Episode #47: Re-Thinking How To Invest In Your Key Customer Accounts With Denise Freier

Meet Denise Freier. After more than 40 years of driving sales and customer relationships at IBM, Denise made her way to the Strategic Account Management Association. At its core, SAMA is focused on sharing best practices for, you guessed it, Strategic Account Managers. Whether it’s through conferences, free webinars or training services, SAMA is continually finding new ways to help accelerate the member’s business results.

So, what’s the difference between sales and strategic account management? Denise explores this with Tony and Betsy and views your traditional salesperson as someone who can apply products and services to a customer’s problem. Whereas strategic account managers develop long-term trust and commitment with customers, while always leading with the customer’s success. Listen in to learn the 5 specific traits that make a SAM.

We especially love this episode given Denise also wrote the foreword in Betsy and Tony’s next book! The Rarest Advantage: How to Co-Create Strategic Value to Retain and Expand Your Key Customer Accounts will be released in April 2022.

Watch the episode here:

Listen to the Podcast here:

About Denise Freier

Denise brings over 40 years of executive management in Sales, Sales Operations and Sales Transformation.  She joined SAMA in 2018 as President and CEO, providing thought leadership and training to organizations in becoming more essential to their key clients.

Previously, Denise held several sales and sales transformation roles at IBM.

  • Leading IBM’s CRM implementation to over 40,000 global sales professionals
  • Development of a global sales and client value methodology called “Signature Selling Method”, touching all aspects of IBM sales model (sales process, coverage segmentation, sales eminence)

The foundation of Denise’s career has been primarily in direct sales and sales management roles with several global and regional sales executive positions, including Strategic Account Director for one of IBM’s largest accounts.

Denise is a certified change management professional (CCMP) and active in external mentoring with Menttium.  She graduated from the University of Illinois, and MBA from the University of Chicago.   She enjoys golf, theater, and most importantly being a role model for her two daughters.

Re-Thinking How To Invest In Your Key Customer Accounts With Denise Freier

Co-Creating Value With Your Customers

I love this conversation with Denise. She is a ball of fire and nonstop but she goes into such depth. There’s no better guest we could have for the show because she talks about how to really know your customer from a strategic account perspective. She talks about understanding all the way from strategy down to tactics about what you need to do to know for that 1% or 2% of your customers that are driving the majority of your revenue. I’m impressed both by her knowledge and understanding but also the value she brought to the table for us.

For our audience, we were speaking with Denise Freier, who is the CEO of the Strategic Account Management Association, which is also known as SAMA. It has been around since the early ’60s. They have over 18,000 members. This is no small association that Denise runs. The whole time we were talking to her, it’s one of those feelings like, “I didn’t know what I didn’t know. This is the world I live in every day.” It was so enlightening and inspiring. I start thinking about all the things that we need to do. Clearly, they have a smart, dynamic person at the helm, helping so many people to get to know their customers. With that, let’s go ahead and jump right into our conversation with Denise Freier.

Welcome, Denise. We are so happy to have you here on the show.

Thank you. It is my pleasure to be here.

Tony and I have been looking forward to this conversation. We have lots to talk about. Let’s dive right in. Can you start by telling us your career path, how you’ve got to be where you are, and what led you to take the position as CEO of SAMA?

I would love to. I did spend 40 years in IBM in sales and customer relationships. During that time, I spoke at two SAMA conferences while I was at IBM. I got to know them. IBM was a member. I loved the concept of 100% focus on customer relationships. A few years later, the CEO was retiring. He remembered and called me to explore. It was a bit fortuitous that it happened.

What got you so excited about taking the position? How long have you been there? What are some of the initiatives that you have seen happen in your tenure?

I have been here almost four years now. I retired from IBM when that call came in. I was, fortunately, able to do that. It is a funny path because I never expected when I graduated to be in sales or technology. It’s funny that I ended there but clearly, that path led me to the customer side of things. I really got to know SAMA and what they were doing for their clients. It was all about how they could develop long-term relationships. I loved the people that I worked with. It was a great way to start, learn, and share best practices on how people are doing this.

Tell us about those people and the community of SAMA, the mindset, and the camaraderie. I know personally, because I am a member of SAMA, that it is a phenomenal organization with some amazing people. We would love you to share a little bit about what you have seen as far as your community.

I am so excited and energized by the things Denise said in this episode.CLICK TO TWEET

First of all, SAMA is a nonprofit membership organization. We are here strictly to pull together people that have an interest in strategic account management. The clients we work with are across all industries and sizes of companies. On average, it might be mid-sized companies that are focused on putting the customer at the center of their strategy.

