Strategic Account Management as a Business Initiative With Geoff Williams

The SAMA Podcast | Geoff Williams | Strategic Account Management

Geoff Williams, longtime SAMA Board Member and Corporate Member, boasts a distinguished career in international sales and global strategic account management. Having shaped successful programs at Schneider Electric and Danfoss, Geoff’s new role as SAMA’s interim CEO brings a clear and precise vision for the future of strategic account management.

In this episode, Williams’ wealth of experience and wisdom shines bright as he unravels the intricacies of SAM’s role as a true business initiative, providing valuable insights for both seasoned professionals and those new to the field. Tune in as Williams and host Harvey Dunham outline this initiative and discuss how successful SAMs can navigate the path to sustainable customer relationships.

Listen to the podcast here



Strategic Account Management as a Business Initiative With Geoff Williams

HD: Welcome. Thanks for tuning into the show. I’d like to welcome an extra special guest, a longtime member of SAMA’s board, a SAMA corporate member, and a friend, Geoff Williams. Geoff has a long accomplished career in international sales and global strategic account management. He signed and built successful programs at Schneider Electric and Danfoss before retiring last year in 2023. However, as they say, you can’t keep a good man down or retired for too long. That certainly applies to Geoff whose vision about the future of strategic account management is clear and precise, which is why we welcome him as SAMA’s interim CEO.




HD: Thank you, Geoff, for taking the time to speak with us. We’re grateful that you’re stepping into this important role. We’re thrilled to tap into your years of experience for guidance and direction. Speaking of which, I really appreciate your willingness to engage with a concept you see as the number one priority for modern SAMA programs. That is strategic account management as a business initiative as opposed to a sales initiative. I’d like to dive into this. I’d like to start by asking why this topic is so important for SAMA, our community, and you.


GW: Thanks. It’s great fun to be on the inside working with SAMA. Before, I’ve been a customer and a board member for many years. It’s a real pleasure to be working with you and the team at SAMA. I’m glad to talk about this topic. The topic of SAM as a business initiative is relevant both internally to SAMA and externally to our SAMA clients and the clients of the clients.


Externally, experience tells us that SAM programs, which are not operating on a company-to-company basis with their customers, are not really bringing the full value and full extent of their products, capabilities, services, and solutions to their strategic customers. By company-to-company, we mean all functions, hierarchical levels, and geographic areas of the company led by the CEO to recognize the enhanced focus to be applied to their most important customers.


They recognize their strategic account leader, SAM, GAM, strategic account director, or whatever title they have in the role of the business leader of the company for the interaction with these top customers. Account leader recognition is earned because of SAM’s strong business capabilities and strengths in creating value for both the customer and the supplier of companies.


Internally, for SAMA, SAM as a business initiative is relevant because SAMA has a unique focus and knowledge on what makes both a SAM program and the individual SAM plus team successful in running a customer business. It also provides the tools, training, and know-how to help companies develop both their programs and their SAMs to a high-performing level.


HD: That’s very clear. Thank you. I understand what you’re saying. What do we mean when we call SAMA a business initiative? Does that mean a P&L?


GW: That’s a good question that we should clarify a bit. Most companies set up their businesses in the two dimensions of lines of business and geographies. Why do they do that? That’s a relatively easy way to track and measure results. Lines of business are made of a collection of products, service sales factories, hard costs, gross margins, etc. Geographies are often reported as detailed regional or country P&Ls for fiduciary and taxation purposes.


What about the customer business? Customers are the buyers of the line of business products and services. At the same time, they live in geographies. Their headquarters and lots of their operations are in different countries. When you select a global or local portfolio of strategic customers to manage, it’s quite a challenge to allocate all factory and administrative costs, part-timers operating in a matrix, etc. to a customer business.  Therefore, when we advocate for running it as a business, it is more about the way the account team, the support team, and all the functions of a company behave. It is not as much about counting all the beings dedicated to the effort.


It’s certainly fairly easy to capture the direct costs applied to supporting a strategic customer, but it requires much more work to capture and continuously monitor all of the activity-based costs from all of the organizations in your company touching the customer. The point is really to make sure the major strategic customers are seen at the high levels of the company as a customer business to be led and operated by the SAM and support team with performance reported and defining the SAM company’s complete business activity with the customer. One thing important to me is that financial metrics should be based on cash generation over time and not the typical percent-based metrics that salespeople and product line people often deal with.


HD: That’s very clear. Thank you. Let’s focus on the SAM because they’re the catalysts in this equation. What traits and behaviors have you seen in SAMs who treat their job like a business initiative that differ from those who don’t?


GW: The very best SAMs recognize two important things. One, they are responsible and accountable for the performance of their own company with the strategic customer. Also, they’re responsible and accountable for helping the customer improve the customer’s business performance. They best consider these two basic principles in every major decision they make.


Having said this, powerful SAM traits and behaviors are, one, being emotionally intelligent by not being easily rattled by both the major and day-to-day challenges of the business. Two, they have the ability to know when and be able to push back on the customer as required as well as know when and be able to push back on their own company in order to resolve dilemmas. Three, having a natural curiosity about how things work or don’t work since curiosity often leads to key discoveries and innovation.


