The CEO Speaks: How COVID changed strategic account management forever

Oratium CEO and Founder Tim Pollard talks to SAMA President & CEO Denise Freier about the most important and far-ranging ways COVID has changed strategic account management forever. Specifically, the pivot for virtual will bring about dramatic changes to sales models, sales meetings and sales messaging.

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 Denise Freier: Today, I am honored to bring a leading CEO to the discussion to discuss how COVID changed the sales world forever. Tim Pollard is the CEO of Oratium and a long-time partner of SAMA. Oratium has been a leader in creating effective messaging for several years, with two successful books on creating and delivering effective messaging. He’s now here to share how you can equip your salesforce to thrive, not just survive, in this new virtual world.
There is a white paper that I encourage you all to download and an upcoming SAMA symposium on April 29th, where Tim will share even more information. And you can access these from the SAMA podcast show notes included. So Tim, thank you so much for joining us today.
Tim Pollard: Hey, Denise. Thank you. It’s such a pleasure to be with you. We’ve had so much fun working with SAMA over the years, and I, I’m not sure there’s ever been a more important moment for strategic accounts as we enter this sort of mid- and post- COVID world of selling. So it’s such a timely discussion, I think.
Denise Freier: Great. Well, we are so thrilled. And let’s get started. So many companies may have underestimated the impact of this shift to virtual. They might think let’s just do a zoom meeting. So I really want to understand why might they be underestimating, especially since they might be getting used to the expense savings on travel and so forth. So what are those big issues?
Tim Pollard: It’s really interesting question. I mean, I think it’s naturally human nature to see things at a superficial level not necessarily to see the real depth. And I think the changes to sales superficially were really obvious, like, “Oh, damn, we gotta figure out how to sell over zoom.” And as you said you know, “Hey, it was saving a few bucks. You know, we’re not going to have a sales conference this year and we’re not traveling as much.” And incredibly easy to say, “Well, those really were the two effects.”
That is to grossly underestimate what’s really happening here. I think the transformation that is going to hit sales will be greater than for any other profession and I really mean that. I think sales is going to be completely transformed in the most profound ways. I think the reason companies aren’t seeing this as it’s hard to see. And you’ve really got to kind of lock yourself in a dark room and wrap a towel around your head and think about this. And then it starts to become evident that this isn’t just about, you know, “Hey, how do I mute and unmute myself and what are we going to do with these dollars we’re saving?” It’s a lot deeper than that. Very, very profound structural changes, but you’ve actually got to think about it a bit before you start to see them.
Denise Freier: And as I think about this for sales and especially for our strategic account managers, who really rely on way more than just talking to their clients but on building those long-term relationships. So why is this going to have such a big impact on them?
Tim Pollard: So I think a good way to think about this is that sales is almost unique –in fact, possibly unique among all the professions in terms of its social dimension. You know, you go to the dentist, you fall asleep, right? Dentistry will still happen. You may never meet your tax accountants, but your, your, your taxes will be prepared.
Selling is a profoundly social function. It’s a, a delicate, complex ballet between buyer and seller, as everyone listening to this knows.
Well, what’s happening, of course, or what’s happened, is the sales process has moved into an asocial environment, an environment that has fundamentally different social norms and dynamics and rules. So how’s that going to work? How do you now execute a social process in an asocial environment?
Now think about strategic accounts. As you said, relationships in the strategic account setting are really paramount, probably much more so than the sort of transactional world of the general sales environment. Relationships just don’t work the same in a virtual environment. And I think there’s probably three ways that relationships change.
The first way is because of this inherent social distance, this lack of social feedback, the loss of intimacy that you’d have gotten in a live meeting. One thing we absolutely know is it’s much harder to build trust. We’re hearing this from so many companies. I mean, you know, LinkedIn, Cisco, IBM, all these different companies, like it can be very hard to build trust. So if you’re a SAM and suddenly you’ve got some new contacts, there’s been some turnover. How are you going to build and establish trust with them? Because it’s much harder to do in a virtual meeting.
I think the second aspect of the way relationships are changing is, it’s been quite well documented, but we’re hearing it from everybody, that the number of people involved in the buying process is increasing. More people are showing up in sales meetings on the customer side than ever have before. And I think that’s probably coming down to pure convenience. You know, some relatively interested guy in Frankfurt wasn’t going to probably fly to New York for a meeting. But they might show up on the zoom call now. So now a strategic account manager has got to understand the breadth of the buying group and how it’s changing and how to respond to the issues, positions and interests, as we often describe it, of those other individuals. So in other words, the breadth of relationship is also growing.
