play when new strategic account managers are unfamiliar with the organization and/or are far removed from the organization in a remote location, such as Kenya.

Blue Canyon has seen this happen on many occasions when individuals are hired into a strategic account manager role with very little knowledge of informal channels within an organization. As one panelist said, “That’s what makes finding a SAM so hard. It’s those interconnections across a global company that are so invaluable.”

Additionally, when strategic account managers are scattered around the globe, they are at a disadvantage. Often, these individuals work in silos without knowledge of who key players are within the organization and what the informal channels may be. Or, they know who the key players are, but are unable to gain their attention given their remote location.

Bernard Souche, Director of Health Systems, Medtronic Canada and our third panelist commented, “…We utilize a CRM system for development of account plans, for opportunity management, for stakeholder analysis, for all of the planning phases as well as the management of sales…but we also rely on key individuals and you’ve got to know who those key individuals are that can relay information. It’s not typically by title. It’s an acquired knowledge. It’s not something you walk into at a company and the next day there’s a list.”

The informal process complements the formal process. You have to have some form of both. But you have to do it purposefully and mentor those along the way. When you consider succession planning, this should be a critical component of the planning process.

Final Thoughts

Strategic Account Management is often an organization overlaid on an already matrixed organization’s decision process. It offers a view into customers’ needs, across all products and services, so should have an important voice.  How to achieve that voice and serve those most important accounts are issues that all in the audience have experienced.

One organizational solution that is given high marks is creating a team for every strategic account that includes members from critical functions. Hearing from customers directly gives a product development representative, for example, clarity in the need to be met.

At the same time, all agreed that informal networking across groups is critical to success. That presents a challenge in staffing, particularly in remote geographies where few candidates understand the entire organization and have relationships sufficient to being able to “make the call” to get to the top of the priority list.

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