That doesn’t happen as often as you might think it would or should happen. Most of these companies have developed a top tier of clients that they might call their strategic accounts or key accounts. They have wanted and recognized interest and value in investing in them differently. It’s those clients that you can’t afford to lose. That’s what this is all about.

The staff is 100% dedicated to putting the client first. It is our mantra and culture in how we can do that. We take a look at our members and one member at a time, try to figure out how we might resolve a problem, help them meet another client or do something that will achieve their goals. It’s a wonderful community.

Somebody told me once when they came to the conference that they were shocked that the people wanted to be there. Many times you go to a conference, and you are there because you have to or you are meeting with vendors but it’s a different feel. These people want to talk to each other and share ideas on how they can get better. It’s an enjoyable relationship.

Here’s one last question, and then I’m going to turn it over to Tony because I know he’s chomping at the bit to ask you some questions as well. Tell us about some of the services that you offer your members.

It is about sharing best practices at its core. We will do that in a number of ways. There are conferences where we pull people together. There are webinars throughout the year that are mostly complimentary to attend. There are training services. As we start to bring on a new account manager, we want to elevate their skills. We will do training, a number of roundtables, and even one-on-one benchmarking. If somebody wants to deep dive, we will connect them with a member who has been there before and experienced maybe success or failure that they can share with the others. We will pull those folks together to accelerate the members’ business results, if they can.

There’s one thing I want to take us back to because you said for IBM, you worked with sales and strategic account management. I would love to have you distinguish the difference between sales and strategic account management and then go deeper into why that is important for the customer.

Key Customer Accounts: There are five major competencies of a strategic account manager. Strategic thinking, co-creating value, being a multifunctional leader, organizational politics, and relationship management.

When I think of sales, it’s the ability to apply your products and services to meet a customer’s need, to resolve a problem or a very important element needed by our clients, yet it leads with your company’s products and services. When I look at strategic account management, or key account management as some people call it, it’s leading with the customer’s success. It is an investment in a top tier of clients. For some people, that might be 1% to 2% of their client base. It isn’t an approach you use for everybody because it is an investment.

Some of the skills apply across the board. Good relationship skills are good for anybody but clearly, if you are approaching strategic account management, you are doing that often with a highly skilled and dedicated account manager. The mission is to co-create value. It’s trying to find a way to come together with that client and make that client’s business initiative, processes or whatever their goal is better. It is leading with their success, not only your success.

I have to admit that’s sometimes scary for sales. It’s, “How do I make my quota this week or this month?” It is a longer-term play. You think about building this relationship over 2 to 3 years. It’s that trust and commitment that causes other things to happen with that client. You will not see them go out to RFP possibly. They will go directly to you. You might be able to justify higher prices. We find, in general, strategic accounts provide about 20% better gross margin for the client, those that are engaged. You hope to get to that point where the client says, “I cannot lose my account manager.”

It’s becoming essential to your client’s business. That’s hard to do. Oftentimes, unfortunately, some companies’ suppliers will play out conflict in front of their customers. They might have divisions that compete or they are not optimizing profitability across the company, they are looking at internally. There are some things get in the way of that but it is about trying to play the long game. Once you play that long game, the loyalty is there for a very long time.

I want to follow up on that because the term strategic account management aligns with the 2 to 3-year vision you have to have when developing these. Do you find that there is conflict sometimes between the traditional account management or your smaller accounts versus strategic account? They are very different in the timeframe. It’s almost transactional versus strategic and relationship. What do you see there?

That is maybe the number one conflict that happens across the board. We find that it’s internal. In one of the surveys we did, the strategic account manager was talking about what are their significant challenges. Number one was internal alignment. You do get this concern about short-term results versus this long-term gain. Short-term results are important. We are not suggesting a strategic account manager doesn’t have accountability for selling business. They certainly are.

Hopefully, they work with a team to help them provide that product and service-related opportunity but it’s not without a longer-term goal in mind. I do think that the executive team has to be committed because these short-term conflicts do get in the way of the product sale and whatever it might be that month or quarter that you are pushing away if it’s not right for the client. It does take an executive commitment.

Now’s the time to really explore what it means to co-create value with your customers. Ask yourself, how am I going to do things differently?CLICK TO TWEET

What are some of the characteristics of a solid strategic account manager? What makes them different than, for example, a more transactional type of engagement?

It’s similar to going from sales to sales manager. Not all great sellers become great sales managers. There’s a different skillset that’s expected. You are looking for a more business role. It’s needing to know your client’s business and their business initiatives better than your product set. It is hard to describe it. It is more of a business role. It’s even harder now, after the pandemic. Full industries have changed. Hospitality is suffering, and pharmaceutical is roaring.