And then the third aspect of this is all of this is having to happen usually in much shorter meetings. I was talking to a head of sales of a business unit at Cisco, and he said, “Look. If I fly out to see a customer, you always get two to three hours if you bothered to fly to their city. And probably lunch before and maybe drinks afterwards.”
And that’s kind of the way of the world. And that’s been my experience, right? If I’m ever out visiting a client, you very rarely just get an hour. It’s a couple of hours and a drink afterwards. Well, these meetings are now 45 minutes, and they are hard stop, beginning and end, because people are so over-scheduled.
So now you’ve got to build relationship and trust. You’ve got to do that across a broader buying group, and you’ve got to do it in a shorter space. That is not the same. That is a very, very profound difference. And I think strategic account managers are going to feel like almost like their wings have been clipped a little bit. Like how do I do this? I mean, how do I operate? How do I get my arrow through this really narrow window?
It leads to the need for SAMs to appropriate a whole new set of skills. You don’t just operate in a virtual environment just like you did in a live environment. “Hey, as long as I know how zoom works.” That’s completely missing what’s changed.
Denise Freier: You know, a couple of things come to my mind when I hear you talk about this. A simple one is have you noticed a difference in even the ability to get a meeting with key clients, or has that become easier? We have this question many times in SAMA.
Tim Pollard: Really interesting. Yeah. I mean, I mean, we see just from a category point of view, big changes in the sales model, the sales meeting and the sales message. And perhaps we’ll talk about those later. But as you think about the meeting, there’s a lot of variety here. In some industries, it’s getting a lot harder to get the meeting. Most obviously is pharma. Doctors used to see a pharmaceutical rep like between patients. They might see five or six a day. Well, they’re not doing that because they’re not in the office anymore. So now what doctors are doing is lining up one zoom call for one lucky winner at the end of the day. So they’re going from five or six meetings a day to one. Well, what that means is for some pharmaceutical companies I’ve been talking to, their reps are going from 20 meetings a week to four meetings a week.
So in an extreme case, it’s getting worse. We’re definitely hearing some companies saying it’s harder to get meetings. Others not so much harder to get meetings, but almost universally, those meetings are getting shorter. I think if I was going to try and distill a pattern, what I’m hearing most is that clients are now taking meetings based on relevance. Like they’re willing to take meetings if what you have to say is relevant. If you’re Cisco talking about their amazing WebEx platform, you’re going to get meeting because people need to understand how to work virtually. Or as one pharma rep said, “Hey, if we had a COVID vaccine, we would get every meeting we wanted.
In order, therefore, to succeed, what companies have got to get better at is the messaging they’re using to get the meetings. No longer good enough to say, “Oh, Hey Denise, let’s just do a quarterly check-in. Like, no, that’s not going to hit my relevance bar. And I think SAMs who have been historically used to getting a free pass, getting the meeting with the customer without necessarily having to prove relevance may end up a bit shocked. They might end up a bit disappointed.
We’re actually working with a lot of clients now, not just on their messaging for the meeting, but the messaging they use to get the meeting. You’ve got to have, you’ve got to give your customer a reason to get on the calendar.
I think it’s easier for SAMs because they do have deeper existing relationships, but I think it’s incredibly dangerous to simply rely on that. Like, hey I’ll get the meeting because they know me. That’s not going to be true. You, you better be relevant or you’re not gonna win the battle for the calendar.
Denise Freier: I think that is so true. And you mentioned meetings and model and messaging. I’d like to explore these a little bit more. What really are those significant impact areas and things we should be aware of?
Tim Pollard: So at the very highest level, I think we will not even recognize the sales model, you know, that we’ll see in two or three years time compared to what we’ve seen in the past. I mean, let’s, let’s break this down a little bit. It’s easy to say, “Hey, we saved a few bucks on travel.” But let’s understand what’s really happening there. If you were a heavy travel business, you know technology, industrial, anything like that.
We’re talking to companies now who are saying that their sales people have got back 30 to 40% of their time. Think about how much you traveled, Denise, with IBM and how much I’ve always traveled. So great. We saved a few dollars. What that really means is some sales organizations, are now. 30 to 40% over capacity. I mean, you’re talking about, you know, quite possibly -we’ve run the numbers here. You know, if you had a sales force of a hundred, you might be able to get the same market coverage with 50 to 60 people.
So the first thing that’s going to change is capacity and coverage models. Now some companies will use that capacity to expand reach and reach more customers. Let’s be pretty clear how most companies are going to do this. They’re going to say I can cover my market and halve my sales cost so that is going to be happening.
