Any organization aiming to create a world-class SAM organization wants to see great results on growth, profitability, and customer satisfaction. SAMA has shown to deliver on these. Today’s extra special episode welcomes Max Walker, Director of Strategic Account Management – EMEA at Medtronic, as he illuminates why he’s such an evangelist for SAMA’s Certified Strategic Account Manager (CSAM) program and why the training represents the highest mark of professional development achievement for strategic and key account managers.
Max’s infectious passion and firsthand endorsements are a testament to the return on investment in our CSAM program, where graduates emerge with the skill set, mindset, and behaviors to build lasting, mutual growth with strategic customers and create transformational relationships that go beyond the product. Join this conversation and learn more about the CSAM certification program and how you can reap the exponential value it can provide.
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The Exponential Value Of CSAM Certification With Max Walker
HD: It’s my pleasure to introduce to you Max Walker who’s going to be with us. Max has been a longtime supporter of SAMA. He is a great friend. I’m looking forward to having a conversation with you. Max, thanks so much for your time and for being willing to talk with us.
MW: First of all, thank you for the invitation. It’s a real privilege. I’m excited to explore the topic with you. Thank you.
HD: I’m going to ask you some questions I don’t even know the answer to, which is typical. One of the first ones is to dive right into this. How did you find SAMA, and what brought you to our CSAM program in the first place?
MW: It goes back, for me, quite a few years. At the time, I was working at 3M. I had come out of a general management role running one of 3M’s divisions. I was in a sales excellence role. It was at a time when we were looking at a go-to-market transformation for the company, corporately speaking. I was in Europe. We were in the midst of standing up a new enterprise-wide SAM organization.
I was very active in looking out for information on how to go about building a robust, well-proven SAM business model. SAMA came right to the forefront of my search for companies that I could partner with and learn from at that time. Since then, I’ve discovered personally SAMA as being the leading with all topics associated with SAM KAM, particularly in best practice research and training, which we’re going to talk about. That’s where my journey started many years ago. Since then, I’ve enjoyed personal learning. Tremendously, also peer-to-peer networking, for me, is a real source of strength as well from SAMA.
HD: It seems that in the last couple of years, we’ve been very closely engaged with you both at 3M and Medtronic with certification and all. Clearly, you’re a champion internally. I know you’re a champion and a supporter. It’s often not exactly an easy request to make of your leadership to go down this path. How’s that working out for you?
MW: You’re right. It’s a significant investment, first of all. Before we even set about doing this in Medtronic and even 3M, I was intrigued, first of all, by some of the research that came out of SAMA. It spoke about the best SAMs being three times more likely than the average SAMs to deliver higher growth, better profitability, and improved customer satisfaction. I was intrigued by that.
Like any organization setting out to create a world-class SAM organization, they want all of those fruits. They want that higher growth rate, higher profitability, and customer experience and satisfaction. That fundamentally was part of the value proposition and the internal business case that was built in both those organizations that I’ve had the privilege of working for. We can talk in a second perhaps about my specific experience with the CSAM training. It started with building a clear business case for that investment in training and the CSAM program.
HD: It occurs to me. Did you ever have a moment of doubt or wonder about the fact that typically, someone who is elevated to the role of a KAN or SAM is one of your best sellers by far? These are the people you’re putting in charge of your largest and most important customers. Did you ever think about the fact maybe they’ve got no more to learn and that they’ve already arrived?
MW: It’s interesting. One of the biggest takeaways of the CSAM program in my experience in both companies has been the shift in mindset that happens from the beginning to the end of that program. It takes us 6 to 9 months to go through that CSAM training program. The biggest takeaway and the biggest impact has been that change or that mindset shift developing a much stronger customer-centric thought process. It leads to a customer-centric culture within the company.
In SAM, which is different from traditional selling, the value is often found beyond the product. That pursuit requires, in my experience, a fundamentally different mindset. It’s a different conversation than it’s a different approach. It’s a key part of why we need a program like CSAM and why that investment is so important. It all starts with a mindset shift and that external perspective, which is fundamentally different, quite frankly, from how we’ve grown up. Many people that have grown up in our sales or even a marketing role have learned something which is quite different from what CSAM embeds in your DNA.