You can’t assume that what was right in the past is still right today for that client. It is a deeper understanding. You have to have that aptitude for business. When SAMA looked at those key competencies that would be required, there are five major competencies that we always talk about. One is strategic thinking. When you are looking at an account, even an opportunity, can you think outside the box, pull all those pieces together, and think ahead?

The second one is what we call co-create value. It’s this ability to do joint solution development. It’s discovering what that might be in your client. It might be in the entire ecosystem, not just focused on the accounts you are looking at. The third one is interesting. It’s the ability to be a multifunctional account leader. Can you lead the company’s team often without authority? Usually, there is not a hierarchical relationship here but you still need to be able to motivate and drive the team forward by working as a team without authority.

The fourth one would be organizational politics and understanding organizational priorities. That would be true both internally and externally. It’s being able to understand how that organization functions. The last one, which may be intuitive, is overall relationship management and being accountable for outcomes in what you deliver and what you say you are going to deliver. Some of these are a bit softer like character and trust.

There are several skillsets here. Some you can learn, and some are innate in how you carry yourself. As I think about it, here’s one last quick point about this. The pandemic did a little bit of a spin to what’s required in any job, not just strategic account management. I think about this increased digital competency. It’s not just about, “Do you know how to use Zoom and come off mute?” It is, “How effective are your company and you in using multichannel approaches and keeping the engagement?”

I heard a fact by McKinsey. Sixty-five percent of B2B companies are getting equal revenue from their self-service channel as their in-person channel. That’s a real intentional change. It’s not Amazon business-to-consumer. These are business-to-business companies. That’s a major criterion for us to consider as we move forward. I heard this through some McKinsey research they did on skills. There is now a higher level of EQ or Emotional Quotient, cognitive skills, and those things we always knew were important but we sometimes thought were a little bit softer.

Key Customer Accounts: Engage your customers early and with value. Give something new. Otherwise, they really don’t need you.

Integrity is critical. Companies need to trust you with their business initiatives and how you will handle that and if you will be appropriate with that. There’s some research going on that takes this topic and applies some research behind it. SAMA is participating in that research with this research firm, KRW. We are trying to prove that high character yields stronger sales results and loyalty. That’s a little bit intuitive but it’s funny. Our behaviors get in our way sometimes. It’s an interesting thing for strategic account managers to pursue.

I would love to see that research. Clearly, this is not a job that someone just walks into on day one of their sales careers. This is an accelerated skillset.

I’m intrigued. We talked about the strategic thinking side. You brought us through that in good depth but then you have mentioned the co-creation of value. I want to dive into that in part because Betsy and I are releasing a new book. We talk about co-creating value. I want to dive deeper into that topic. It has fascinated me for many years now. I want to know your perspective on it.

It is the hardest thing to get done. There’s not a simple recipe or a one-size-fits-all in doing this. There are maybe two big areas to think about when you are trying to co-create value. First, you have to know customers better than you have ever known them before. I would love to share a quick example of this. A SAM or Strategic Account Manager that we knew in the pharmaceutical industry took on a new big client but they didn’t necessarily do a lot of business with them. They needed to figure out how they were going to approach this client.

To get to know her client, I’m not exaggerating, she spent about 1,000 hours getting to know the client, looking at articles and research, and then finding a way to interview people. One of her key steps was to move outside of their traditional relationships. In this case, she found that in their research department. This effort paid off. She found a way to get with the CEO for a few minutes. That knowledge level earned her the right to be a more strategic supplier.

They ended up doing a joint venture together and changed their businesses and relationships forever. As you think about your account planning that you would normally do, make it not about, “How do I make this year’s quota?” make it about, “What are those significant areas of need in the client’s business?” Step one, really know your customer.

The second one, I began to allude to. It’s finding a broader path to add value to this client. Although your relationship might be with procurement or another department, can you move outside of that relationship? Can you add lines of business that you have not spoken to before? The key thing is to go to their entire ecosystem. Who are their customers? Do you know their customers? Could you talk to their customers? Could you even become a customer depending on what it is that they do?

“Market makers” provide ideas and insights to the client versus the clients telling us what to do.CLICK TO TWEET

It’s looking beyond that because to your client, the most important thing is their clients. Can you expand it? Then look backward. Look to their suppliers, even the community, the environment, and how they play in that entire space. You might be surprised that some of the value created is from working with these other partners. Know your customer and then start to expand those relationships. If I had to do only one, know your customer’s customer. That’s what’s making your customer thrive.

The next round or version two of our show is REALLY Know Your Customer’s Customer.