I think though, when you think about strategic accounts, I think it’s more interesting applications. I mean, firstly, if I’m a SAM, I used to travel 40% and I now hardly travel at all, I might now be able to take on an extra couple of accounts. I might be a SAM with three accounts, perfectly reasonable now to take on a fourth or a fifth, you know, obviously models vary widely. So I think, I think that’s how the capacity piece will show up, and companies will be very excited, I think, to be able to put more clients into the hands of their best salespeople. So that’s a positive.
I think there are more interesting things, though. The really interesting word I want to focus on his word alignment. There’s no longer any relevance of the concept of geographic alignment. For example, territory will cease to mean anything. I can now match sellers to buyers based on a whole lot of things I never thought about before. I mean, obviously, industry focus or industry expertise. If I worked for a process automation company and I am an absolute rock star on the brewing industry, I could now be assigned to the top five brewers in the world because I don’t have to worry about the geographic limitations that used to exist.
So I think companies are going to want to think hard about realignment, particularly based on customer type or vertical or segment. And by the way, that means you might get much, much more finely tuned areas of specialization of salespeople. Because it was never economically viable for me, if I was specialized on, you know, small family- owned or midsize family- owned construction companies, privately held. I could never make that work globally, but I can now, because all these things are virtual.
If you go further, I think there’s something even more interesting than that, which is not just a alignment based on industry vertical or customer type, but based on other criteria. For example, behavioral criteria, gender interests . I have a client and… just a great guy. I’ve gotten to know the company well, but the individual who runs sales for them happens to be a guy who loves fly fishing and is a particular lover of single malt whiskey. And we have just hit it off like crazy. And it occurred to me that matching based on sort of behavioral alignment or interests suddenly becomes a real prospect. So you can look at your customer base and say, “Well, what is the best possible fit we could achieve between our teams and our client teams?”
And you can now do that in hitherto unimagined ways. It could be based on interests, could be based on gender. It could be based on age and the data’s out there. Now, of course, you can look on LinkedIn and learn an awful lot about a client.
I’m not saying you rebuild yourselves organization based on their whiskey preferences. What I am saying is we can now think about alignment in ways we never thought about it in the past because the, the geographic component’s sort of been, been taken out of the equation.
A couple of other interesting ones. We’re a primarily US-based company. We just picked up a big deal to do some messaging for a large company in Belgium. Why did we do that? How did we do that? Because we now had access to that market because the world’s virtual that we never had before. Now, I’m guessing somewhere in Belgium, there’s a messaging company that maybe looks a bit like us, not as good, probably, but a bit like us. They’d never heard of us. They never had to worry about us. And suddenly, you know, notionally at least, they lost a deal to us. And I think it’s important for every company out there to think about, well, who are the new competitors who may now enter some of the terrains that we were historically protected in? We were never a threat to a company in Belgium. We just took a large deal off somebody, assuming they would’ve gone with somebody else.
The other thing about this elimination of geographic boundaries is it’s going to redefine competitive terrain. I can go after anybody in the world now, as long as language and time zone stuff. But that is going to change. Most of your SAMA members are probably going to see non-traditional competitors entering their world because they’re now unencumbered by, by traditional geographic boundaries. So there are some very big structural changes there on, on the model side.
Denise Freier: I think that is absolutely amazing insights. When I think about alignment and now being able to use some secondary traits in order to better align with your customers, there really is a major impact on how we can serve our customers. And I think the threat of new competitors is certainly out there. Have you noticed any difference among industries or geographies that are impacted more than others?
Tim Pollard: Yeah, I mean, I think as I said earlier, some, some industries seem to be real outliers, like pharmaceutical in that their customer behaviors are changing. Based on a poll we did of our clients, one third of companies we’re hearing are saying, “It’s getting harder to get meetings.” Two-thirds of them are saying, It’s really unchanged or even a little bit easier, mostly not easier.” So about a third seem to be saying it’s harder to get meetings. We talked about that before. Almost all of them are saying meetings are getting shorter.
So I’m not seeing any direct industry trends. What I would come back to is what I said earlier is it all seemed to be based on relevance. The companies that are having less trouble getting meetings or not having trouble getting meetings, they’re the ones that really solve important business problems for their customers. And they’re good at explaining the problems they solve.
Asyou know we are fanatical in our messaging model about anchoring messaging in the customer problem you solve. That’s always been important. That gets even more important now because I think customers are becoming more selective about the meetings they take. So if you go in with a, “Hey, I’d love to have a meeting, tell you about some cool new solutions we’ve developed.” Like, good luck with that. That’s completely sender oriented.