HD: I know a lot of SAMs come from having been an account manager. You’ve probably had an experience where you’ve had people that have never been a seller or an account manager before and come into the role. What have you seen there? Is it possible for someone who’s got the right mindset but maybe not the right background to pick this up and become great at what they do?
MW: The short answer is yes. It is possible. In fact, one of my mantras is the role is much more of a business management role. A CSAM role is much more of a business leadership and business management role than it is in a sales role. In fact, some of the best SAMs that I’ve enjoyed working with have come from outside of the sales function.
They’ve come from functional leader roles, often from general management roles having run businesses of their own. They bring that broader perspective of how value can be created. They understand the deeper mechanics of our customer’s landscape of how value can be created and some of the challenges that our customers are facing. That broader and deep commercial acumen is important in the role. It is something that we speak to and is covered and addressed by the CSAM training program.
HD: That’s great. Tell us about your experience on a personal level how it’s impacted you and how you’ve evolved. Not many people have had the kind of experience you’ve had in two major different companies and two different industries.
MW: It’s been interesting. There have been some commonalities between my time at 3M and my time here at Medtronic. It’s interesting. At Medtronic, we’ve invested and trained over 100 of our SAMs in EMEA. That’s a sizable investment. The biggest impact for us in Medtronic has most certainly been that mindset shift. I’m a firm believer that if the mindset is right, the behaviors will often follow. Those behaviors need to be supported by a robust training program.If the mindset is right, the behaviors will often follow. Click To Tweet
We work with one of SAMAs key partners, The Summit Group. We enjoy a strong partnership with them. We have done so for many years in Medtronic. We’ve worked with them to deliver the CSAM program in-house. We don’t send our SAMs to SAMA. We’ve worked with you and with The Summit Group to do that in-house. We’ve done that for some key reasons. One was to customize that program to our industry. There are some unique elements of the MedTech landscape or the healthcare life sciences landscape.
We also see some very strong peer-to-peer learning from our cohort as they go through that together. That’s important not to miss that peer-to-peer learning can be a very strong part of the learning journey that people go through. The last for us, which is equally valuable, is embedding a common language inside the company so that we can converse with each other using the same methodology and the same language. That helps us learn together. It develops that learning organization.
HD: That’s great. I’ve said this a lot. I don’t have any empirical proof. It isn’t like I’ve gone out and researched this other than the years that I’ve spent in the industry. When I see peers get together, sales peers together, and SAMs get together, the conversation immediately starts with, “How do you do what you do? Tell me about that. You mentioned in the class this example. How did you make that happen with the customers?”
There are all these how-type questions that come when they get together. You’re bringing, for the audience’s perspective, people from completely different countries and completely different cultures. All of a sudden, people from Poland are somehow in classes with people in the Middle East or various different parts of the country. What do you see there, that interaction, among the peers during these classes in the training?
MW: It’s interesting. There’s a great cocktail of experiential learning. You mentioned bringing people from different cultures. We do that typically across EMEA. That in itself is a valuable learning experience. For those of our team that are leading global accounts or international accounts, cultural sensitivity is an important part of the skill and competence in managing those accounts.
We have done it understandably throughout the pandemic, interestingly enough, all remotely. We were a little concerned about the impact of that, but that’s worked incredibly well. We invest a lot of time. I mentioned earlier it takes us 6 to 9 months to go from start to finish of the CSAM program. Part of that reason is that we ask our SAMs to apply the learnings that we cover in the classroom in the real-world setting, and then come back and share their experiences of how that has gone. That practical learning journey is another vital part of the CSAM program that you’ve developed.
HD: That’s important. One of my good friends is Francis Gouillart. You’ve probably heard me mention Francis before or heard him speak. He said that adults learn best from peers and stories. That pretty well sums that up. You’ve been a SAM leader at 3M and Medtronic. In your own role, how do you see this certification program working in terms of the real nuts and bolts of strategic account management by getting insights, being able to understand the customer, helping them get to where they want to go as a company, etc.?