Can we get a little bit tactical? Following up on what you said, what are some ways a SAM can really know their customer in a very practical application answer?

There are a couple of thoughts here. When I think of 1,000 hours, what was she doing for those 1,000 hours? You read, research articles that are out there on the internet, and look at their website. Look for videos, investor meetings, and 10-K reports that they might have. I know this is sounding boring to a lot but it is worth that investment of time. You will learn something. Upgrade your financial acumen if you need to or get help with that so that you can see what’s making them tick.

Look at the industry that they are in, not just the account. What are those key initiatives in the industry? What are those very significant metrics that the industry focuses on so you can relate and align how well your customer is doing with the industry? There are firms out there that can do that for you. Anybody who is interested, I will connect you with them. There are ways to deep dive into what that pain point might be for the client.

You have to add color. You can’t just read. Do interviews, talk to people, and be interested. The more you are interested and ask people to talk about themselves, people usually like to do that. Certainly, that helps you gain a better understanding. Here’s where I might call on my C-Suite. Have your executive team talk to their executive team and make that alignment so that you can learn things you might not learn normally. There are ways but you do have to get in the gate and do some investment to do it.

Key Customer Accounts: There are three key themes in the future of strategic account management. SAMs need to be market makers. There’s a need for digital translators. And, they have to be more agile.

That’s right in our wheelhouse about that executive-executive conversation. I appreciate you bringing that to the surface as well.

I’m curious here if you have a perspective on this. The members that you have are all B2B. How many of them have customers who are B2B as well? Are they more B2C, like that chain of events?

I don’t know the exact answer but as I’m thinking through the companies and who they are, they are mostly B2B. The majority of those customers are B2B as well. We have some utility companies that might be B2C, yet their strategic accounts are typically B2B. I do think that’s a high percentage.

What’s on the radar for SAMA? What are you looking at a few years out? What changes do you see happening in the landscape, specifically if it is something related to the pandemic?

First of all, internally, SAMA as an organization, when we are looking ahead, we want to reach more people and provide more insights on what is happening in the future. We will do some research. We are trying to stay ahead of that game and what’s changing and going out there. You can only do that by continued networking and sharing. When I look to the marketplace of strategic account management and try to drive those and what our members are thinking, the world is changing. As much as we thought we would be back to normal, we are not going to be back to that normal.

Our skillset has become even more demanding with this digitalization and the business knowledge needs. We had a panel of experts come together and asked them what they thought the future of SAM was and where did they see that going. There were three key themes that came out of that. One was the SAM needs to be a market maker. This is where we provide insights and ideas to our clients versus the customer telling us what they are going to do and we go figure it out. That’s a tall order and it’s hard to do.

The second one that came out was a digital translator. That one was about this new environment and people doing way more digitally. I heard 92% of buyers are quite far through the buying journey before they even contact sales anymore. This whole digital marketplace needs to be upgraded. How can you do it? It doesn’t mean we are getting rid of in-person SAMs. It means that SAMs should be using digitalization and all these multichannels to be effective with our clients. That was the second thing.

The third thing that came out was being agile. You have to be able to pivot. This is not just you individually. It’s your company. Can you change, adapt, and modify what you have been doing quickly to meet the changing times and needs of your client? We are personally trying to upgrade our training programs and certification process so that we can bring in these new thoughts and the depth that some of these new ideas are coming from. So, a lot in our future.

Can your company change and adapt quickly to meet the changing times and needs of your client?CLICK TO TWEET

I’m curious about the second point there about the digital translator. This is something we have been learning on the show. Buyers are going through the cycle, and the number keeps going up. Every time we hear the research, the number gets higher. Yours is 92%. If I step back and look at this from an experience perspective, it seems that the buyers want to come into a situation informed, aware, and aligned. Those are off the top of my head.

I’m spitballing here. Maybe this is where the integrity piece comes in because you have to, as a SAM, be in the same place, be aware of what’s happening out there, and be able to speak with integrity about what you know about your customers. If they know so much about you, you have to know at least that much about them. Think about ninety-two percent of them already know what they need to know. You’ve got to know that about them or you are going to be behind the game. Is that your take?

It is right. That research was from Bain & Company. Not only did they say 92% prefer virtual interactions and are going down this buying journey but they had an interesting fact. They asked sellers whether they thought their buyers had already made a decision. Fourteen percent of the sellers or something said, “They did.” However, they also asked the buyers. That number was doubled. Thirty-eight percent had come in with a decision already made or very close.

