In the first two parts of this series we discussed analyzing relationship opportunities, and we laid the foundation for moving along the relationship "route to success" (see Fig.1) the ultimate stage of strategic business associate. In this final part, we'll discuss the difficulty of maintaining or NURTURING THE RELATIONSHIP.
Sustaining the relationship is more than having the boss visit twice a year and the local account manager taking the customer operations and engineering guys out to $100 lunches. If you think about it (and you'd better be thinking about it), there are some success criteria which can be defined and evaluated; things like professionalism, reliability (of products and people), and innovativeness. There are others, of course, and they'll vary by customer. As a GAM team member, you'll develop them, study them and consider them constantly. And for each of these criteria, there are numerous illustrations. For example, in considering the professionalism criterion, there would be illustrations such as technical competence, process understanding, personal support "above and beyond", etc. There will doubtless be those criteria and illustrations of them that are unique to your SEM product or service. You should rank them in importance to your specific activity. Why? Because you'll never have enough budget or time to do them all, so you'd better be doing the most important ones.
Evaluating a relationship's status is an ongoing process, not a once-a-year or once-a-quarter event. We suggest using the specific criteria and illustrations you develop from the exercise alluded to above as guidelines to accomplishing consistency and reality in monitoring the relationship. All the criteria need to be looked at from different levels in the customer company. Conversations about them should therefore be conducted by persons at different levels in the supplier company, from FSEs through sales types, through managers, GMs and CEOs. Such conversations must be casual, subtle, and frequent. And they must result in truly meaningful information about the status of the customer relationship. Such information, collected over time and at various levels of both companies, can help the CRM (customer relationship manager, most likely the GAM) provide direction to his team about places to continually improve the effectiveness of the evolving relationship.
Even in the best of relationships, problems develop. Constant and effective monitoring will help identify them in timely fashion. And there must be in place a way of quickly and effectively dealing with such occurrences. Initially assess what happened and the level of difficulty resulting. And then take immediate action to correct the problem and ensure no recurrence. A procedure for problem assessment and rectification should be in place within the GAM team. (NOTE: The QUEST Team explores this area in more depth in our full relationship workshop.)
All the members of the account management team come to the job of building relationships with a certain cache of assets, both corporate and personal. Your company's reputation, the products and services it offers, and your hierarchical position within the company can be considered corporate assets. What you personally bring to the success of the relationship are personal assets. Things like the depth of your industry knowledge, your in-depth understanding of certain customers including the way they are organized and the way they make decisions, your personal industry and financial networks, etc. -- these and others are all personal assets, and of course they vary widely from person to person.
Corporate assets are more or less fixed (or at least generally slower to change), so in our discussion here about building and growing relationships, our focus is on your personal assets. Additional things are of benefit in increasing your assets; things like your knowledge of your customer's customers, their product acceptance in their markets, problems or opportunities they may be encountering. Significant understanding of competitive activities vis a vis a specific customer is extremely valuable. Close, personal relationships with senior executives or former executives of a key customer can also accrue benefits to an account team. KNOWLEDGE IS POWER! And power is a personal asset.
Constructing a personal "balance sheet" -- with both assets and liabilities -- can help a GAM team member strengthen his/her personal asset base by highlighting areas where remedial action is required and helping to enhance the assets. [NOTE: In The QUEST Team's six-hour relationship workshop, we develop this concept further.]
PUTTING IT TOGETHER
The importance of all-level contact in attaining the strategic business associate level relationship cannot be overemphasized. Sharing contacts and bringing in senior management early on will often be required to reach a level in a customer's organization which has been heretofore unavailable to the GAM team. That leverage allows the continuation of relationship building. Running into organizational roadblocks must never stop the team from reaching goals; it just requires some new level of creativeness, political awareness and customer networking.
SEM companies generally enter a customer through the engineering or operations groups, but when the relationship develops properly, the other functions of the customer's company become aware of the importance of your company's contributions to their success. The more that awareness travels through the customer company, the stronger your position as a strategic supplier is, and the more important your company -- embodied by the GAM team -- is to the customers achievement of its strategic objectives. As these realities set in, your supplier company more and more is selling high and throughout the inside of the customer's management structure -- as a strategic business associate. And that's where you want to be!