What does key account management look like in a major educational institution? We find out with host Harvey Dunham as he takes Liz Pettinger, the Director of Key Account Management and Operations at Bellevue University on to the show. Liz explains what she’s working on, what kind of environment she’s working in, and why strategic account management is the right approach for it. Being the only SAMA client who works in higher education, Liz gives us a unique perspective on the interesting interplay of B2B and B2C aspects of key account management in the context of higher education, corporate learning and development, career development, and succession planning. She also explains how SAMA has helped her team refine its processes and build more meaningful relationships with its clients.
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The Key Account At Bellevue University: Liz Pettinger And Harvey Dunham
Liz, what an honor it is to be speaking with you. Thank you so much for being willing to share your Key Account journey at Bellevue University with us. Welcome.
Thank you, Harvey. It’s an honor to be here.
The honor is all ours. I cannot wait to learn more about what you are doing. Shall we dive right in and get started?
I would say let’s do that.
You are the Director of Key Accounts at a university and to the best of our knowledge, you are the only one of our customers working in higher education in the way that you are doing this. Can you explain to all of us what you are working on and the environment you are working in? Why you have decided that it was right for a strategic account management approach? I would love to get that orientation going in.
I have had that question several times on my journey through the CCM program as well. “Why are you here essentially? How does it relate to higher education?” The very simple answer to start is being in higher education, we are constantly wanting to learn to expand upon what we are doing already and find best practices. That’s where this all started. We saw that SAMA had best practices in account management.
We, being the natural learners that we are and wanting to do that moving forward, thought this would be a great opportunity and experience. As far as the environment in which we work, Bellevue University has a corporate arm. That’s the arm of the university where I work in. We have had corporate partnerships for over several years in which we work at all different levels, capabilities, and learning interventions with different occupations all over the world and the country.
Throughout those several years, we have been trying to continually do better, and find the best practices. That’s why at this time, it seemed like the perfect time to jump into another opportunity where we could learn, grow and be better for our partners for our final end-user, the student. All the things we are learning through SAMA have helped get a jumpstart on doing that for us. That gives a little background of why we started with SAMA to continue to expand upon what we are already doing and to grow from there.
It strikes me that educational, professional, and personal development is not something I can get my hands on. It’s intangible. Can you talk about the challenge of selling an intangible product or solution? How do you work through this with customers?
You are right, it’s not something that you immediately think, “I can put my hands around it like a glass, a phone or something like that.” Also, with education and learning, there’s a longer runway for people to make decisions sometimes about whether or not that’s the right move for them. It reminds me of the pit of misery, which we learned in core zero of they have to be in that pain to decide whether or not they want to move forward with something that’s going to utilize their free time to learn and make advancements within their own careers.
That’s what we try to focus on when we talk with new partners or with students talking about, “What’s your end goal for learning and up-skilling yourself? Is it for your job and your position? Is it to beat your high school senior to college? Do you want to be finished with college before they start? What is your goal behind using education in that way?” We try to also use past success stories of partners we have worked with that have seen a great return on investment with investing in their employee population with education and training.
Over the last couple of decades, we have had certain partners do research studies with us. We had more tangible information at that point to show the results of learning and learning interventions within the organization. Beyond that, what we look at is, “Is education successful in your organization and what does that mean to you? Are you looking to retain employees? Are you looking to upskill a very specific portion of your organization?” Maybe it’s your IT team you are wanting to learn a specific skill.
Once we can go through some of those goals that the partner has with bringing in a learning intervention, it helps us formulate the thought around how we can make education more tangible for them. It is tricky initially when they come in and talk about this intangible product or solution that you are selling. As you talk through it, look at past stories and what they are trying to do, and then put the metrics into it, retention, recruitment or what key performance indicators are you trying to change, it makes it much more real and tangible for them.
When you are looking at the customer, what’s interesting is that your immediate customer, their customer that they are thinking about and thinking about educating, developing and it’s their employees. How do you manage that dynamic of an economic buyer? Somebody who is going to bless what it is that you are doing but getting to those individual learners. How do you do that?
That’s a great question because it comes up a lot and we have a new employee starting. We have B2B conversations because to your point, you are trying to get that buy-in to the organization that you are a good strategic fit for them. Often with our team that tends to be an HR director or a chief learning officer that we are having those B2B conversations about what learning interventions will help meet the key performance indicators you are targeting. Like we were talking about, what are the big pains that you need to see a change within your organization?