We are seeing that not only do you have to engage early, you have to engage with value or something new. Otherwise, they don’t need you. It is serious, yet it could be a fun and exciting paradigm shift. You need to be able to add different values that they can’t necessarily get by reading your website. I loved your words, Tony. I may have to steal and use them.

That will be fine because I’m going to steal a lot of your words. There are a couple of more questions. For you, what gets you the most excited? You do a lot of work at SAMA. There’s research, training, certification, conferences, and all these things. What’s your personal, “I get jazzed when this is going to happen,” thing?

Somehow, it is still focused on making a customer happy, whether that’s a member or something else. We like to solve a unique problem that we can solve. Just like with your kids, you have figured out a way that they become successful. For me, it is very enlightening to do that. I learn so much by doing that and watch the team at SAMA do this every day. It is great to see how they can make a difference. We have had a customer tell us that we have impacted their career or that we have truly made a difference in the business results for their division. It is truly rewarding to see that.

Tony, do you have any last questions?

Key Customer Accounts: Invest in yourself. Make sure that you build your skills and continue to grow so you can be a better person to your client.

What would be the key thought and key takeaway you would want to leave with people from this episode?

There are two things that I would want them to walk away with. Number one, and we have said this, is putting the customer at the center of your thinking. It may be hard to do but always ask what do they need, what they are thinking and, “What I could do to make that better?” That would be number one. The second thing based on what’s happening in the world is to invest in yourself and make sure that you go off, build your skills, and continue to grow and develop so you can be that better person to your client.

Denise, thank you so much. Before we let you go, as you may know, on our show, we like to give our guests an opportunity to shine the light on a charity, nonprofit or organization that speaks to your heart. Is there anything you would want to share?

When the pandemic started, SAMA decided to work with the Red Cross. There was such a need for blood donation. I believe that is still a challenge out there. I would encourage you all to do that. I would add something else – that is to look locally and try to invest in something locally. Every geography and community needs something different. I would encourage you all to take that to heart and look locally.

Thank you so much, this has been so inspiring.  When we talk about our show being called the REALLY Know Your Customer podcast, you have given us so much gold to think about.  We have had some fabulous guests but this is a different way of understanding what it means to really know your customer. Thank you for your time, your insights, and for writing the foreword of our upcoming book.  We are so excited and delighted you were willing and open to do it.

It was truly my pleasure. The book helps our mission of co-creating value. I hope folks will take a look at that, see how they can get their C-Suites together, and make a big difference in what’s going on.

Thank you. One more plug is your conference. Tell us real quick about the conference that’s coming up.

Our conference is from May 23rd to the 25th, 2022, in New Orleans. It has been virtual for a couple of years, so we are excited to get back together in person. You can register online. We will also do some recording. After the conference, we will have a bit of a subset provided virtually. There will be an opportunity if you can’t make it out to New Orleans but we would love to see you all there. Feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn or through the website. I’m happy to help.

Sales is the ability to apply your products and services to resolve a customer’s problem.CLICK TO TWEET

Denise, thank you so much. We will be seeing you at the SAMA Conference in New Orleans.

I look forward to it. Thank you so much.

I love this episode. It’s awesome because we are talking about co-creating value, which has been something that I have been studying, exploring, and working with for so many years on the consumer side. That’s where I’m at but we are talking about this on the B2B side. It’s such an amazing thing to see how the evolution of things brings it to this point where we are dealing person-to-person.

We are talking about developing relationships. That’s not the relationship of one company to another. It’s person-to-person. It’s the number of times that Denise talked about who to build relationships with. Go outside the normal channels, develop these relationships, do interviews, and ask questions. All of it was amazing. It was such a wonderful experience to hear that’s where business-to-business is going.

I feel like I came out of customer engagement church. I am so excited and energized by everything she said. What I love is that as the leader of SAMA, they are putting a light on this idea of value co-creation, which is why it’s so exciting for us to be coming out with this book about co-creating value with your customers and to be fortunate enough to have Denise write the foreword for it.

It’s so exciting. It’s an interesting time coming out of the pandemic. People have the chance to exhale, breathe, and think, “How am I going to do things differently?” If we can get this message out about co-creating value with customers, now is the time that people should start exploring what that means in a deep way.

What is the name of our upcoming book for our audience?

The name of the book is The Rarest Advantage: How to Co-Create Strategic Value to Retain and Expand Your Key Customer Accounts. It’s about a lot of the things that Denise talked about. It is due to be released in April of 2022. As our audience, we will keep you posted on the launch of our new book. With that, thank you again. We are so grateful for our loyal readers, the great comments we get about the show, and our amazing guests. I told Tony I couldn’t believe we get to do this, have these conversations, and call it work. Thank you all for being here. We will see you next time.

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