I think the doctrine we’ve always taught of being thoroughly customer problem- centric gets even more important in a, in a world where customers get more selective. Because I think it is true to say customers are becoming more selective based on perceived relevance. If you’re out there talking about problems, real problems, that the customer perceives that they have, you shouldn’t probably have trouble getting the meeting. You will still have to deal with a shorter meeting. But if you’re out there with the traditional, “Hey, let’s have a check-in” or “Let me tell you about some cool new things we’re doing.” I think there’s there’s reasons to believe that’s going to be less effective.
Because just customers just… their days are so crammed now, they’re so packed. They are having to be more selective about the meetings they take. And I think that’s going to blind side a lot of sales organizations.
Denise Freier: You know, let’s take this concept of relevance and messaging and really focus on the messaging components. How can they come up with the right messaging and really understand that it’s directly relevant to their client?
Tim Pollard: That’s an incredibly interesting question. I mean, I think that there’s a governing principle, which I would like to tattoo on the forehead of every salesperson I ever meet, which is: you do not talk to someone the same way in a virtual environment as you do in a live environment. It’s ludicrous to think that you can do that, but that’s what people are doing. They’re taking the same tired, sad slide decks, and they’re pumping them into zoom. And they’re wondering why it’s not working. You do not talk to somebody the same way in a web-based conversation as you do, if you’re alive and in the room.
And I think I think I’d probably break this, Denise, really into two big buckets: the skills that you need for the meeting and the message. Just talking about the message first. I would probably encourage people to think really hard about three things. Number one: extreme simplicity. In the virtual environment, it’s already, well-proven from research. Customers have less intellectual bandwidth. Zoom fatigue is real. And if you over-complicate your message, you are going to lose them. If you just take that old slide deck and you just speed talk your way through it to try and cover it in 35 minutes, you’re going to absolutely crash and burn.
So you need this doctrine of, of simplicity, elegant simplicity. Linearity of narrative. This has gotta be a very crisp, clean, very, very clear narrative. And and we’ve always told people you’ve got to lower the bar on complexity, and that probably has to even get a little bit lower. By the way, just very practical tips here. Always try and schedule your sales meetings in the morning for the customer. You don’t want to be at three o’clock when they’d been on six hours of zoom calls in the day. Let someone else fight and lose the zoom fatigue battle.
I mean, I’m hearing a lot of people now saying their day is completely different. Their working day is 7:00 AM to 11 for customer calls, and then all the other stuff you want to do in the afternoon, but routinely I’m going to try and have every important conversation with my clients in the morning. You want to try and get on the good end of the, the fatigue curve.
I think the second thing in the message is where you were going is, you have to intentionally build in engagement. Intentionally build in engagement. And I think I really can’t improve on the idea that you’ve got to be ruthlessly focused on the customer problem. What is the customer problem you solve? What’s causing it? Why is it hurting them more than they think it is? What are its different dimensions? What are the things about that problem they haven’t thought about? And that is the key to engage them.
What we know in virtual meetings was true in live meetings, but it’s become accentuated. Is that your customer’s going to give you quite a lot of attention in the first few minutes. And they’re really going to decide in that moment whether it’s worth leaning in for the rest of the 45 minutes or the hour. If you lead poorly and you lose them, they’re probably not coming back. So this doctrine we have of, of taking a problem, deconstructing it, we call it lead and linger, is much more likely to draw a draw of customer in.
The third aspect here is very important as well is designed interactivity. Anyone on this call who has been in a live sales meeting knows that you are not going to have much trouble getting the customer talking. In fact, usually one of the key skills in sales is, is kind of controlling it, not going to get out of hand. But you’re going to have a lot of conversation. It’s again, well-proven already that in a zoom environment, people go passive. They go, they kind of go to receive mode and they just kind of sit back. But as you all know, monologues don’t win deals. You’ve got to get the customer into a dialogue. Well, you now have to intentionally design that.
One of the things we’ve added to our model is much more intentionality around the designed moments of interactivity. Great concept here is: fabulous question at the right moment. Fabulous question at the right moment. You find that moment in the conversation where you want to generate interactivity, and you’ve got to design a fabulous question for that moment. You can’t just go through the customer problem and say, “So what do you think?” And the customer goes, “Yeah, it’s a problem.” That kills you. Right. You’ve got to say, you know, “We’ve looked at these four dimensions of the problem, which of these four are most concerning to you?” In other words, force the customer to lean in intellectually. That’s a skill. You don’t just do that by accident. You have to intentionally design the moments of interactivity.
