Services Account Manager: The New Corporate Rock Star

by James "Alex" Alexander, Ed.D.
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Rock stars are the brand of the band, the go of the show, the keys to the fees. They muster the luster and provide the honey that lures the money.

In Corporate Earth, the service account manager is moving to that center stage.

You might ask, a service person as rock star?

Let me answer your question by asking a question: Do you know any executives who are not interested in:
  • Building trust-based relationships with key customers?
  • Gaining more business in existing accounts?
  • Creating competitive advantage?

Senior managers from all types of businesses in all types of industries are discovering that one position, one role, takes the spotlight in deepening key relationships with key accounts. Whatever title they are given (services account manager, support account manager, client relationship manager, customer support account manager, customer champion, etc.), no one has more potential impact on the success of your key customers and your company than your services account managers (SAMs)--no one. High-performing SAMs are where the action is, proactively preventing escalations before they occur, teaming with your salespeople to discover new opportunities, leveraging their relationships to lock out the competition.


However, transitioning from back-up vocals to rock star is a huge move. It requires new skills, new knowledge, and especially a new mindset and attitude. Let me first talk about the evolution of this position and then review what is needed.

A Brief History
The role of the SAM was not created by some forward-thinking supplier trying to add value--it was demanded by big customers upset with downtime caused by your offerings and frustrated with the hassle of getting the supplier to fix the problem in a timely fashion. Hence, the original SAM was a totally reactive, one-throat-to-choke role focused on shortening the time to resolution. Naturally, this person was technical (sometimes really technical). When the customer phone call came, the SAM (usually called a TAM (technical account manager) jumped into his red boots, grabbed his cape, and boarded the bus or train or plane. Already strong in problem solving, along the way this person became deeply involved in the technology of the customer and a master of managing escalations.

Sound familiar? This was a high-value role, as it kept your technology working and kept the customer satisfied enough to buy more the next time around.

Today’s Different World
However, things change as they always do. Insightful services executives have discovered the huge hidden potential yet untapped in the SAM role. Pressured to contribute more and more to profitable sales, they are determined to build upon the basis of trust already present between key accounts and their SAMS. They have seen the power of SAMS that think strategically, act proactively, and communicate powerfully with the business executives within their accounts. Is your organization “tuning up” for this new gig?

Although the business rewards are huge the personal change is significant. In the old role of the SAM, technical knowledge and problem solving were supreme. Being able to get along well with their customer technical counterparts was important, as was a “do whatever it takes to fix the problem” mindset. When the red button was pushed, the SAM leaped into action. That’s just about all that mattered.

Those capabilities are still important, but the expectations of the new SAM require huge changes in what they know, what they do, and how they think about things.

Less Of…
Shortly, I’ll be talking about more requirements, but first let me talk about something they need less of--technical know-how. This may sound heretical, but it is very true; the new SAM needs “just enough” technical savvy to be able to talk intelligently to managers inside their accounts and inside their company. Once they grasp the situation and the challenge, their new role requires that they pass this off to the appropriate technical person on their team. For old SAMs who took pride in their technical skills and enjoyed solving problems themselves, this is a big deal.

More of…Core Interpersonal Skills
My research, in-the-field experience, and personal learnings from teaching scores of services account management workshops clearly defines what the new SAM must be able to do and able to do well.

These core skills are necessary to survive as a person and in any business role. However, the New SAM Rock Star has to be highly skilled at:
  • Active listening. Hearing both the facts and listening for the feelings.
  • Open probing. Quite different than the closed probes so useful in reactive problem solving, the SAM must be proficient at asking questions that yield broader and deeper understanding of the customer’s situation, while building personal credibility.
  • Presenting. Powerfully stating the what, the why, and the benefit of the their recommendations.
  • Persuading. Creating confidence in the SAM, and building urgency for the customer to take that advice.
  • Qualifying. Knowing how to use the above skills to determine customer opportunities that the customer wants to address.
  • Saying no. When no is the only appropriate answer, say it in a way that the customer respects and accepts.
  • Collaborating with Sales. Learning how not to be the lackey of sales, but a valuable member of the selling team.
  • Having “presence” with executives. Being able to converse and be seen by executives inside and outside as a professional and peer.
  • Business acumen. Being able to articulate how your company’s offerings translate into business value.
  • Proactive demeanor. Spending 90% of the time thinking and acting on how to leverage opportunities, not solving problems.
  • Strategic thinking. Big-picture mindset focused on making the customer successful on multiple tracks.
  • Trusted advisor. Being seen by the customer as a business and personal ally that constantly makes their lives better.