They are thinking of the organization as a whole. Once we have had those conversations and they have decided, “I need to get more employees within our organization to have a full Bachelor’s degree because the jobs we are hiring for require it and we want to hire internally. That’s what we are trying to do, help upskill them so they can be prepared to fill these positions, that succession planning.” Once we have those conversations, it shifts more to a B2C conversation when we are talking with the individual employees and what’s in it for them.What are your customer's customers thinking? And how can you realize what they care about to help get them on board? Click To Tweet
Are they wanting to reach a different position with the organization? Is it about a salary increase? Is it only that they want that knowledge to help them feel better in their current position even if they don’t elevate to a different position with the organization? It’s also about what’s in it for them like we were talking about. Do they have personal goals around what they want to do with their college education? They have been waiting many years to finish their degree and now they want to do it.
You have to think through those different pieces. You are right. We refer to it as a B2C sell. You are talking B2B and B2C at the same time and engaging with both audiences. On our side, we look at messaging. “Is the messaging a B2B voice? Is it a B2C voice? What is that?” It reminds me a bit of that third box thinking. “What are your customers’ customers thinking? How can you realize what they care about to help get them onboard?” That portion of the SAMA training has come in handy and is easily relatable to our job every day. That’s a great question. It can get a little tricky and hard to explain at times but it works well once you get it going.
You are doing this at the beginning as you are starting to formulate a plan with a customer. You are meeting with the economic buyer as I described them, the head of HR, learning, and development, those folks. You are also talking to the employee, the people that need to be trained and that want to improve themselves and develop. Do you bring that together, those two points of view and a proposal?
Yes. When we figure out what the need is at the organization, maybe it’s a customized certificate for IT, for example. The contract comes together with a statement of work we are able to discuss together the needs and lay that out in the contract. There are also parts of our contracts that include, “How is this going to be promoted? What are the requirements on both sides? If it’s one-sided, this will not go well.” In higher education, what we have learned is that if an employee does not feel supported by their HR team or learning and development team to do something, why would they go do it?
If they feel that support and that stamp of approval are coming from those positions, they are much more likely to engage in it because that means that their company is supporting them. Their companies are investing in them, then they are more likely to want to go forth and do that. A portion of our contracts has to do with the commitment of the organization to say, “That’s great we are doing this but you are going to need to make sure that you promote it, and everyone hears about it.”
As much as we like to go out and visit customers and partners, we can’t sit next to them day-to-day and tell them how great of an opportunity this is. They have to promote internally. That’s a portion of our contract that speaks to that B2C side or the end-user, which is the student. It is a partnership between our two organizations and how we can align these high-impact strategic solutions for their employees. You have to have both working together to do it.
I had not really thought about that but not only is there the training and the education but how’s that going to relate to your audience? How do you promote that to them? You have already talked to their students and you know what they want. You know why they are doing this, and what their motivation is. Probably a lot easier. I know in marketing if you know what the audience wants to hear and know more about, it helps a lot.
If the organization is saying, “We are investing in you, our employees.” It creates loyalty for those employees. It creates excitement because they have a new opportunity that’s going to be recognized within their organization. We have some companies that develop alongside us where they put Bellevue University courses or programs into their career development paths for their employees. That works well for those employees.
I’m talking to my manager about my career path at the company, and then I see a direct link to a learning path or intervention that will help me get where I need to get in my career path. With those companies that we have a strategic partnership with, we try to go right alongside what they are already doing with career planning and education plans to help their employees get the fullest experience they can to meet their next goal or the next step.
It must be very rewarding when you see it happen and all.
It is. I have been at Bellevue for many years. Every day has different and new challenges but it’s exciting. I agree that seeing that final student at Bellevue walk the stage and hopefully get that job they wanted is rewarding. We call it a goosebump moment where we are so happy and proud of those people that are achieving their goals and dreams.
That’s great but got to be fun to be working in an environment like that. We take it to the next step back to you. You were not a SAMA coming into this role but now, you are responsible for the company’s SAMA program or Bellevue University SAMA Program by putting it together. I’m curious how that journey went. What processes you are putting in place? How you are starting to form a team and develop this?
