Nothing is quite as profitable and rewarding for a supplier as a strategic account. There is a myth embraced by far too many organizations that the health of this type of relationship is the province of the sales department. Let’s challenge our thinking on that.
First, the only reason a commercial organization exists is to gain and retain customers.
The core job of a sales team is new business development. Whether those activities focus on new customer acquisitions or expanding existing relationships, successful and productive salespeople spend their days looking for new ways to help their customers succeed. This notion holds true whether a customer relationship is transactional or a long-term strategic account. Your salespeople and sales managers need to focus on selling.
In too many organizations, things get murky when it comes to strategic accounts. In addition to selling, the sales team also shoulders the responsibility for day-to-day negotiations, implementation and operations meetings, and maintaining relationships between two invariably disparate cultures. Companies that sell complex products will add a “sales engineer” to the team, or add non-management responsibilities to the sales manager’s job.
In the best of situations, managing complex relationships requires internal alignment on the supplier side, from the executive and management levels through all client support teams (whether they sell, service, manufacture, bill, or fulfill). This also requires alignment, and a zippering between supplier departments (both sales and non-sales) and relevant customer functions. Additionally, when it comes to the implementation and use of supplier goods and services, it is up to the supplier to provide “change management” consulting to align the relevant internal functions on the customer side.
Heavy lifting for a sales department? You bet—it’s too heavy. The sales department needs to sell and focus its efforts on the buying team. Meanwhile, relationships need to be established at executive and functional levels between the supplier and customer. And, perhaps obviously, relationships need to be established internally on both sides to maintain focus and help the customer achieve their vision of success.
One approach is to create and maintain a business plan between the buyer and seller—one that establishes a vision and mission, measurable objectives, strategies for achieving both the objectives and vision, and defined projects (with deadlines, and staffed by teams on both sides) that serve the strategies.
This upfront work creates a target of success and defines the environment—and the alignment required on both sides—to achieve the target. It also provides a long-term operating agreement beyond the contract that helps the people involved in both organizations understand how to work with each other.
These anchor relationships provide a level of stability that cannot be matched in transactional environments. However, nothing can be quite as complex as managing strategic relationships of this nature. The upfront investment in their success must be deliberate and well thought out.