Evolution of Account Management in an Agile Environment

Mapping an Account Management Role

5 May 2014

Sriramasundararajan Rajagopalan
Physicians Interactive


Problem statement

Many organizations have client-facing roles working under various titles, such as account managers, primarily responsible for working with clients. From managing relationships to growing the accounts, depending upon the performing organization, the basic premise is that these roles depend on internal team leaders of the performing organizations distancing themselves from the internal project, platform, and product delivery.

In the Scrum frameworks, there is a client advocate in the name of a product owner, who is the voice of the customer. This product owner is an integral part of the Scrum team, working directly to groom the product backlog, conduct estimation sessions, prioritize requirements, and take part in the sprint reviews and retrospectives. Nowhere in the Agile principles is found reference to the account manager, but there are references to the Agile coach and the product owner relating to team and customer. So, as the organizations evolve to embrace the Agile framework, how does the role of an account manager evolve?

Demystify the account manager role

A journey into strategic key account management practices (McDonald, Millman, and Rogers, 1997) resonates deeply with account management as a profession that has foundations based firmly on " . . . critical benefits and opportunities for profit enhancements to both the buyer and seller" (p. 737). It is no wonder that many organizations no longer see account management as an extension of sales (p. 748) but as a core decision-making unit of excellence, with competencies involving collaborative skills co-creating value (Prahalad and Ramaswamy, 2004, p. 172), treating customers as employees and employees as customers (Bowers, Martin, and Luker, 1990).

However, very few organizations focus on establishing the account attractiveness requirements firmly, grounding the talents and skills required in an account manager as they roll out the account management structure. According to Hortz (n.d.), effective strategic account management is about building systems, processes, and procedures driving consistent behavior and building a higher level of soft skills, adding more processes, and building new skills. In his series, Jim Collins explored using the hedgehog concept in hiring and retaining the right talent and discussed how lack of skilled resources lets mighty organizations fail.

In a blog article emphasizing the need for new breed of project managers, Rajagopalan (2012) introduced the notion of accidental project managers emphasizing the need for specialized skills that a project manager should possess, noting that not everyone can be a project manager. The same analogy extends to the role of account manager, where specialized project management skills are sine qua non for excellence in the account management role (Ryals, 2012). Contrary to the misconception that soft skills alone would suffice to make an account manager, these skills extend into many areas encompassing the core competencies of a project manager (Hortz, n.d.).

For instance, according to the Strategic Account Management Association (SAMA, n.d.) espousing the skills for strategic, key, and global account management as a profession, these core competencies of an account manager underpin foundational project management skills and involve 1) understanding the organizational priorities, 2) strategic account and opportunity planning, 3) joint solution development, co-creation, and reaching agreement, 4) multifunctional account team leadership, and 5) overall relationship and outcome management. SAMA believes that these competencies involve deep understanding of the knowledge in the required domains, skills, and behaviors that are indispensable for "strategic customer leadership."

Relationship between account and project managers

Consolidating responses from numerous semistructured interviews and research findings, McDonald, Millman, and Rogers (1997) extend that the core skills of a strategic key account managers must include integrity; deep product and service knowledge, including the ability to answer technical questions (p. 749); advanced interpersonal skills beyond basic communication, influencing, and negotiation skills; understanding the business strategies and goals of the customer; and a good foundations of process excellence generating synergy between performing and client organizations (p. 752).

Every industry and company may see these competencies differently, but if you peel the layers of these competencies, what are the underlying skills required that establish this leadership? In a Scrum setting, an intense relationship to understanding customers' needs during several Scrum ceremonies, promoting the onsite customer representation closer to the Scrum team (Pichler, 2010), the scalability of account management skills to evolve into product owners is indispensable. SAMA (n.d.) comes to rescue with its competency-to-skill model, which equally resonates with earlier findings as tabulated in Table 1. It is distinctly clear how these core account management skills transcend into the competencies proposed by fundamental project management philosophies, as espoused by A Guide to the Project Management Book of Knowledge (2013).

Table 1: Account Manager Skills
Competency Skills
Understanding the organizational priorities
  1. Customer orientation
  2. Company knowledge
  3. Industry knowledge
  4. Customer Knowledge
Strategic account and opportunity planning
  1. Strategic Thinking
  2. Financial/business acumen
  3. Value analysis and opportunity insight
Joint solution development, co-creation, and reaching agreement
  1. Communication and influencing skills
  2. Value co-creation
  3. Negotiation skills
Multifunctional account team leadership
  1. Interpersonal relationships
  2. Team leadership
  3. Cultural knowledge and sensitivity
Overall relationship and outcome management
  1. Responsible for the corporate customer relationship
  2. Process discipline
  3. Accountability for business outcomes
 
The Association for Project Management further divides these project management skills into 40 key competencies, tabulated in Table 2, that form the focal point of proposition delivery. Synthesizing practitioner insights and scholarly literature, the specific overlapping competencies between account management and project management professions are underlined, showing the intricate dependency between these two disciplines and setting the context for the evolution of the account manager's role in an Agile environment.

