Teamwork: A Critical Success Factor for KAM

Teamwork is is a Critical Success Factor for successful Key Account Management.  Its sometimes overlooked.  We are working with a number of organisations to improve this area in order to bring tangible benefits.   This thought piece merely gets us started…


KAM Team-talk

Teamwork – The imperative that often receives only a cursory glance

In the challenging environments in which key account management is undertaken it is widely accepted that to win and grow business suppliers need strong internal teamwork.

However, in many key account programmes the focus is account selection, strategies, value propositions and customer engagement with opportunities to improve internal teamwork given only superficial consideration.

Teams make good things happen – but only if they are high functioning. Research into team performance shows that often it’s not even clear who is in a team, what the team is seeking to achieve or who holds key responsibilities.  Such concerns markedly impact on performance.

The continuous improvement of teamwork, so vital for value creation and capture, should be a focus for every account programme, account plan and campaign of customer engagement. As a start point three fundamental questions should be addressed

  1. Who is in the team?
  2. What are the team’s objectives?
  3. Protocols: How should team-members behave?

Let us consider these shortly, following an overview of why productive teams are critical for key account development.


Effective teamwork is an imperative. Customer and supplier needs

Aligned, coordinated and competent supplier teams are vital for both (i) key customers and (ii) the suppliers own position.

  • Key customers requirements – Trust

Breadth: When purchasing high value products, key customers need to have faith in the strength of the supplier’s organisation and teams. Having an individual ‘star’ key account manager as the conductor of activities is vital but by itself simply not sufficient.

Delivery: Customers need to trust that technical or clinical excellence will be assured, supply is dependable, health and safety guaranteed. They need to rest easy that these to be delivered consistently in an aligned way, smoothly and efficiently across locations and projects.

Growth: To truly partner and collaborate with a selected supplier, key customers will expect even more, demanding access to the supplier’s richer capabilities – its ability to solve challenging problems and act creatively to deliver ever improving options i.e. team-centric competencies.

Ease: As such customers frequently have problems with their own internal alignment it’s not surprising that they avoid suppliers who are uncoordinated, misaligned and difficult to do business with. A supplier’s internal alignment directly impacts on how its external alignment is perceived.


  • The suppliers offer – Differential Value

Key account relationships are highly valuable and as such they are important business assets.

Team interaction protects assets. A supplier must protect key account relationships and to do so multiple connections are essential. What happens if your Superwoman or Superman key account manager leaves your business?  Multiple connections should be in place to offset this vulnerability.

Aligned teams offer differential value. In many markets’ customers view the products and core services offered by suppliers to be very similar.  The key differentiator of the value they can expect is therefore often tied to the perceived quality of a supplier’s people, teams and alignment.

Teamwork also builds future possibilities. Aligned teams deliver greater creativity, joining dots of insight and know-how through new ideas to help key account relationships stay ahead.

Margin management is also at stake. Functional teamwork enables suppliers to better control costs avoid unnecessary duplication or rework, limits the number of opportunities that slip through gaps and reduces the over-promising that can frustrate key customers.


Addressing three fundamental questions…

Within teams improving coordination across functions and geographies, better compensation practices, raised talent levels and supporting technologies can all deliver significant benefits.  Before addressing these, it is however important to address ‘team’ fundamentals.  Three questions are key.


1.Who is in the team? 

Even in what might appear a simple structure it’s easy to overlook important team connections. Research by Professor J. Richard Hackman* found often there is considerable confusion about who is and who isn’t in a team.

In key account relationships often many people are involved, or at least should be. They may sit in different departments, geographies and occupy different levels. Some may be established employees, others new recruits. There is considerable scope for misunderstandings.

Developing an internal relationship map

Many key managers build customer relationship maps identifying key decision makers and influencers in a targeted customer, but few create internal relationship maps to highlight the internal resources that are, or should be, engaged with such customers.   It’s an exercise worth undertaking.

Such a mapping can be highly revealing. Important questions raised include:

  • Are there too many customer contact points leading to confusion?
  • Are relationships senior enough?
  • Is messaging to customers consistent?
  • Are internal team members aware of their roles and boundaries?
  • Is there relevant talent in the supplier that isn’t being deployed with the customer?

The internal map also feeds opportunity. Once people see and feel part of an account team, they are more likely to share information relayed to them by a customer with others in that team. Opportunities are better understood and talents better deployed to realise them.


  1. What are the team’s objectives?

The research by Professor Hackman* also found that most of the time team members don’t even agree on what the team is supposed to be doing.  Objectives and focus vary.

According to Patrick Lencioni** ‘The ultimate dysfunction of a team is the tendency of members to care about something other than the collective goals of the group. An unrelenting focus on specific objectives and clearly defined outcomes is a requirement for any team that judges itself on performance’

Those in an account team should understand and buy-into the team’s key and supporting objectives.

Balanced, shared objectives

A balanced scorecard of objectives is often appropriate, tailored to the nature of the desired relationship with the key account. Objectives could for example cover:

  • Financial: Revenue growth, margin improvement, cost controls, shared investment on major development projects
  • Customer: Staying ahead of competitors and delivering the highest levels of customer feedback– a great forward-looking indicator of success.
  • Learning and growth: Sharing internally, receipt of training and support, internal collaboration.
  • Internal business processes: Improving outputs, speeding things up, less waste, ensuring customer needs are met.

Shared objectives bring a focus to deliver greater value. Performance can be aligned, directed, measured and then improved.


3: Protocols: How should the team act?  

Even with such objectives in place effective teamwork does not just happen. Professor Pentland*** of MIT identifies how a team behaves is as vital as the skills that exist within it. Guidelines on behaviours help its day to day functioning.

Some high functioning teams draw up a team charter to encourage the behaviours that raise performance and reduce misunderstanding and in-fighting.

A charter for the protocols of crucial activities

One charter for a large team in the energy market covers areas such as:

Conflict:  Example: Productive internal conflict is encouraged as it can result in improved performance. Sharing of ideas will be encouraged at the weekly team forum.

Customer feedback: Example: The sharing of Customer feedback is desired. Please initially direct this through the account executive.

Dealing directly with customers. Example: Prior to visiting a customer the technical manager should always first liaise with the account manager to share information and ensure no inconsistencies in approach.

Team credit:  Example: The account manager will regularly update the team on performance. As a team let’s celebrate progress together.

Such a charter needs to be visible to all team-members. When well-crafted it can be used to coordinate positive actions, encourage candour to address issues and direct coaching to drive continuous improvement.

Such behaviours are vital cogs in the engine room of a high functioning team.


Final words

Teamwork is vital for key account success but frequently it isn’t given the attention it deserves.

Suppliers that develop compelling products and services and have star account managers are well positioned but those that also excel at internal teamwork are the ones that customers are loyal to and grow with.

For a supplier seeking to improve its teamwork addressing the three questions discussed above can provide the high potential platform to build such a position.


  • *Interview with Professor J. Richard Hackman: Harvard Business Review: May 2009
  • **The Five Dysfunctions of a Team. Patrick Lencioni: Jossey Bass/Wiley 2002
  • ***The New Science of Building Great Teams. Professor Pentland: Harvard Business Review 2012


Author:  Alistair Taylor is a board member of AKAM and a Partner at Brightbridge Consulting.  He combines the experience of implementing highly successful key account management programmes as a business leader, with know-how gained through delivering customer development consulting and training for top global organisations. He is a qualified business and leadership coach.