Is the SAM really a single point of contact?

Editor’s note: Selling organisations refer to their account executives that are responsible for the company’s most important customer relationships using a number of accepted job titles. The most popular are ‘strategic’, ‘global’ or ‘key’ account managers; SAMs, GAMs and KAMs. This blog uses SAM as its anchor term, but GAMs, KAMs and account managers will all recognise their role in this discussion.

Many people talk about their Strategic Account Manager as a single point of contact (SPOC).  But is this wise? It annoys the other customer points of contact in the supplier who thinks the SAM will steal their relationship.  It also encourages the customer to ONLY deal with the SAM who then gets overloaded.

I have always encouraged people to talk about the SAM as a single point of coordination.  I have found this one word makes a huge difference in how the SAM Programme is perceived internally and externally.  However, I now think that this is wrong!

In a recent Harvard Business Review, Professor Rosabeth Kanter of the Harvard Business School (talking about Peter Drucker’s legacy) said, “If the twentieth century gave rise to knowledge workers with deep expertise, the twenty-first century will require leaders who can foster integrative thinking and collaboration across fields and specialities. Collaboration, not coordination will be the task of management.”

So, the 21st Century SAM: A Single Point of Collaboration?  Or better, The Key Point of Collaboration?”

I posted this question on the message board of the Strategic Account Management Association (SAMA) and many SAM professionals from around the world added their thoughts on the matter.

The discussion has been very useful in not just answering this question, but answering a deeper one: What is the real purpose of a SAM?  The answer to this question will help all organizations define the job of a SAM, the value it provides and the skills required to fulfil it.

In this blog, we will look at two lessons that have emerged from that discussion.

Lesson #1: delete the “single-point-of-contact” phrase

Firstly, the overwhelming consensus was that the SAM is NOT a single point of contact.  Contributors agreed that this definition strangles the role.  One contributor said, “I agree with your perspective here. If the SAM is positioned as a single point of contact, not only will you become quickly overwhelmed, but you may well find yourself managing tactical, operational issues as opposed the more strategic issues that you want to spend time managing.”  Another added, “In my opinion, the SAM can’t be a single point of contact.  A successful SAM program consists of many players with varying roles to support large customers.  SAM empowerment and authority has been mentioned repeatedly here.  When you combine this with the responsibility of performance against KPI’s the SAM becomes the “single throat to choke” (sharing a phrase from one of my favorite mentors) rather than a single point of contact.”  Another summarized it by saying simply, “a single ‘point of contact’ is typically a bottleneck and probably too simplistic to describe what SAMs actually do.”

This is important because it sets the expectations of what the SAM does.  A wrong definition here will make it much harder to sell the role both internally and externally.  For me, it also shows that the organization’s key stakeholders themselves often barely understand the SAM role, which is undoubtedly a serious impediment to success, especially in a company faced with growth, retention and adversarial procurement challenges (most of us!).

So the first thing we should do is ensure the SAMs in our organization do not have this inadequate ‘SPOC’ description hanging round their necks! Even if you take that small step of changing one word from “contact” to “coordination” in the role definition, this can be a huge leap forward for your SAM Programme.

Lesson #2: what does a good SAM look like?

The discussion provided some interesting metaphors for a good SAM.  Some of these may be familiar to you but I can summarize them here.

An effective SAM is like:

  • A corporate matchmaker: “It is my responsibility to bring the right people together across my organization and the customer’s organization to achieve desired results.”
  • An ombudsman: “an old, not often used term, but one I keep in the forefront of my SAM thinking. The SAM is the ombudsman for the customer, representing their interests in the firm, while managing the firm’s interest with the customer.”
  • A general manager: “a SAM is the General Manager of the account with the ultimate responsibility and authority for all things related between the account and the firm.”
  • A consultant: “someone who has access to all the relevant departments’ resources, knows how to use them and is unmistakably a leader, who can assume authority even if it’s not formally granted to them.
  • A conductor: “ensuring that each ‘note’ is hit at the right ‘pitch’; and at the right ‘tempo’ so that the music sounds so unbelievable alluring that the client desires and buys the music. A world class orchestra always has a world class conductor leading the team forward.”

The truth of course is that a great SAM combines all these metaphors. They connect the right people together within and across organizations, they fight for the interests of their customer and their employer, they act with the commercial clarity of a GM but with the indirect resources of a consultant and they must ensure the whole ensemble is playing to the agreed musical score.

What would be really useful is to get a precise definition that combines the best of these ideas.

In the next blog, I will propose a definition that does this and I will go through it so we get a clear understanding of what it means in the real world.

By Ed Bradford

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