The Evolving Role of the Services Account Manager: From Problem Solver to Business Advisor

by James "Alex" Alexander, Ed.D.
A Good Thing
Services executives and managers within product companies have known for years the added value that their technical experts can bring both to customers and to their company. Many customers have asked for (some have demanded) to have services account managers (SAMs) assigned to their organization to accelerate problem resolution through one point of contact. In the vast majority of cases this has been a very good thing for both customers and suppliers. Done correctly, services account management will improve customer satisfaction and more than pay for itself just through increased contract renewals and upgraded agreements. If you do not now have a services account management program for key accounts you should take a hard look at doing so.

Huge Potential
However, many service and support organizations looking for ways to optimize performance and strengthen their P&L are now tapping into the hidden potential of SAMs. A change in focus and mindset and a few new skills and tools can lead to:
  • Increased customer loyalty
  • Increased SAM loyalty
  • Greater account penetration
  • New streams of profitable revenue
  • Distinct advantage over your competitors

Here are some comments taken from my trusted advisor research* relevant to SAMs that emphasize this need for change.

One senior services executive talked about it in terms of competitive advantage: “Our lifeblood depends on the technical capabilities of our top personnel to differentiate our company from others in the industry. They understand our customers’ issues and are creative in developing solutions to address them. They have become evangelists for our products and solutions and are often used in pre-sales situations to demonstrate our capabilities.”

Another services leader running a global product-support practice talked about it in terms of business development and meeting customer needs: “Proper use of your frontline technical resources is paramount both to building your business and to best serving your customers’ needs.”

Another services manager from Europe stated: “Frequently, the customer doesn’t know that we can help him with some other problem he is dealing with. By recognizing and capitalizing on these opportunities, we both win—they win by having their needs served, and we win by building our business and achieving revenue goals.”

A services executive talked about the benefits both to the customer and to his team: “Encouraging your team to become your customers’ trusted advisor is a great way to develop both your customer base and your team. By empowering team members to take a more active role in the success of the customer, they gain a sense of ownership and accountability. The customer also receives better service and feels better about his relationship with your company.”

Obviously this is a topic of significance to services leaders across the technology industry and an evolution worth pursuing!

In this article I’ll share with you what I’ve learned about account management over my more than two decades as a manager of key accounts, a builder of account management programs, and a trainer helping SAMs make this necessary change.

New Role and Mindset
To reap the benefits outlined above, the first step is re-defining the role of the SAM and outlining new expectations.

The Technical Talent Continuum, shown in Figure 1, is a way for both you and your technical talent to better understand their current capabilities and value potential. This model is appropriate to use in some fashion with all your technical people who interact with the customer. However, it is especially relevant when thinking about the existing roles of services and support account managers and new possibilities for new job expectations.
Figure 1
The Technical Talent Continuum
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Each of these five roles represents a point on the continuum. The further one goes up and to the right, the more potential value he or she has to the customer and to your organization. Each role builds upon the capabilities of earlier roles, adding new knowledge, skills, and mindset requirements in order to effectively meet the expectations of the role.

For example, someone fresh out of school would start as a technical apprentice, focusing on the technology and product knowledge required to achieve enough competence to eventually become a technical practitioner. The other three roles build from there.

Use the model to help you flesh out the specific capabilities and the desired competency for each role in the continuum, and then plot your people accordingly. As you also will notice, this continuum can be a very important tool in hiring and developing as well as in determining compensation and career pathing. Think of the huge positive impact both you and your customers would receive if you could move just one-fourth of your technical talent up one role!

Probably all of your existing SAMS fall into the role of either technical practitioner or technical expert—you would have not put them into this important job unless they were highly qualified technically. I think your experience will confirm that almost all of your SAMs (at least initially) are highly technical and either are engineers by education or think like engineers—“show me the problem and I’ll fix it,” “just the facts, Ma’am, just the facts.” Step-by-step they’ll get the job done. Furthermore, by initial job design and reinforced by the training and the personality of the SAM, the role is often highly reactionary and driven by the customer.

To gain the promised benefits outlined earlier, the new SAMs must first envision themselves further “up and to the right” on the technical talent continuum. The fundamental difference in mindset in their new SAM role from their old role is from:
  • Reactive problem-solver to proactive value-creator.
  • Customer advocate to business consultant.
  • Technical expert to trusted advisor.

This new role is all about aggressively looking for ways to create value for their customers’ businesses.

New Capabilities
As shown on the continuum, there are just two core capabilities, business acumen and relationship skills, that separate the very strong technical people from business consultants and trusted advisors.

Again, here are some direct quotes from my research participants that emphasize the criticality of these two capabilities.

Business Acumen
  • “Knowledge both of the client’s environment and our business…they take the trouble to understand more, and it pays off.”
  • “Have a better grasp of overall business needs.”
  • “Bring a rich portfolio of practical experiences, relationships with others, and an understanding of business dynamics and market trends.”
  • “They understand the big picture.”
  • “Our top performers have a holistic viewpoint. They clearly see the importance and the fit of services and support as part of the overall solution when combined with hardware, software, and consumables. Our average performers fail to leverage the strength and diversity of our entire organization.”
  • “Have a program-level horizon instead of a project-level horizon.”
  • “Looking beyond their role with regard to ‘what would the CEO want to know’?’”