I was glad to hear that when you mentioned that because to give you a little background on my team. My team of account managers, on average, have all been there for at least ten years. We have a very experienced and dedicated team to our cause and our mission. Over the last couple of decades, we have been working strategically with organizations across the country and the world. A lot of the information that we are learning for the SAMA program is not necessarily new or shocking to us. The ideas behind it, which is very positive to have that feeling. If it was shocking, I think we have an issue.
Since it’s not new and shocking, it’s also easier to implement because it makes sense. A lot of what we are learning makes sense that we can implement some of these processes and ideas in a very easy way because it’s easy to see what the result might be. What I mean by that is when you said like, “How do you get them to do it or how do you incentivize them to utilize these processes and these ideas?” My response to that is that it’s because we can show a very effective and efficient way to maybe get to the business sooner or make it more easily repeatable. That’s what I keep talking about with my team when I look at these processes and ideas through SAMA.
You are able to use processes to then repeat, hopefully, the same end-goal that you’ve got the time before. That’s what we were missing. The account segmentation, for example. That’s something that we have implemented since working with SAMA. What I was able to do was take the trusted advisor, their preferred supplier, and the vendor statuses and move that into a tier system for our accounts. We work with over 100 accounts.
Before SAMA, it was much of a mindset of everyone being treated the same. As you can imagine, that created a lot of extra work at times. It created a lot of spinning where, if I have to treat this account the same and do this with this account, it costs a lot of time for pause and installing, which was not our intention. Everyone was trying their best to give the best service to every partner. Now that we have been able to do account segmentation and these tiers, it’s cut down and hopefully, we will continue to cut. It’s still pretty new but we have seen changes so far that it’s cut down on time spent on certain accounts.If an employee feels supported by their HR team or by their learning and development team to do something, they're much more likely to engage in it because that means their company is investing in them. Click To Tweet
When you think about the account and the vendor status, if we are not a priority to them, that’s fine. We will work with them at that level but we should not be putting our strategic partnership processes and ideas into that account if that’s not what they are seeking. It’s helped us separate further out where our human resources and financial resources are spent. That helped alleviate the account managers. A little bit of that mental heaviness that comes when you are trying to give everything to everyone the same. I hate to say less over here but you are behaving more strategically with the type of account that you are dealing with.
I think that has helped the account managers see that they can get to their end goals a little bit more quickly in some ways, then know that they are going to have to spend more time on an account like a strategic account. They are going to get probably more out of that with that time and energy. Even though they are putting more time and energy and they are going to get more time and energy back from that partner.
Through some of these, that’s an example of a process that we have implemented with the account segmentation it’s gone beyond what that account looks like in account management. We have gone on to assign marketing resources and levels of marketing that they would receive at each tier as well, which has helped too. When I talk about financial resources, that helped as far as what type of marketing should they receive? Everything and anything under the sun or is it these specific automated processes?
From there, we have had conversations about how to start bringing in the white-boarding process that’s been in the SAMA courses and how to repeat that process. Every account, if you go in with this type of mentality, then you can start comparing accounts too to see who’s responding to what and why they are responding, why they are not responding. I keep saying the word repeatable but I love that we have more metrics.
That’s what SAMA has brought to us. We are able to put more metrics behind things than make a decision. I know that was probably a long answer to your question but it’s helped us divide and conquer our high opportunity situations and make sure we are serving our partners the way they want to be served. That has been very effective for time-saving and inefficiencies on our side.
I’m thinking back to when we first talked probably years ago, where you were and you were looking at this problem, this collection of customers and we talked about, saying, “Are they all the same? Are they different?” They are all different.
You are right. That’s such a good point to bring up because we did talk a couple of years ago. Now you mentioned that out loud makes me feel very accomplished of where we have ended up as of now.
You are doing great pioneering work in many ways. You talked about metrics and those things but this is probably more qualitative. How would you compare the conversations that your account managers are having with the customers now compared to how it was before?
We are still at the beginning of seeing exact changes because what I’m asking my team to do now is I’m challenging them at times to say, “Start trying to use the language co-discovery and co-value. Talk about items that you might do in a whiteboard session with them.” I have been trying at times to pop into calls and shadow these conversations to see how the response might be different.
I do have to say with two of our bigger accounts. We started trying to approach it in more of a SAMA ask way so we can utilize these processes and procedures. It’s going well. It’s interesting. What I’m noticing is that some of the conversations don’t have to be as long. It does not have to be a drawn-out timeframe between conversation and conversations A and B because we are asking those precise questions and we are able to take action on it.