MW: There’s an internal element to that and probably an external element. If I can start with the internal, there’s that famous old phrase that says it’s our own company that’s harder to deal with. The customer is the easier bit. That’s often true. The CSAM program approach and structure have helped us inside Medtronic. It was true at 3M, too.
It’s helped us do a few things. It’s helped us to evangelize SAM on the inside of the company. It’s given us the toolkit or the understanding to do that through some of the components of the CSAM program. It’s certainly helped to drive stronger internal alignment across the company, particularly through building and managing high-performance teams. That common language that I mentioned earlier has been extremely useful in making us more agile and more consistent with customers. All of that framework as well enables better quality coaching for example.
The last thing on the inside that probably comes to mind is that battle for talent. In fact, it is probably harder now than ever before, but there’s a battle for talent going on for good-quality individuals. There is something interesting from a learning and development perspective. This was Gallup who ran a survey in 2021, indicating that something like 66% of employees ranked learning new skills. It was the third most important perk when evaluating a new job opportunity. I see in Medtronic that the whole CSAM program is part of our talent attraction, talent development, and whole protocol in terms of how we go about selecting and keeping the right people.
On the outside, there’s no question. We can talk in more detail about some of the experiences we’ve had. That whole external customer-centric mindset and framework, we’ll dig deeper into that perhaps a bit later. It’s been invaluable in terms of shifting the way we show up in front of customers and creating value for them and with them.
HD: That’s a powerful comment. I know it’s true. With your type of experience, there is no doubt in my mind that you’re telling us what you’re seeing. Before we go on to the whole thing, let’s go back to the SAM for a moment. One of the things that are a part and parcel of the process of becoming certified is to assess the strengths and weaknesses of the SAM. I always use the word weaknesses.
I flinch a little bit because weakness is not typically at this level. It’s not really a weakness. It’s an opportunity for improvement. It’s a way that they can go from being an average SAM to being that 3X SAM that’s delivering above and beyond anybody’s expectations. How important is that competency assessment for people that are going through it who are typically professionals that have been out working for quite some time? In a way, it’s like getting, “You’re exposing my strengths and weaknesses here.” What kind of reaction do you see when you’re doing it at scale?
MW: First off, and I speak for myself, you never stop learning. That’s essential because the landscape, our customers, and the market are changing so fast every day, every month. Back to the competency assessment, we’ve used that. It comes back to the importance of data for me. When you go through any learning and development program, there is always the potential for more subjective value assessments. The benefit of the competence model or one benefit is that it provides data that can give a good yardstick of the change impact.
Before and after going through the program, we developed our own competence model inside Medtronic. We’ve worked with SAMA, so I thank you for that. We benchmarked that with some peer companies and some of the networks that SAMA has. That gives us a great compass for personal development. We use the competence model very much for personal development rather than assessment. It’s positioned in that spirit.
We’ve aligned that with not just some of our industry norms but our company’s leadership model as well. We’ve embedded that so that we can embrace not just SAM competencies but leadership competencies as well. Regular assessment or regular self-reflection is critical to our team here at Medtronic. It’s critical to staying relevant. The customer landscape is changing at such a pace that we need to ensure we maintain a contemporary and relevant business model. The competency assessment and program are a key part of that.
HD: It’s very important. Hence, the SAMS themselves welcome it.
MW: Generally, it’s welcomed. I think back to how important the positioning is of that. We were quite deliberate in positioning that inside our company very much for personal development rather than any assessment. That’s important.
HD: You stand back and then look at it. I was writing something earlier about SAM as a business strategy. It is a business strategy, which means there are business outcomes that your leaders are expecting from this, that you’re expecting, and, dare I say, the SAMs themselves are expecting. Those are returns on investment, innovation, value co-creation with the customer, etc. How can you judge it? Think about, whether it was at 3M or Medtronic, the before and after. Are there some metrics that stand out for you about the improvement that you’ve seen?