They also don’t see themselves as salespeople but see sales as a subset of strategic account management and as one of the many functions they manage in building sustainable customer relationships. Finally, they understand very well the main business initiative of the SAM’s own company and the customer’s business initiatives and how to connect those sets of initiatives.


HD: That’s a challenging job. They’re really serving two masters. That’s what you’re explaining.


GW: That’s the trick.


HD: If it was easy, anybody could do it, right?


GW: That’s right.


HD: Conversely, what difference have you seen in SAMs and their company who treat their job like a sales initiative? You’ve seen a lot of folks in SAMA.


GW: It’s no surprise to anyone that most SAM and SAM programs live in their company’s sales departments because most companies place their customer-facing leadership in the sales function. Where they live is not nearly as important as what they do, which is their level of competence and their level of support from their own company.


When companies treat SAM as a pure sales initiative, SAMs are perceived and treated often like traditional sales reps or sales engineers with more limited autonomy and decision-making authority. They are often excluded from full knowledge of product margin details and the full business impact of all the decisions related to the customer. In the pure sales case, the SAM scope is more limited to the traditional sales task of basic business development and “follow-up” while handling normal customer complaints, challenges, etc. Importantly, their primary management escalation path is to their local sales manager who is likely the busiest person in the company dealing with a constant stream of operational topics.


O ne of the most glaring examples of having a pure sales approach is the number of accounts assigned to a SAM. Too many companies initiate the SAM program and may change very little about the focus of the individual SAM. They may keep a portfolio of 10 accounts and be told to focus more heavily on 2 “strategic accounts”. Given the limited focus, the SAM is pulled into a much higher percentage of operational tasks versus focusing on longer-term improvements to both their company business and the customer’s business.


For example, in one program that started many years ago, we made a conscious decision. It was an important success factor that we only brought an account into the portfolio if we could justify the 100% dedication and full cost of a global account manager immediately and then based on the forecast of where we could go in terms of annual revenue and profit within the coming 3 to 5 years for that one account.


To repeat, you didn’t bring on an account unless you justified the full cost of a person to handle that account. That caused us to start small and very focused. Yet, we were still able, using those criteria, to grow ten times over the number of accounts we were handling. We continued to grow the business. This allowed us to invest ahead and drive new business and customer satisfaction earlier in a more sustainable way. In summary, the challenge is not as often living with the person, the SAM, as it is living with their company’s unwillingness to take a risk of focus and upgrading the talent at the same time while operating at a higher level in both their own company and the customer.

The challenge is not as often living with the person, the SAM, as it is living with their company’s unwillingness to take a risk of focusing and upgrading the talent at the same time.

HD: Well said. It’s clear. You’ve got to focus. You can’t juggle 11 balls at once or 10 balls at once.


GW: Trust the focus, right?


HD: Absolutely. What are the three things that SAM needs to do to be seen as a business person versus a salesperson from all the different perspectives that they’re going to be looked at? They’re being looked at internally and externally pretty hard.


GW: They’re right in the middle. It’s a complex and varied job with lots of skills required. These are the big things to me. One is to be extremely competent and knowledgeable about your company, the customer’s overall business, and the key strategies and initiatives of both your company and the customer. You can’t be successful without knowing those things.


The second thing is when it comes to a specific business opportunity, it is deeply understanding the goals, objectives of the customer, and the line of business in your company that are affected at a high level. You are always operating at a high level when you’re a strongly functioning SAM. Three, be able to organize and mobilize your full company’s response to a business opportunity or some sort of a challenge in the relationship.

A SAM needs to be able to organize and mobilize your full company’s response to a business opportunity or some sort of a challenge in the relationship.

HD: To be clear on this, to make sure we’re all on the same page, the SAM is doing this. Typically, they’ve got no direct reports, right?


GW: Yeah. Influence without authority is a big deal.


HD: That’s right. That’s their special force, so to speak.


GW: You have to be good with your customers and, as importantly, with your own company in mobilizing a response to an opportunity or a problem.


HD: I know you and I are clear on it. I wanted everybody to be clear on the fact that that’s typical for a SAM. That’s not unusual for a SAM. That is how most operate. Given this, can a prospective SAM be trained on how to behave like a business person or is this a skill you have to be born with?


GW: I remember it at a SAMA conference a while back. I agreed with it at the time, and I probably still do on this topic. I heard a research that says people are born with a customer service mentality and it’s not easy to teach. That said, the customer service mentality is only one important dimension of being an excellent business person. A customer-first mentality usually works very well when confronted with certain operational or quality challenges, but it’s not enough when you’re making major business decisions.

The SAMA Podcast | Geoff Williams | Strategic Account Management
Strategic Account Management: The customer service mentality is only one important dimension of being an excellent business person. A customer-first mentality usually works very well when confronted with certain operational or quality challenges, but it’s not enough when you’re making major business decisions.


