There are a lot of nuances in industries. Yet engaging with your most strategic customers is the same across the board despite these nuances, and that’s the beauty of the Strategic Account Manager. SAMA’s Certified Strategic Account Manager (CSAM) program represents the highest mark of achievement when it comes to professional development for strategic and key account managers. Join Libby Souder, SAMA’s Director of Knowledge, Training, and Certification, as she extols the virtues and value of our world-class CSAM program and hear how it provides graduates with the skill set and mindset to build lasting, mutual growth with their strategic customers.
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Level Up: SAMA’s Certified Strategic Account Manager Program With Libby Souder
HD: It’s my pleasure for the first time ever to have an episode where I’m interviewing one of my colleagues and dearest friends, Libby Souder. She is the Head of Knowledge, Training, & Certification here at SAMA. Libby, thanks so much for agreeing to give us your time.
LS: Thanks, Harvey. I’m excited about it.
HD: This is one of our favorite topics. It seems like it comes up every day here at SAMA. I thought it would be useful to give our audience a better understanding of how you turn good SAMs into great SAMs.
LS: I feel like if everyone had the secret to that, the world would be a different place, at least in the world of strategic account management.
HD: Do you mean it’s not as easy as going to the drugstore and asking for a prescription for something?
LS: Yes, a snap of the fingers.
HD: Maybe a good place to start would be for you to share your experience in SAMA, SAM, certification, and training. I think people would be interested to hear what your journey has been.
LS: After I got my bachelor’s degree, I went right into working at SAMA back in ’98. It seems so long ago. I had no idea what the idea of strategic account management was. As I started getting exposed to the community and hearing all of these cool things that these companies were innovating with their customers, I loved it. I worked at SAMA for eleven years, did the programming, and worked on finding best practices.
I then went into consulting for quite a bit, helping people set up SAM programs. I helped train their strategic account managers. I also worked with a university, global account manager certification programs, and then came back to SAMA about 7 or 8 years ago. At that point, SAMA was reinventing its strategic account manager certification program. I was brought in to help refine the process a little bit as things change in the world of SAM.
HD: That’s a tremendous amount of experience. Folks, you have no idea how many different industries Libby got exposed to in her consulting work, and what a great researcher she is. A lot of the great things that you see coming from SAMA articles and insights, Libby is the queen discoverer of these things. That’s the knowledge part of your job. There’s the training part of your job. We all wear many hats, and you wore them well.
LS: It’s a lot of fun for sure. The one thing that I love about strategic account management is while there are some nuances with industries, especially ones that have more regulatory issues, SAM is SAM. It doesn’t matter if it’s pigs, paint, pipelines, or pharmaceuticals. How to engage with your most strategic customers is the same across the board despite some of those nuances. That’s one of the reasons that SAMA is such a great resource for people. We can bring the community together, bring different SAMs together, and help train them to think of their customers in a more strategic way, which is what customers are demanding these days.
HD: There’s a theme in here that I’m hearing, which is about being able to connect with people that are in the business and practitioners. It’s not theory. There are certainly some theorists, and we have some brilliant academics, but even they are very close to the real practitioners and the people that are making it happen out there. What advantage do you see in someone who’s trying to learn SAM?
LS: In terms of learning from other people?
LS: I think one of the things that SAMA brings to people that are trying to up their game, engage with customers on a deeper level, or even develop their SAM programs is that SAMA has been in this business for almost 60 years. We are constantly evolving, looking for smart people, reading, and researching. We want people to know that they don’t have to start from scratch on a lot of these things. For instance, in our certification program, we don’t have facilitators that are in there moderating a session. Our certification partners are some of the best in the industry. They are focused specialists in the area of strategic account management.
Most of them have been either strategic account managers. They have led a program and have been a country leader. They have all of this rich experience that not only do they understand the best practices and have a great methodology, but they also clearly understand the concepts of strategic account management. They have done the role themselves. I think that’s unique and one of the strongest aspects of the training that we help provide to people that are looking to up their skills, and so it’s a lot of fun. Sometimes even hearing things explained a little bit in a different way can be a real game changer.
Harvey, you’ve sat in some of the certification final reviews. One example that we hear a lot is that they mentioned the idea of past proven value. They’re saying, “I know that I’ve done all of these things for my customer, but it never occurred to me that I needed to remind them of the past proven value and have them validate when some of these pricing negotiations and new people come on board.” Little things like that can make a big difference in the growth of an account.
HD: It’s so hard to explain to people unless you’ve done the job and been in the role of what it’s like to be a strategic account manager or a leader of SAMs. You’ve either done it or you don’t. Thanks for sharing that. In terms of people wanting to up their skill level in strategic account management or L&D people and SAM leaders that are looking to up the skill level of their team, what are the basic options that you see out there for them?