We were asking the right questions but maybe not with that action behind it. What I’m seeing as we work with SAMA is that we are able to have an action item before, then take that action, move forward, and come to the next call ready to go. Tying it back to what’s in it for that customer, their key performance indicators, and their goals over the next year. We have one partner who wants to be the best place to work, which many people would not think directly relates to education but it relates to employee engagement.
If they are engaged and they are loyal to the company because you are providing opportunities to develop themselves, it relates back to that. These conversations are being tweaked in ways that we can start to use that language and make it more natural in the client conversation. I’m seeing that. The verbiage is being more naturally used, which is leading to more succinct conversations, which is a benefit to all of us in a world where it does not seem like there’s enough time to do anything.
What’s interesting to me is that you said the average age of your team or average years of experience is ten years of experience. You are trying to develop a new muscle or a new way of going about it. Probably, I would guess when they first look at it, it’s like, “This is going to make the process stretch longer. It’s going to be longer to get to the end.” It’s cool to hear. You have experienced the opposite so far that it’s compressing. It may take a little more work upfront, the discovery parts but it gets you to the end faster.
That’s a good point because when you look at it initially, it’s natural. When anyone looks at a new process that they go, “Now I have to log something here. I have to track something here.” Once you get into the flow of it, it does save you time. You are right. At the front end, sometimes there’s a little bit more work but it will create less work later because you have a clear direction on where you are wanting to go. I agree with that. It is interesting. I’m curious to see how this will continue to move forward.
That’s great. As if your challenge was not big enough to be a pioneer in this space, so to speak, then COVID came along and told us to do everything from home, virtually on a Zoom call or your favorite, Teams or whatever. How’s that working for you?
On one side of it as a university, as a whole, I feel very positive to report that our main niche is adult learners. We have been pioneering online learning for several years. I feel very positive to share that 90% of our learners were already learning online. Fortunately, there was not a big hiccup with our learners themselves, which was a very proud moment for our university. Now, granted, a lot of our learners had other things going on in their lives that prohibited, kept them from maybe continuing with their learning because they had different things going on in their own lives.The support that SAMA provides has been very helping in taking Bellevue University to the next level. Click To Tweet
Why I bring that up is because Bellevue University often has already been ahead of the curve when it came to the online environment and the online world. With our team in general, since we already had that mindset of, “We have people learning all over the world. We can figure this out. We’ve got this.” It made it slightly easier in that sense because it was a natural and cultural fit for our university.
However, I believe everyone on our team had to take a pause for a moment going, “What do I do now?” You need to take a minute to take a breath and think, “What’s my next step here?” Although we might feel comfortable with it, it does not mean our manufacturing partners feel comfortable with it or some of these partners that are out in the field working every day, working in agriculture. They can’t work from home and how does that work? The shift we found is that of succinct conversation.
We have been able to get on-calls, perhaps with people in the C-Suite. A little bit more easily than we would have been before where we had to fly out to their office, wait to meet with them then they’ve got pulled into a different meeting, which is 100% a reasonable excuse. They get pulled into a different meeting, even though we have a visitor from out of town. I found that we have been able to get more executive-level or C-level people on a Zoom call with us because they know it’s a twenty-minute window. It’s on their calendar. They are ready to go versus that traveling.
What it’s also allowed us to do is make our in-person time more impactful because that is also still very important to the relationship. To shake a hand, to look somebody in the eye, and have that impromptu conversation that only happens when you are going to lunch together. What we have tried to do is separate it into those Zoom calls that are succinct and have a very strong goal at the end of them. We move on and an action item.
When we are able to meet in person, which is farther and fewer, and between now, it’s made to be a very strong goal behind in the sense that we are coming here to discuss these points. We are going to be leaving with this goal in mind. To make sure that they feel that their in-person time is worth it because that’s what is happening now.
People’s in-person time becomes even more valuable because if they have to leave their house or their company to go do something, it better be worth it in a lot of ways. That’s the way our team has tried to continue to make that unique business valuable to them, whether it’s a Zoom or in-person but we have tried to shift a little bit to see what would they need at this moment, quarterly or if we are going to meet with them in person yearly. What does that look like?