Is this a big change? Yes! It is a lot to ask? It sure is. Is it worth it? Absolutely!

The good news is that for the SAM with the desire to improve, most all the above is LEARNABLE.

Steps to Success
Create a SAM Performance System that Drives Results
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I recommend a systematic approach to help make you and your SAM team successful. This approach is framed within our ongoing research of core and best practices and performance benchmarks coupled with deep experience.

1. Assess and Adjust the SAM Performance System
SAM Performance: Where Are You Now and Where Do You Want to Be?
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If you are serious about taking your SAM group to the next level of performance, many questions need to be answered:
  • What role should the SAM team play in helping make your company successful?
  • What are the critical capabilities required to move ahead?
  • How is the SAM group thought of by senior management, sales, and other key departments? How must this change?What adjustments in objectives, measures, and rewards are needed?
  • What helping factors are in place today that you can leverage to move into the future?
  • What hindering factors are in place that must be eliminated or minimized if you are to be successful?
Becoming a World-Class SAM Organization
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Once these questions are answered, move on to step two:

2. Provide Quality Training
Quality training is absolutely critical. Not only do your SAMs need new knowledge, skills, and tools, they need to understand the rationale for the change, and accept the impact on them. The training should address the skills describe above in interactive sessions tailored specifically to the issues, challenges, and objectives, and give participants the opportunity to discuss it among themselves and practice what is taught in a safe environment.

A foundation of good training should be building trust. Here is a figure outlining the six factors that can be used to accelerate trust.
The Six Trust Builders
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Changing Expectations of Technical Experts--More...
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3. Reinforce and Monitor
Use it or lose it. This life maxim is certainly true about learning--no matter how good the training, unless it is reinforced regularly and consistently, most of its value just goes away. We strongly recommend a systematic approach to maximize the return of your training investment. For example, here is a common four-step reinforcement approach that I recommend:
  1. A series of one-hour webinars facilitated by the trainer starting within 60 days of the SAM training.
  2. Quarterly you recognize those SAMS who are applying what was learned in the training.
  3. SAM management “walks the talk” both over the phone and in person by modeling the skills.
  4. An advanced SAM workshop is held roughly one year from the initial training. Depending on your SAM issues and goals, this tailored, highly participative session can be facilitated over one or two days. Potential topics include: (a) Negotiating with Sales on not giving away services, (b) Influencing executives, (c) Dealing with the problem account, (d) Whatever topics you want to cover.
Based on Your New Expectations, Where Are Your SAMs Today?
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4. Provide Ongoing Coaching
Another important component in getting your SAM system rocking and rolling lies with management. It starts with all SAM managers participating in all aspects of the SAM learning system: helping change the performance management system, going through the training with the SAMs, and actively participating in the support. Next management should develop an ongoing coaching plan complete with on-the-ground observation and feedback, modeling the skills taught, and regular celebration of those who do what you want them to do.

5. Lead the Services Organization
As the SAM team (and the whole services and support organization) becomes a more important component of company success, services leaders must start to think and act differently. Services leadership training is an excellent way to get the entire management team at the concert and ready to play.

Leading Service to the Next Level of Performance
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6. Establish Robust Knowledge Management
For your SAMs to flourish, they need the right information available at the right time in the right way. Sadly, most knowledge management systems aren't what they should be.

What a change! From redheaded stepchild at the beck and call of Sales to key performer on center stage--the day of the SAM as corporate rock star is here!

James "Alex" Alexander is founder of Alexander Consulting, a management consultancy that creates and implements services strategies. Contact him at 239-671-0740 or