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Sales Specialists And The Account Manager, Why Is There Conflict?

by David Brock on November 27th, 2012

Sales specialists or overlay reps are critical in complex B2B sales.  The sales specialist is just what the name implies–a specialist in a certain area.  It could be a product line, a market segment, a solution offering.  Typically, sales specialists have very deep knowledge and experience in whatever they specialize in.

Sales specialists are very important in sales organizations and critical to account and territory managers.  As our products and solutions become more complex, as they broaden, it is impossible for the account or territory manager to have deep knowledge in all the solutions.

Yet too often, I see conflict between the sales specialist teams and account managers.  Rather than working together, they fight.  It seems the conflicts come from a variety of areas, let’s look at just a few:

1.  Poorly defined roles and responsibilities:  Sales specialists are put in place and told to sell, but no engagement model has been defined.  How they work with account and territory managers, the role each plays in identifying, qualifying, and pursuing opportunities is not defined.  The specialists and account/territory managers are left to figure it out themselves–and usually they are too busy to do this.  When any kind of specialist organization is put in place, it is important to clearly define how and when the account/managers should engage them and how they work together to win deals.

2.  Territorialism:  Account/territory managers are, by definition, territorial.  They are accountable for a customer and territory.  But sometimes, they make the mistake of becoming protectionist.  They have to do everything themselves, they have to control everything going on in the customer or territory.  Account/territory managers doing this are cheating themselves, their companies, and their customers.  They can’t possibly be expert in everything, helping customers solve their problems.  Account/territory managers must become resource managers–getting the right resources engaged in working with customers, at the same time maximizing share of customer and customer growth.  Whether it’s sales specialists, partners, or others, they maximize customer and their success by leveraging resources as much as possible.

3.  Arrogance:  Sales specialists are heavy hitters–that’s why we have them.  They have deep knowledge and expertise in a certain area.  They naturally should be better in representing the solution to the customer than the account/territory sales person.  They either ignore the plans and strategies the account/territory sales person has in place–blundering in blindly, confusing the customer and disrupting the strategies.  Or when properly engaged, they fail to respect the capabilities of the sales person–their knowledge of the account/territory, the deep relationships they have, the access they have, their knowledge of how to get things done within the customer.  Without the help and support of the account/territory sales people, specialists will not be as effective as they should be.

4.  Shared success:  The reason sale specialist functions exist is they increase the ability of the account/territory manager to be successful in presenting solutions to the customer.  Account/territory manager’s maximize the ability of the sales specialist by identifying and engaging them in the right deals and helping them navigate the customer’s organization.  Without each other, neither would be successful.  Yet too often, both fail to recognize this and they fight.

5.  Appropriate metrics:  Both the sales specialist and the territory/account manager are driven to achieve their own goals.  Yet sometimes, management sets them up to be in conflict by having metrics and goals that conflict.  In several situations I’ve been involved in recently, I’ve seen both the specialists and territory account managers accountable for maximizing revenue–makes sense.  But the sales specialist is driven to maximize revenue produced by their solution.  The account managers is driven to maximize revenue produces in their territory/account.  Often, the specialist’s deal is part of a larger deal and in that larger deal–the revenue credit the sales specialist gets is less than if it was sold by itself.  There are better ways to measure each, account/territory managers are responsible for maximizing revenue growth in their territories.  Sales specialists are responsible for maximizing solution placement–these aren’t in conflict, but too often simple revenue measurements miss this point.  There are better, easier solutions.

We read about the importance of collaboration in driving sales performance in the future.  Overlay and specialist teams are just one example of collaboration.  There are many others, including channel, marketing, and other relationships.  All are intended to maximize our impact and ability to creat value for customers.  All are intended to maximize revenue growth and the success of each party.

The challenges we see in getting sales specialists and territory/account managers work effectively together are just the start.  If we can’t do this, then we will never be able to collaborate effectively.

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  1. Hi Dave
    This is a great blog article, thank you for this.
    I’m interested to find out more about the types of incentivisation available that will help avoid the conflict between the Sales Speciailist and the Account Manager.
    Andrew Aitken
    Executive – Cloud Services

    • Andrew, thanks for the note, sorry for the slow reply. The issue is worthy of a more comprehensive treatment, but some quick thoughts:

      1. It is not strictly an incentive issue. There have to be clearly defined roles and responsibilities between the specialist and the account manager.
      2. There has to be an escalation process (not punitive) to resolve differences in opinion/strategy.
      3. There needs to be a clear process for how the specialist gets engaged in an opportunity. Some rules of the road, if you will. Too often, specialists may enter an account blindly, without the account manager’s knowledge, disrupting and confusing situations. The specialist and account manager need to sit down and determine the strategy and how they will collaborate in the execution.
      3. There should be complementary metrics, encouraging them to work together on an opportunity. To often, we see, conflicting metrics. For example, the account manager doesn’t get full credit for a specialist sale in the account. No account manager in their right mind would engage a specialist, even if the risk of losing the deal is very high.
      4. Likewise, losing compensation for involving a specialist is a problem. There are very easy methods of comping both, while keeping overall sales expense neutral.

      Hope this is a good starter set for you. Thanks for the question. Regards, Dave

  2. Bhaskaran Nair permalink

    Good write-up David, just as I thought, thank you. Nevertheless, an account manager technically owns the account, and therefore is responsible and/or accountable for the delivery of the service. This will then include leading the periodic business reviews with the customers. If the Sales Overlays are specialists in the design of the solution and the implementation of which, where does their responsibility end, after the solution has been implemented?

    • Bhaskaran: The answer is, “It depends.” I think there is shared accountability. It the solution doesn’t deliver the committed results, it’s critical that both the account manager and the specialist work to correct the situation. It the specialist chooses not to, he is not only creating a bad situation for the customer, but he will lose the support of the sales teams–keeping him from reaching their goals.

  3. Vai permalink

    Hi David
    I searched a lot but still I am in doubt .Just need to know whether Sr. Sales Specialist is a managerial profile?

    • Vai: In the context of this article, the Sales Specialist is always an individual contributor. Teams of specialists will have managers. As you will see in other posts at this site, I believe managers that have personal territories or sales responsibilities are untenable in high performance organizations.

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