February 7, 2012

How DHL Built a Global Accounts Infrastructure

Fitting global account responsibilities into an organization is best seen as an evolution, not a state of perfection.

Betsy Wiesendanger
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This article is the second in a three-part series on managing and maximizing global accounts. Read the first installment, “Make More Global Sales,” and the final installment, “To Grow Global Accounts, Be an Innovation Machine.”

A company trying to implement a global accounts structure may find it a tough sell internally. Line managers have entrenched processes in place; back-office support personnel don’t welcome the additional workload. And heads of business in individual countries, accustomed to autonomy, have existing relationships they don’t want to see disrupted. The right structure can alleviate some of those challenges; however, as the case of Deutsche Post DHL demonstrates, fitting global accounts into an existing organization is best seen as an evolution, not a state of perfection.

When the first 27 global accounts at DHL were identified in 1995, global account managers were based in their client’s home countries. At the time, DHL sold only one product: air-express services. Over the next several years, the global accounts group moved to a “needs-based segmentation” so the company could create industry-wide solutions for its clients.

In the meantime, DHL’s business was changing. In 2003 it was acquired by Deustche Post, which provides postal delivery in Germany; Deustche Post also later bought Airborne Express, a competitor. Ultimately, the global accounts group was organized along vertical channels and cut across all four DHL business units: DHL Express, DHL Freight, DHL Supply Chain, and DHL Global Forwarding. Cost allocations for global account management were transferred to a central organization to avoid turf wars, and reporting procedures were created to make sure that the global accounts group added value to the verticals and was aligned with each vertical’s objectives.

This organization helped the managers become industry experts and offer more targeted solutions, says Andreas Johansson, vice president for Ericsson Global at DHL Global Customer Solutions. “For each of the verticals, we know the expected growth of the vertical, our strengths and weaknesses in that industry, where we have gaps in our offerings and what we think the vertical might be interested in,” he says. “We’re trying to anticipate their needs and make sure we have innovations and solutions that will help that industry going forward.”

Designing the line organization is one of the toughest challenges a company will face when serving global accounts, says Noel Capon, R.C. Kopf Professor of International Marketing at Columbia Business School and co-program director of the Global Account Manager Certification Program (a Columbia Business School joint venture with the University of St. Gallen in Switzerland). Some firms organize along geographic lines, with regional directors for North America, Latin America, EMEA (Europe, Middle East and Africa) and Asia-Pacific reporting to a global account manager. Others implement a market-oriented structure similar to that at DHL. But no matter how the global accounts team is structured, says Capon, it’s key to have support from the top — both within your company and your client’s.

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