I said, three. I’ll actually give you a fourth one for the message. The fourth key thing for the message is how you embed it into a great document. Slide decks are death. They’re death in a live meeting, and they’re particularly toxic in a virtual meeting. You want a great document, but you want to sort of an elegant, conversational document. It can be digital. That’s not a problem. But you want a document that I think beautifully captures your arguments, main points, not dozens of pages of bullets.
I was talking to a company yesterday, actually, where we had helped a couple of SAMs build a message for Coca-Cola. And they distilled this deck down to a great two pager. It flowed really beautifully. It laid out the problem. It’s proper, fully formed sentences, but nicely distilled. And that customer, they actually mailed the document to the customer, which I thought was a very good idea. We would recommend that where it’s possible. And they, they mailed a bunch of copies, and they know that that customer was going to actually take that document away and begin to use it to have their own internal conversations.
As you know, we, we believe retellability, the ability of the people you’ve met with to retell your story for, for your story, then to continue to move within the customer in the meeting rooms that you’re not, in those big meeting rooms where the decision-making bodies meet in. That’s absolutely paramount. And the document is 90% of that. The document is 90% of the retellability of your message. Let me put that another way. If your message is to be retellable, if it’s to travel within the customer when you’re not there, 90% of your message being retellable is, is really gonna flow from how well you’ve built the document.
So I think those are some of the really critical things you’ve now got to get right. I mean, most of those were in some way important in a live meeting, like simplicity and designing interactivity. But those really get amped up in a virtual environment. Again, this is what people are missing. They think they can just take their old sales conversation and just do it over zoom and project slides. And that’s going to be crash and burn. It really is for a lot of people.
Denise Freier: You know, I love the way you describe that as being intentional. I think that really is the difference maker here. So any, any final thoughts or advice on what our audience should do next? How can they prepare their own SAMs to be effective in this environment?
Tim Pollard: I think the absolute worst thing you could do right now is just pretend this isn’t happening. When we laid out this white paper, we said there are seven big things we’re seeing. I know all seven will not equally hit all industries. But some of the seven are going to hit every industry. You can’t just pretend it’s not happening. What I would do and, and we can help facilitate this if you want, but you don’t really need us most of the time, is I would download that white paper .And the white paper’s associated with three short films. There’s no charge for any of this. It’s it’s out there. It’s for free. There’s a film on sales model, sales message and sales meeting.
I would have an internal session to go through this thing and just simply ask two questions: is this going to hit us? And if it is, what are we going to do about it? It’s that simple. And I think you might go through and say, “Hey, we’re fine. None of these seven are going to hit us.” I don’t think that’s going to happen, but I think what’ll happen is… and we’ve seen this already with a good half dozen companies who started thinking about this. Companies that we’ve talked to are looking at this, and they’re saying, “Damn, three or four of these are really going to hit us. We have to think about…”
I mean, some we know we’re going to hit everyone. You have to structure your message differently in a virtual meeting. You can’t get around it. That hits everyone. But, but go through the seven. Okay, which of the seven are really gonna really going to be important for us? And then, okay. Maybe it’s three or four. Okay, so what are we going to do about this? We have a client that is going to completely upgrade their messaging to get meetings because they’re saying it’s getting harder, we need to boost our, our relevance quotient.
There’s a, there’s a a note upfront in the white paper that says we don’t think all seven will hit all industries equally. You have to know which ones are going to hit you. And you have to decide how you’re going to respond. So this is very much in, in, in the sense of a thought leadership piece. That is very much what this is. It’s a thought piece. We’re not saying this is going to happen to you in this way. We’re saying that some of these are going to happen to you and you, you need to know what they are. So it’s a great fodder, I think for a kind of a half-day focus group brainstorming session for sales leadership everywhere.
Because if it doesn’t hit you, who cares? It doesn’t matter. But if it is going to hit you and you don’t get out ahead of it, it’s going to be very dangerous.
Denise Freier: You know, Tim, I thank you so much for the insights you’ve provided to us. I strongly encourage all of our listeners to get more information from Tim’s white paper, which can be accessed through the notes and the link on the podcast series. But also let me invite you all to an exclusive workshop symposium that Tim has offered to do for SAMA. This way, we can really explore the concepts of what this means to a strategic account managers. That will be upcoming, April 29th. So again, Tim, thank you so much for your time, and I really appreciate your insights and participation in today’s podcast.
Tim Pollard: Yeah, thanks Denise. That was a lot of fun. And yeah, I think if people have read the white paper or watched the films, then if they join that symposium, I think we’ll have a really fun sort of a Q&A session on what might this mean for you. It’ll be fun to have the SAMA community there sort of in one virtual room, discussing the implications. I think that could be a really rich session.

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