The trick is really how to craft and optimize win-win solutions to satisfy as well as you can both the internal business and external customers. It’s not win-lose. It’s a win-win. You’ve got to figure out how to satisfy both, and it doesn’t mean being customer-first only in order to succeed. This is often more dependent on technical, finance, and business training and developing these influence-without-authority skills to successfully close and develop the business or resolve a problem.


HD: I keep thinking about how it’s almost like being between two planets. You need to be able to understand where both are going, and you need to be able to course-correct or adapt to either or both.


GW: It’s not just you. You have to figure out how to connect the citizens of those two planets to work together. It’s never the SAM. They’ve got so many connections they need to establish and manage between the two companies.


HD: You’re a business person. You’re a relationship builder. You are a coach. You’re an advocate. You’re a catalyst. You’re a lot of things in this role. That’s why it’s the greatest and arguably one of the hardest jobs in the world.


GW: I always say, “Name a job similar to a SAM, if it’s done right, where you touch all aspects of your company, geographies, products, hierarchical level, and all aspects of a customer company.” The only other person in your company that does that is the CEO. You’re like a CEO for that business relationship with the customer.


HD: That’s a great point. Finally, when you have great SAMs who are highly skilled business people, it’s a tremendous asset for the customer and the company. What does their leader, their executive sponsor, and/or HR need to do to keep the SAM on the team and keep their focus? They’re almost too valuable to lose in many cases.


GW: It’s a special role. One of the first things that needs to be done is to make sure the people leading these relationships are considered special because they’re managing the most important relationships and customers of the company. Another way to do that is by showing them through higher-based compensation, a bonus opportunity for growth and profit with that customer. That’s quite basic.

The SAMA Podcast | Geoff Williams | Strategic Account Management
Strategic Account Management: Make sure the people leading into these relationships are considered special because they’re managing the most important relationships, the customers of the company.


There’s organizational positioning. It should be around a director level in most companies. Some people call it senior account director or global account director. Those are the terms used. They should have some additional hierarchical levels in the job. You start out as a GAM and then maybe you move to a global account director from there. You have some professional hierarchical opportunities to grow.


If you get going really well, you ought to be able to get them to build account teams, hopefully, sometimes with a small number of direct reports if economically feasible to build management skills and increase performance with the customer. You should give them superior training and development opportunities through places like SAMA. Give them a chance to be exposed to others who are experts in this field. You should escalate their management context in your company as well as what you do in the customer company. You have to have the requisite skills, the influence without authority skills, the business skills, and the financial skills to be able to do that.


When it was really working well for me in managing people in the past, my global account directors would talk directly with the heads of a line of business. There would be three levels of hierarchy between a product manager and that person. They would pick up the phone and talk to the business leader because the decisions being made were that important. Finally, at least exposure in the company, like an interaction with the CEO and C-Suite. They should be well connected. When the C-Suite is visiting with that customer, there should be a lot of conversation about organized executive visits and so on.


Tangible things can be done like inviting the global account leaders to the annual top 1% of the company management meetings as either a participant or speaker, or both. It is so that all the division heads and geographic heads and so on see, “This global account or this strategic account thing is very important to our company. Here’s the account leader sitting in our top management meeting.” Those are tangible things you can do to elevate the role.


HD: What a great summary of what it means to treat the job like a business initiative of the company, not just a sales role. It’s not a question that salespeople are bad. They have a very important role. There’s a whole raft of other customers that need to be tended to. They need to be tended to in a different way. Whereas these are your special forces. This is the creme de la creme. This is where you take your best and brightest and let them do what they do.


GW: Also, the general sales team also recognizes that they can aspire to these roles, these skills, and so on. They can interact with us at SAMA and our colleagues who have participated in SAMA events and so on to learn more about it. It can be productive to learn the skills. It can help you be better at your job.


HD: That brings up one last question. I feel a little bit like Colombo here. It’s one more thing. When you see a prospective SAM, is there a number of years of experience that they typically have before they’re considered for that type of role? On average.


GW: It’s usually somebody who’s probably had some sales experience. Maybe it’s 5 years or 10 years of sales experience, but that’s not all. The best person I’ve ever had in one of these roles, a global account director, has a Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering. He used to run an R&D function and a manufacturing plant. He had only very little sales experience. He had a lot of experience in those other things, but he really understood how a customer worked at a deep level. He turned out to be one of the best I’ve ever seen.


It’s a significant number of years unless you’re a total rockstar who is running up through the company. Even then, you don’t want them to come into this job as a two-year rotational thing. In order to be successful, you have to also dedicate some time in the SAM role to be valuable to the customer as well as your company.


HD: It’s great to hear you say that. I guessed that where you’d end up is 15 to 20 years of experience, lots of different roles, and a person who is really ready to engage internally, externally, and within the bounds of the laws. If there are other people that need to be brought into the equation, you bring in those people. That’s the way it works. This has been great and very insightful. I’m so happy to have you leading SAMA. I appreciate your time. Thank you.


GW: Thanks. It’s great to be working with you.


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