Table 2: Project Manager Skills
Core Project Management Skills
  1. Program management phases relating to benefits measurement, stakeholder management, and governance
  2. Project management phases as extendable to PMBOK and Agile environments
  3. Project life cycle processes as applicable to the development framework
  4. Project environment involving capital project selection
  5. Strategy evaluation involving value stream mapping in development
  6. Appraisal techniques involving technical, operational, and economic viability
  7. Success/failure assessment
  8. Understanding of systems and procedures
  9. Administrative closure for earned value and margin tracking
  10. Post-project appraisal
Organization and People Skills
  1. Organizational design in staff selection -- functional and matrix structures
  2. Control and coordination in prioritizing work, evaluating planned versus actual, taking corrective actions
  3. Communication
  4. Leadership
  5. Delegation
  6. Team building
  7. Conflict management
  8. Negotiation
  9. Management development including but not limited to staff recruitment, development, training, and continual assessment
Processes and Procedures
  1. Process discipline
  2. Planning (relationship between why, what, how, who, when, where)
  3. Scheduling
  4. Estimating
  5. Cost control
  6. Performance measurement
  7. Risk analysis and measurement
  8. Value management (effectiveness through key performance indicators)
  9. Change control (management)
  10. Configuration control (technical)
  11. Motivation
General Management
  1. Operations and technical management
  2. Marketing and sales
  3. Finance
  4. IT
  5. Law
  6. Procurement
  7. Quality assurance
  8. Quality control
  9. Safety standards
  10. Industrial relationship

Summary

Earlier discussions revealed the natural progression of how successfully client-facing, organizationally savvy, and technically competent project managers are ideal candidates to evolve as account managers (Ryals, 2012). As these account managers show a solid understanding of their performing organization's product domain knowledge, as well as receiving industry exposure instrumental to understanding the customer's business objectives beyond the contractual obligations, they truly become the voice of the customer in enhancing the core services of the performing organization.

sundar-image.jpg
Evolution of project and account managers in non-Agile and Agile contexts

This knowledge underpins why the product owner in the Scrum context becomes a core member of the Scrum team. In a non-Agile environment, the complexity of the projects or combination of multiple projects, where the program or campaign delivers more than the sum of the individual projects, a project manager may evolve to be either a program manager or an account manager with mentors acting as coaches and trainers. Since both these roles involve a deep understanding of the client management and team management skills, the choice is determined by the organizational boundaries. Similarly, as organizations embrace the Agile framework, these project management skills become critical for the pillars for an account or program manager to either evolve as ScrumMaster or product owner with additional coaching and training. Agile frameworks realize this fundamental relationship (Pichler, 2010) to the customer specific to a product or portfolio of products.

References

Bowers MR, Martin CL. Trading places: Employees as customers, customers as employees. Journal of Services Marketing. 1990; 4(2);55-69.

Cohn M. Succeeding with Agile: Software Development Using Scrum. 2012. Ann Arbor, MI: Addison Wesley.

Collins J. How the Mighty Fall and Why Some Companies Never Give In. 2009. London, England: Random House Business Books.

Hortz W. An idea worth sharing. (n.d.) Retrieved December 3, 2013, from https://www.ted.com/profiles/664537.

McDonald M, Millman T, Rogers B. Key account management: Theory, practice, and challenges. Journal of Marketing Management, 1997; 13:737-757.

Pichler R. Agile product management with Scrum: Creating products that customers love. 2010. Boston, MA: Addison Wesley.

Prahalad CK, Ramaswamy V. The Future of Competition: Co-Creating Unique Value with Customers. 2004. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School.

A Guide to the Project Management Book of Knowledge. 2013 (5th edition). Newtown Square, PA: Project Management Institute.

Rajagopalan S. New breed of project managers. 2012. Retrieved December 17, 2012, from http://agilesriram.blogspot.com/2012/12/new-breed-of-project-managers.html.

Ryals L. How to succeed at key account management. Harvard Business Review. 2012. Retrieved April 1, 2013, from http://blogs.hbr.org/2012/07/how-to-succeed-at-key-account/.

SAMA. (n.d.) Retrieved Apr 1, 2013, from http://www.strategicaccounts.org/certification/overview.aspx.

The 40 key competencies of project management. Association of Project Management. (n.d.). Retrieved Feb 4, 2014, from http://www.dovico.com/tips7.aspx?gclid=CMKDuezlyb0CFUVgMgodwE0AWw#part1.




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