A central theme of key account management, or any customer development programme for that matter, is the necessity to build productive and progressive relationships with other people. In this blog post for Brightbridge Consulting, I want to share five strategies for creating, as well as maintaining, strong and profitable relationships with your most valuable customers.
Better Solutions and Higher Value Creation for Key Customers
Strong relationships with customers create trust and deeper collaboration, which in turn leads to richer sharing of real problems, opportunities and ideas. Such relationships become the springboard for better solutions and higher value creation for both the customer and the supplier.
Of course, attention must always be paid to how individuals within your customer’s business differ, but regardless of variations in cultures and personality types, there will always be certain skills that need to be fostered in order for to get the most from your relationship building efforts. A mind-set which is responsive and customer focused, with strong listening skills and an ability to work collaboratively and problem solve are amongst these.
Sounds easy? Well, the vast majority of sales and marketing leaders and Key Account Directors and business leaders we speak with wish they had better – by which they mean more productive – relationships with their key customers.
Here are five areas and considerations that I consider represent key levers in engendering these healthy and effective relationships. Far from requiring any major behavioural change programme a few tweaks against two or three of these really can result in fast improvement.
1. The right connections?
When we ask suppliers teams whether they are making connections with the right people in their target customers the top of mind response is nearly always a somewhat bemused, ‘yes – of course’. On investigating further and turning attention to how a customer makes decisions, who is involved, who sets budgets and who the influencers are we often find such teams find vital connections are either missing or connections weaker than required.
CRM systems help but there is no substitute for curiosity and engaging with customer contacts that you do know, to help discover those you don’t.
2. Time is precious
Time is a limited resource for you and your key accounts. Key account management encourages you to find the right connections and build strong team-based relationships; your technical team meets the customer’s technical team, your senior leaders discuss strategies with the customer’s top management and so on. This is all good, but a word of warning. It’s easy to overcomplicate.
A study by McKinsey in 2010 found the biggest area of complaint from customers to be ’too much contact’ linked to ‘wasting their time’. Too many people become involved, too many meetings run, planning declines and a state of confusion becomes inevitable. Solid account management is required to coordinate efforts and ensure customers feel and see the benefits too.
3. It’s in your own hands
When things don’t go according to plan we often hear leaders say ‘and this was in our own hands’. Internal activities, rather than a sudden decline in customer demand, have undermined success. Key account management is a philosophy that drives an organisational wide approach – yes, its customer focused but in many respects internal relationships count double.
Internal resources (and not just the sales team) win business and execute business. Those involved in leading key account management must spend more time motivating, coordinating and directing internal resources than time spent directly with customers. Briefings, joint team meetings, cross functional planning sessions, debriefs are all tools in the most successful account managers armoury.
4. Be intriguing
Your customer probably deals with several good suppliers in your area. There is a need to think and act creatively to keep the relationship fresh and to stay ahead of your competitors. Bring new market insights to every meeting, share relevant best practice ideas or even stories of overcoming hurdles. Bring in someone new from your organisation to meet them – or perhaps even from your external network – but of course, don’t overdo this!
A good question to pose is ‘what are we doing with our customer to be perceived as different and better than last year?’
5. Stay warm
It’s been said that ‘people buy from people they like’. In complex and high value situations this can be stretched to reflect that ‘teams of people buy from teams of people they like’.
Research by Amy Cuddy and Susan Fiske at Princeton and Peter Glick of Lawrence University concluded that two key dimensions account for 90% of the variance in the positive and negative impressions we form of people around us – competence and warmth. Suppliers need to demonstrate both.
Competence without warmth can form resentment and shut off avenues of joint working. Warmth without competence can result in a lack of respect and neglect. Interestingly the research concluded that whilst many leaders and suppliers in fields of technical or subject matter know-how, seek first the strength of competence, those on the receiving end –customers- need to feel warmth first. The way to influence is to lead with warmth, this facilitates trust and the absorption of ideas.
Balancing your team to deliver across both of these may be your critical success factor.
So, we’ve looked at just a handful of ideas for those involved with account management to consider. Which of these will have the biggest impact for you? Let’s keep it simple and address this first and see the positive reaction it creates.