That’s great to learn about your experience. I had not thought about the fact that you have been working on eLearning, remote learning, and virtual learning for a long time. That put you in a good position to deal with this crisis and know what the problems and the pain points are of the company that you are working with and their employees.
It does not stop any stress and anxiety that was caused for all people everywhere that had to shift. I did feel positive about our culture easily adapting. We already knew that people were learning online because they were busy. Now, they have to stay home and they are busy. Maybe it was a little bit easier of a shift than some other organizations.
I have got time for one more question here. I wonder, looking ahead. Where do you go from here? What are your next steps over the next year 3 to 5 years? What are you thinking about?
I feel like in a world now we are thinking minute by minute. I love to see that you wanted to ask that question because I had to think a little bit about what we want to do. I would say in this first year. I would like to fully implement this tier segmentation, this account segmentation process because now it is within my corporate key market area. At the university, we have several other key market areas. We have a community college, international, and military, which are key market areas that we focus on that particular demographic. What I would like to see in the next couple of years is that our team fully implements the segmentation. Show successes from it, so that these other key market areas start to see the success from it.
Over the next 1 to 3 years, we can utilize this through segmentation and other SAMA practices within these other teams. What I’m finding as we had talked about, it’s not that these processors, these ideas are brand new are shocking. It does take a minute to rethink and reframe how you look at accounts. I would like to have this more solidified in the corporate team and take it to these other key market areas over the next few years and have them implement, feel confident and see the successes from it.
At that five-year mark, I would love to see it like a well-oiled machine. We are using benchmarking assessments, an account evaluation matrix, and maybe using the Valkyrie tools to do more of that. Have it be very organized, so that anyone across the university will hear co-value, co-discovery and go, “I know what that means. I know what they are talking about,” where account segmentation. That goes beyond the business units at the university, which are the key market areas of community college, and international corporations.
The deans of our colleges, when we are working with them, we come to them with a company that asks us for a specific learning intervention. Maybe they want some type of program to help prepare their frontline managers to become managers. They know when we come to them with a strategic account, they go, “They have already vetted all these different ideas. They have already walked through it, so we know we are ready to go.” That’s what we did not have before. We come with an account that was not fully vetted to know that the company was fully invested.
They knew there was a budget in mind. They had the key players involved. My hope is that in five years, if we go to the dean of a college and say, “We are ready to go with a learning intervention for a strategic account.” They know we have all the key players. It’s serious. We are ready to move. There’s a budget and we move. That’s my hope is that it becomes integrated with the language, ideas, and theories behind it. We can cut down on the time of going, “Are you sure this is what you want to do?” No, this is what we want to do. This is the reason we are moving forward. That’s my hope with that five-year mark. We will see what you guys are doing and maybe we will implement the next great idea SAMA has.
We will talk. I learned some things, lifelong learner and all. Liz, thank you so much for sharing your time and this great adventure that you are on and the purpose of it. It’s great to talk to people. It comes through your voice that you are working on something that you believe passionately in and it’s so infectious. Thanks for sharing that journey with us. We appreciate it.
I appreciate all the support that SAMA provides because of all of these ideas and I’m sure many account managers feel this way, you are here and you learn it. It takes you a minute to try to figure out how you can implement it. I know you and many others have been helpful to help my ideas. I appreciate that. This has been a great program to take Bellevue University and our learning to the next level.
I hope we have given as much as we have got. Thank you very much, from all of us who are lifelong learners. Thank you. I wish you all the best in your continued journey to co-create and deliver value to your customers. We are here to help in any way that we can.
- Liz Pettinger – LinkedIn
About Liz Pettinger
As a Senior Relationship Manager, Liz continually serves as the contact and/or resource between Bellevue University and the client.
She administers and manages strategic facets of the existing client relationships to ensure contract deliverables/project goals are met.
In this role Liz engages in various trust building and strategic focused activities which include marketing activities, contractual planning, problem resolution, and budgeting efforts.
Also, as needed Liz provides analysis and recommendations of additional product/service offerings and consults with other Bellevue University team members and faculty to maintain/enhance existing relationships.
Other duties involved include interaction regarding the student experience. Liz prepares for and attends educational fairs and national/regional/local conferences to engage perspective students. In doing so Liz assists and leads these students through the discovery phase of educational, career and personal goals with dialogue in person and using email, telephone, and webinars.
At Bellevue University Liz has worked with several partner companies in their implementation of education based strategic initiatives for their employee population.