LS: Unfortunately, sometimes we see that SAM isn’t trained differently than sales, and that’s a missed opportunity. I was just on a call and they said, “We don’t do a good job of paying attention to strategic account managers. We assume that they know what they’re doing and the numbers are there most of the time.” Honestly, SAMA’s research has shown that SAM-specific training is a real game changer in terms of the growth of an account. What we have done at SAMA is certainly have conferences that people go to. That’s awesome to allow a strategic account manager or someone’s team to hear from the outside world instead of just looking at internal practices.
You hear how other SAMs are co-creating value with our customers and working with executive sponsors. For SAMA, we dig deep into those SAMs-specific skills. We talk more about strategic thinking or how to look at your customer strategically. The word strategic keeps coming, and co-creating value. A lot of times, those skills including influencing are not addressed internally with customers and customer-facing roles. I would say companies have the opportunity to do SAM-specific training, which is what we always recommend.
We have other people that have personal learning journeys outside. LinkedIn Learning relies on some of its traditional sales training. Some of them will go as far as getting a PhD. We have someone on our board that has gotten a PhD in key account management. There are lots of different options. One thing I think is incredibly effective is SAM-specific training. We also have that certification program that I am a big fan of because I run it. What it does is validates that a strategic account manager has that critical skillset and that they understand this process of engaging with customers from start to finish.
What we have experienced before is that people that have even been in a SAM role for 20 or 30 years are not looking at their customers in a strategic sense. They are relying more on relational selling. What we have seen is that there have been some industries such as the pharmaceutical industry, and oil and gas. Some of these industries are changing. Even in animal health, we’ve noticed that these private equity companies are buying up vet hospitals. As a result, these SAMs are having to look at the big picture, and not just rely on 1 or 2 stakeholders in a company to sell to. It has been amazing not just to see the fact that they’re changing the way they sell but with our certification program, they’ve learned some of these fundamentals.
They’ve enhanced some of the skills that they already knew, but they actually maybe have a process for it now, and a little bit more of a common language. With the certification program, we have the final review that you and I talked about a minute ago. That connects everything together. It’s the application of all of the SAM-specific training that leads to the focus where they talk about their customer in account briefing. We pay very special attention to the value that has been co-created, the stakeholder engagement, making sure you go high, wide, and deep in growth. You have to grow the business with your customer. That’s the definition of a strategic customer. It’s a growth customer.You have to grow the business with your customers. That's the definition of a strategic customer. It's a growth customer. Click To Tweet
HD: If I may add too, something to complement what you’re saying, some of these CSAM grads are some of the brightest business people I’ve ever run into. It’s incredible how they think about where their customers are headed and what the customers are trying to do to be successful in their industry, with their customers, and against their competition. The creative ways that SAMs think to help their customer and deliver and co-create value with their customer are amazing.
LS: Sometimes it gives the skills to elevate them, not necessarily beyond a SAM, but gives them this edge of being the CEO of their customer or a customer general manager. It’s that kind of entrepreneurial CEO mindset that is required for this role.
HD: The other part that I appreciate is the competency to lead without authority. Most SAMs have no hierarchical authority whatsoever. They report to a SAM leader typically, and they’re individual contributors. They’re not so much different than somebody who’s working in a factory on an assembly line or whatever, but they just got a different role in the company.
LS: The number two highest skill when hiring a SAM is the ability to influence without authority. It’s tough behind strategic thinking.
HD: If that’s number 2, what’s number 1?
LS: Strategic thinking. That’s the hardest one to train and hire for.
HD: If it’s hard to train, the only option you have is to hire someone who has that skill already.
LS: It’s not impossible. When I think about this perfect SAM, I think about someone that does have that natural ability to think strategically, to influence without authority with customers and/or internally too. Harvey, we talk about this all the time. Internal alignment is horrifying for most SAMs. When you take those skillsets of strategic thinking and the influencing skillset and then combine that with the how-to that SAMA certification provides, there’s a strategic thinking element. It’s also how you view your customer strategically.
You might have that competency. It might come naturally to you. You might not know where to look for information or how to put all those pieces together to see where those hidden opportunities are. It’s been fun for me. I’ll ask you the same thing. To see these opportunities that people have come across as a result of their training at SAMA from our training partners, things that you wouldn’t have thought of. I don’t know if you have the same experience, Harvey.
HD: There’s any number of people in our community that said, “I’ve been doing SAM for a long time, and you opened up my eyes to a whole new world because I just never thought about my customer this way. I had never looked at them this way.”
LS: Your customer’s customer. You and I hear that a lot.