MW: The reality, in my experience, is on quite a frequent basis. One is always having to clarify and recognize the return on investment that you are making. That’s right. That’s true of any major strategic initiative that any company or any corporation goes through. It’s not a one-off, in my experience. It’s a regular cadence of validating, demonstrating the results, and fine-tuning as well. We’ve had to change. We’ve had to adapt. That is reality.Always clarify and recognize the return on investment that you are making. Click To Tweet
Interestingly enough, given the changes in the way our customers are buying, that tremendously high percentage of their buying journey, which is completed through digital self-service or remote, means, to me, one of the interesting and probably one of the more important aspects of the CSAM program or the SAM role is on strategic co-creation. That, to me, is something that cannot easily be replaced by that digital self-serve. It’s almost part of our return on investment.
One of the key reasons for investing in CSAM is how we can get better at strategic co-creation. For me, it is one of the most tangible benefits that we get out of this. It was true during my time at 3M. 3M has a very strong innovation culture in her lifeblood. That’s true of us at Medtronic. The CSAM framework helps us to be a lot more planful and structured with our co-creation initiatives. It’s one of the vital aspects of the SAM role that cannot be displaced. We need to dial that up as a way of creating value for our customers and us in the process.
HD: I’m sitting here thinking about what you’re doing spreading the program out globally, and being able to hear people from Angola, Dubai, and all over the place giving their examples and things that they’re doing. Do you find yourself seeing true innovation and doors opening up that you haven’t considered in the past?
MW: Yes is the short answer. One of the benefits we enjoy being a large global organization is, in a sense, we have the luxury of learning from all quarters of the world. That in itself is and can be tremendously powerful. Particularly around that co-creation initiative, we’ve seen some fantastically innovative approaches by us and with our customers. This is not something we do ourselves alone. We do it in concert with our customers and our value chain ecosystem partners.
We’ve had some really innovative and groundbreaking new business models and new ways of working with customers. It has transformed not just the relationship that we have, but the long-term perception that Medtronic has in the eyes of our customers. We’ve had some great feedback from customers. Maybe we’ll talk about that a bit later. That whole co-creation, for me, has been one of the biggest returns on investments. It’s dialing that up and differentiating us in the eyes of our customers. The CSAM program encourages and embeds that strong value chain third-box thinking into the whole methodology. It works.
HD: I had the opportunity to work with you. It was true at 3M, and I believe it’s true at Medtronic, too. In terms of diversity, equity, and inclusion, I see people from all walks of life and all different persuasions. I don’t know if it’s an equal number of men and women. It seems very close. It could even be the women. In some cases, it may even exceed the men and how many people are having these roles. What’s your reflection on that?
MW: You’re right. At Medtronic, we work very diligently at driving that diversity agenda. It’s important to us not just because it’s the right thing to do, but fundamentally, back to the team nature of strategic account management, it is so critical for the quality of innovation. My experience is when you get those diverse teams together, the quality of innovation increases. That’s what we all want.When you get those diverse teams together, the quality of innovation increases. Click To Tweet
HD: That’s super.
MW: It’s true. I saw it at 3M. It’s true here at Medtronic as well. Back to your question on return on investment, this can be quite a tough area to quantify as well. What’s the return on investment of driving that inside a company? That diversity, equity, and inclusiveness agenda, in my experience, can create the culture and foster the right environment for good quality innovation.
We were doing that at 3M. We do that with Medtronic with our customers. We were working jointly through a structured co-creation process and, at times, delivering new products, new services, or new business models. It’s not easy. The value of having a structure to that is that it avoids what I often call the random acts of co-creation that often don’t work. They often fail. Having a structured process that CSAM covers and addresses are valuable.
HD: We’ve talked about several elements of the SAM program, but we haven’t talked a lot about the customer, even though they’re the center of all of this. What do your customers say about how Medtronic’s showing up? What are you hearing?
MW: It’s a great question. It’s probably the most important. I won’t mention any specific customers, but we’ve had an experience. Back to the co-creation example, we’ve had the CEO and the C-Suite members of our customer come back and say that they have never experienced working this way with manufacturers in the MedTech space before. For sure, that is driving better brand preference, better loyalty, and better mind share. They perceive it. They experience it. It gets back to that customer experience.