Relationship Skills
  • “Not adequate communication skills, not good communication skills—my top performers have great communication skills.”
  • “They communicate the invisible well.”
  • “Superior creativity in listening to customer issues and creating a solution strategy that clearly shows how it solves the problem quickly and thoroughly (the differentiator is the level of creativity, understanding of the issue, and the speed with which they react).”
  • “Superb communicators with clients, team members, and management within our company.”
  • “They find a way to outline options and the pros and cons to the customer in such a way that this becomes the customer’s direction.”
  • “They build upon their credibility and relationship skills to find bigger customer needs and sell customers appropriate solutions.”

There you have the insights of your peers regarding how they distinguish between their star services performers and everyone else. They build trust by demonstrating their business knowledge and sell customers more of what they need by asking, listening, and responding appropriately.

The good news is that from a hiring standpoint all the behaviors mentioned can be identified, profiled, and interviewed/verified against. Build these into your recruiting profiles. The excellent news is that from a developmental standpoint, much of the above is learnable by your personnel. Solid training (especially in communication/persuasion skills) coupled with clear communication from leadership as to business goals, organization priorities, and expectations can lead to impressive changes. Add recognition and rewards to that, and you quickly will see more trusted advisor behaviors that will make your customers, your organization, your technical staff, and you more successful.

Lessons Learned
Here is what my clients and I have learned in transitioning SAMs to the new, proactive role:
  • Before you giveth, taketh away. Services executives in the aforementioned research expect more (a lot more in many cases) of their technical talent (selling, account management, building executive relationships, etc.), yet most still expect them to do all the other things asked of them in the past. When dedicated, hard-working people are asked to do more they will respond initially, but burn-out and de-motivation follow if expectations are not lessened in areas that are, although important (e.g., utilization), not critical (e.g., business development). This is further exacerbated by metrics that reflect past priorities and not the current drivers of the business. So don’t expect your best folks to maintain already high utilization rates and high customer satisfaction levels while simultaneously fixing train wrecks, helping sell big deals, building wider and deeper customer relationships, etc., etc. Yes, most of them find this flattering and enjoy the challenge, but the pressure of delivering more and more eventually wears off the luster and always increases stress. The final impact is reduced performance quality, lowered motivation, and openness to exploring new jobs or careers. A cardinal rule of people management is that before you giveth, you taketh away. If performance, motivation, and retention of your top folks are a priority, it is time to re-think their changing roles.
  • Make heroes out of the early adapters. Change is scary. Remember that you are asking people to do new things in new ways, and that takes some personal courage. Therefore, do everything you can to reinforce the new behaviors you want. This will encourage the early adapters to try out what you want, which in turn will encourage the rest to try it as well. When one of your SAMs helps make a new sale, publish his or her picture in your internal news. Talk about how they are helping customers and helping the company. Pass out pizza coupons, recognize them at company meetings, whatever you can do to show you appreciate them and that it is the right thing to do.
  • Don’t cross the line. The reason that technical talent remain credible is because they provide solutions and solve commercial problems, rather than being seen as someone who sells. So here management must be careful—encouraging SAMs to be actively involved in selling, while maintaining the customer trust that they have earned. This is where incentives come into play. I strongly recommend small incentives, as listed above, but I discourage large bonuses (at least initially) for selling efforts and strongly argue against selling quotas for SAMs. Once the line is crossed, building that special trust again takes a long, long time.
  • Provide quality, industry-specific training. To perform the new role, they need new knowledge and skills. Here you must first address issues of mindset by explaining the rationale for the change, communicate the new roles and responsibilities, show the benefits to the customer, your organization, and the SAMs themselves. Next you must provide the knowledge, skills, and tools to get the participants both comfortable and confident in the new SAM role. Properly trained, most SAMS will start improving immediately.
  • Understand that some of your existing SAMs will not be successful in the new role. Remember that you have changed the game. For example, you are asking people hired to “fix problems” to become more actively involved in selling. Some technical talent adapt immediately, most respond well if provided with the proper rationale and appropriate training, but some never accept this new expectation. You will probably hear something like: “If I had wanted to go into sales, I would have become a salesperson.” It is a struggle for some of these people. Some feel selling is below them; they don’t want to do it. Some don’t have a lot of respect for their sales force, and some feel uncomfortable charging for money. Hence, steps must be taken to address this important issue if the new SAM initiative is to be successful, and you must realize that some people will need to find new positions.

Conclusion
Research and experience demonstrate that transitioning traditional reactive SAMS into proactive, revenue-generating advisors yields major benefits. Although there are some challenges, the transformation is very doable and probably a “must do” change for most services and support leaders taking their organization to the next level of performance.

References
1. Alexander, James A. 2007.
Transitioning Technical Experts into Trusted Advisors. Alexander Consulting.
James "Alex" Alexander is founder of Alexander Consulting, a management consultancy that creates and implements services strategies. Contact him at 239-671-0740 or alex@alexanderstrategists.com.

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