HD: Also, a whole ecosystem around the customer besides the customer. The increasing importance of data, and being able to create data, share it with the customer, and use that to help both companies get smarter and sharper. There are so many things that people are doing that are amazing.
LS: Let me turn it around on you. When you were a SAM or when you were a SAM leader, what did you struggle with most in terms of the skillset of your strategic account managers?
HD: Internal alignment is the toughest thing. That was number one. It was often difficult, especially at Schneider Electric, we had global strategic accounts. We’re having a global footprint typically. Doing business over your whole company and trying to deliver the same customer experience regardless of where the opportunity was, whether it was in the Philippines, Mozambique, South Africa, England, the UK, or China, the companies are full of people from those regions and they are all a little bit different.
Trying to get the company to behave in a consistent way with their strategic account and to support the SAM in what they’re trying to do is huge. For the coaching, those were most of the calls that I got. I’m about to go into a meeting. I got 15 minutes. We need to get some help in this particular area. What advice can you give me? Thanks for the advance notice. That’s the real world. That’s what’s happening out there. You have to be able to respond, adapt, adjust, and try to keep everybody headed in a way.
As I was listening, the most important thing for a SAM is the mindset of being the champion of the customer. The customer is the hero. You’re not the hero. You’re a special resource to help customers get to where they want to go. That mindset is not drilled into the CSAM students, but it becomes clear that it’s all about the customer. Not that you’re insignificant, but the question is, how can you help them get better? It’s not, how can they help you get better? That’s not the way the game plays.
LS: That’s a great point as a nod to the certification. We do hear from a lot of people that they just need to change the SAM mindset. When you think about our certification journey, starting with a competency assessment, that maybe highlights some of those strengths that the SAM already has. Maybe share some coaching opportunities where they might be able to work on some specific skillset throughout every single piece of it that is highly applicable to their customer. You learn something and you apply it to the customer. You go on to the next session, and all of that gets applied to the customer.
I think that that and the fact that at the end of their journey, they are expected to present a customer briefing to SAM’s staff and their manager to reinforce the application that they’ve taken all these learnings and that they are sharing this as they would maybe to an executive sponsor. That is very customer-focused. It’s that customer mindset, growth, and value co-creation. It’s not going in and talking about yourself all the time.
That entire journey reinforces that mindset shift that it’s not about our product and it’s not about us. It’s about using all of the different things that you just talked about when you were at Schneider with using the data and thinking about the customer’s customer. I do like that element of the certification. Given that it’s a certification, that means that they have demonstrated that and done the work throughout the entire journey versus just a certificate. I see a lot of programs that are like, “Here’s your certificate,” but it’s based on just showing up and ticking the boxes, which is great in a lot of ways.
HD: It’s better than nothing.
LS: There’s a lot of value. For SAMA, we like to know that if we’re putting our name on certification, we know that they have done, applied, and had their manager validate that work. I think it’s a differentiator. I think people are thinking about doing some training or maybe looking at their group of SAMs and saying, “What should I do?” This kind of training and certification is fantastic to make it stick versus we’re going to take this class and there’s going to be information recall. Sometimes, that stickiness doesn’t last quite as long as when you ask someone to apply a concept to their customer that they’re working on day in and day out. I’ve had exposure to programs where you’ve had to write a paper or do some other things.
If you ask SAM to write a seven-page paper on something, 90% of them will roll their eyes, and they will hate every single second. When you ask a SAM to basically be learning about their customer and applying it to the customers so that they can ultimately grow it and they can see the difference, then it’s an easier sell to the person that is going through it but validates the benefits. The what’s in it for them. That’s one element that I do like about our certification program.
HD: There’s maybe one other point that I was delighted about what I discovered. I wish I had known this when I was at Schneider. There are also hard skills that are taught. For example, getting ready for a big negotiation with the customer. What does good preparedness for a negotiation look like? For our audience, it doesn’t mean I’m going to start thinking about the negotiation while I’m driving to the negotiation on the day. That is not the best practice.
You have to realize that your procurement people have been studying and thinking about this, positioning it, and strategizing how they’re going to get you to give them an unfair share of the value. You have to know where you’re at going into the negotiation. If you’re bringing people with you, they have to be coached to know when to hold and fold them and know when to walk away and run.
LS: In the immortal words of Kenny Rogers.
HD: It’s not just the soft stuff, which is hugely important. You’ve got to have both. You have to be able to have tough conversations internally and externally, stand up for your company when it’s right, and take the customers’ side when your company is wrong.
LS: You need to advocate. To add to that as well, you need a set of tools that can help you with your customer. For our program, we have account plans and the methodology behind them. That is a skillset that most SAMs are not great at, the account planning piece, which is a lot of where that strategic outlook comes from. They hate it. It’s filling in a form. I think that this shows the account planning journey, the why, how, and what. It provides a template to make sure that you’re capturing that critical information. What our research show is that most account managers don’t do it well, but in the end, I have seen great examples of how account plans have allowed account manager to discover an opportunity, and work with their team to make sure it’s executed.