Customers at the C-Suite level, which is typically where we hold our conversations, experience a different relationship, a different conversation, and a different value fundamentally by working with a qualified SAM. I would suggest that alone, the results of that are justification enough for making the investment to do it.
We had similar feedback in my time at 3M when we stood up that new organization. It was not an easy task, but when we stood it up, we had C-Suite executives asking us or telling us, “What took you so long?” We were, like Medtronic, a big global metrics organization. They’re not always the easiest company to do business with.
One of the benefits of a SAM business model is that it can simplify the customer’s experience, transform the conversation, and change how companies show up. How companies show up becomes more important than what they show up. Those are some perspectives there, but the customer feedback is certainly strong. We have our own loyalty tracking program in Medtronic. That serves up some valuable insights for us on a regular basis.
HD: We get feedback from people who study procurement professionals and get their insights. They come back to SAMA, and then we feed them back to you all. I was working on this thing that I’m going to be talking pretty soon about with another customer. One of the things they say is, “Don’t tell us things that we can easily find out by ourselves. I know who you are. I can learn more in three minutes on the internet than you spending half an hour telling me about this.” In essence, it is, “Take your agenda, whatever agenda that you have, extract the parts that are relevant to me, and throw the rest in the bin. Don’t waste my time.”
MW: It’s all about building or being relevant in that conversation. Phil Styrlund of The Summit Group says that relevance matters more than intelligence. Being relevant is a key part of the opportunity. It speaks to what you’re saying. We need to align ourselves with the customer’s agenda, bring information, bring insight that they don’t have, and bring our experience to project into the future as to what’s likely to happen. To me, it gets back to that mindset that I spoke about at the beginning. These are all of the ingredients of changing the mindset of our SAMs, which is one of the most tangible impacts of going through the CSAM program.
HD: It seems that it’s infectious. I say this, particularly with leaders at your company. We’ve had the opportunity at the final ceremony where the CSAM has arrived and they’re formally certified. The leaders are there speaking. We’re listening to them talk about it. They talk to their SAMs. They talk to the leaders that are learning and development professionals. They make it all happen and bring it all together. They talk to the trainers. I feel like their narrative has changed.
MW: I agree with you. We invite often our senior executives to join the end of that CSAM certification journey. They love it. They find it a very energizing afternoon. It’s not every day that senior executives get to spend a whole afternoon immersing themselves in the customer. What’s going on with the customer? As Medtronic, how are we responding, showing up, and creating value? They certainly enjoy it. We certainly love having them.
The other thing we did, interestingly enough, is we took the core elements of the CSAM program. Inside Medtronic, we built ourselves our own version of what we call the SAM Leadership Program. We’ve put through close to 100 of our most senior executives through that program to help them understand a bit more about what SAM is and what it is not. They also leave feeling confident that they can go and lead, coach, and sponsor a SAM inside our company, which helps drive that internal alignment. It’s quite important.
HD: That’s incredible. I remember you mentioned that to me before, but there are so many things going on that it has flown out of my head. That’s a best practice, for sure. You’re in EMEA and worried about that part of the world. This is happening over the whole landscape of Medtronic, isn’t it?
MW: Yes. We started that in EMEA. We’ve, interestingly enough, reorganized globally to bring more of a global focus to our strategic account management and enterprise account strategy. There is more of that to come. I have no doubt.
HD: As always, you are a fountain of enthusiasm, leadership, and information. It’s great to get your insight. I can’t tell you how much it means to us for you to be such a great member of the SAMA community. We refer people to speak to you all the time. You always are very gracious to share your experience with someone that referred to you or respond to a question that we have. I can’t thank you enough for what you’ve done for us. Thank you.
MW: It’s a pleasure. It’s one of the other benefits of SAMA and the SAMA community. That networking is powerful. I’ve benefited personally from that with your help, so thank you.
HD: It’s a pleasure.
About Max Walker
Experienced senior Commercial Leader with a demonstrated history of working in various international B2B sectors. Skilled in General Business Management, Strategic Account Management, Marketing Management, Negotiation, Business Planning, Sales Management, and Six Sigma. Strong General Management professional with a Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) focused in Business Management from The University of Salford.