Some of the other tools that we see are excellent value co-creation processes. Sometimes it’s not enough to just stumble onto something. You need a process and tool to help you. Even some of the checklists that we provide. I know you’ve created a lot of these. That’s like, “What do we need to know when doing X, Y, Z?” Sometimes it’s just how you start and prepare.
HD: It’s continuous. That is the other thing. Account planning is not something that you do for two weeks at the beginning of the year, and then don’t look at it for the rest of the year. Account planning is what you do every day. It’s like exercise.
LS: That’s what you’re supposed to do.
HD: The great SAMs do it. They’re on the investor calls. They’re reading the annual reports or 10-K reports or 20-F reports. They’re obsessed with their customers in helping them become better. It’s one of those things. Fundamentally, what it boils down to is the more you know about the customer, the luckier you get in terms of finding opportunities to help them get to where they want to go.
LS: A lot of the fundamentals of SAM have stayed the same. It’s to know your customer and bring value. Even though a lot of those core fundamentals have been the same for forever, we have seen a lot of things evolve. Since COVID came around, we had some changes in what a SAM skillset looks like. Before, you had to communicate virtually, but when COVID happened, all of a sudden, a SAM had to not necessarily pivot. We had to bring that particular training and information to our customers because SAMs are relational. They want to meet face-to-face, and they feed off of that. That was a little bit different as well.A lot of the fundamentals of SAM have stayed the same. It's to know your customer and bring value. Click To Tweet
One of the cool things that we do see is that there are some things that are evolving in terms of what a good SAM needs. In addition to that account planning, we have that virtual selling and engagement piece of it. You mentioned the use of data and translating those into insight. Now, you just did some presentations on what that all means to SAM. I’m interested in your perspective, in addition to some of the digitalization pieces and virtual selling, what you’re seeing as well that has evolved in terms of what’s critical to SAMs these days in terms of skills.
HD: We’re going to boil it down to one word. It is that digitalization is critical. More of what we’re seeing is that to understand what a company is doing and to find game-changing things that you can do with your customer, where your company has the capability to help the customer, and the customer has the need, and to be able to adjust and adapt and fit that together, it just opens up doors that were closed before. The data was so difficult to get ahold of. People were used to more of a person-to-person exchange than it was, “I’m going to do at least as much studying or more studying using the tools that are available to figure out what I can do to help the customer.”
Whether I then have the conversation with the customer virtually or in person, those kinds of things all depend. Your ability to get to the C-level and if you’ve got a big idea that’s going to make a big difference for the customer are all in your hands. Your job is to figure that out and make it happen. We see people being able to do that, and now they’ve got help. We also see it from account-based marketing. We started to see more marketing people show up with the SAM, be part of the SAM’s go-to-market team to help them understand the industry that the customers are in, and understand what kinds of pressures and problems the customers are facing with their customers.
There are so many ways that you can help. Great SAMs are curious about all that stuff. They’re tuned in and picking up these weak signals. The customer will say something like, “We did something interesting the other day with the customer that the customer likes.” “Tell me more about that. What was it that you did? Was there something that we could have helped with?” That infinite curiosity and desire to get better, and humbleness to realize that if you do your job well, the applause is going to go to your customer.
LS: Make them the hero.
HD: Libby, unsurprisingly, we’ve been talking for quite a while. I can hear the sand running through the hourglass. I know you’ve got a thousand things to do. It has been such a pleasure to speak with you. Thanks as always for being a great colleague, my moral compass, and everything else. You’re a wonderful person to work with.
LS: Thank you very much. It’s always an honor. I’m just going to do a small plug for the certification program because that is one of my passions, so sorry to sell on here. SAMA is a great source of knowledge in terms of benchmarking best practices. SAMA differentiates itself in the area of certification. Also, back to my first point, SAMA knows who the smart people are and knows how to connect them to our community.SAMA is a great source of knowledge in terms of benchmarking best practices. SAMA differentiates itself in the area of certification. SAMA knows smart people and how to connect them to our community. Click To Tweet
Some of these emerging skills that we were talking about a little bit with ABM, mindset, digitalization, and some of these topics are very complex. What I particularly love about what SAMA does is we take these as they are emerging, and we boil them down to where they make sense for our community in strategic account management. Working at SAMA is a lot of fun, and I love what we do. Thanks for talking to me. I love this.
HD: It’s our pleasure. Thanks so much. Have a great week.
LS: You too.
- Libby Souder – LinkedIn