The essence of key account management

The essence of key account management
Adam has star quality. He was promoted to sales manager from the salesforce of one of our clients seven years’ ago. I am rather proud that our input has contributed to the progress he has made. Recently, two promotions later, he left, and he is now Sales & Marketing Director with another large company. He told me that his fellow directors think that they “should move into account management … even though they don’t really know what it is …” So what exactly is it? What’s involved? I think we should be told…

Firstly, consider that the Account Manager fulfils these primary roles:

  1. His employer, not surprisingly, sees the role as one of protecting and growing the business.
  2. His customer sees the role as largely one of caring for the customer’s business and the chief ‘go to’ point in the relationship between both parties.

The Account Manager thus fulfils both of these roles and bridges the gap. This is a hard line for most of us to walk. How many times have we seen the Account Manager who spends much of his time bitching internally and forgetting where his salary comes from? As I said … it’s a hard line to walk …

In this high leverage, ’80/20′ sales area, where concentration of effort is paramount, we are usually playing for the highest of stakes. It is clear to me therefore that a rare blend of attributes is called for at the higher end of ‘bigger ticket’ account management:

  • Intelligence
  • Business awareness
  • Patience, tenacity and courage
  • Strong, multi-level, interpersonal confidence
  • Well organised
  • Deft networking skills
  • Inquisitive by nature and a keen eye for an opportunity

Importantly, he must be a first class salesperson. Good quality selling is fundamental to effective account management. That is, amongst differing parts of the customer’s organisation the Account Manager must be exceedingly well grounded in his value propositions, and be especially adept at connecting them meaningfully with his appreciation of what is (or will be) going on in his customer’s world. Building on this knowledge he will need to ‘dig’ and challenge to find the pain which his solution will alleviate in a quantifiable way which contains more value than his competitors. As a rule of thumb:

The bigger the problem solved, the higher the value to the customer.
The knowledge referred to is gained from a real, passionate, interest in the customer.

  • What are their goals?
  • What pressures are they facing?
  • What is changing in their world?

The Account Manager must be inquisitive and must take a passionate interest in his customer’s business. Show me someone who is not prepared to check the web, scan all sources of trade information, and keep an active eye out, 24 hours per day, for information which relates to his customer – and I’ll show you someone who will not deliver as an Account Manager in the 21st century…!!
Given the combination of the attributes above which this challenging task demands, it is surprising how often we meet ‘Account Managers’ who are either under-performing sales managers who have been ‘put out to grass’, or time-servers who ‘deserve’ promotion … but that’s another discussion …

It is not always widely understood that sales activity within a major account base needs to be planned and managed in much the same way as ‘new-name’ sales activity must be planned and managed:

  • New contacts to be made and relationships cultivated
  • New products and services to be sold
  • The competitors’ threat to be assessed and monitored
  • Referrals and introductions to be engineered and obtained

None of these things will happen as a matter of course!

  • Outcomes need to be targeted
  • Timescales need to be estimated
  • Sales values needs to be factored-in
  • Types and number of sales contact, with implicit ‘conversion rates’ should be planned too.

In short the sales plan which will produce the required result should be a central part of the account plan.
A result (which is history by definition) cannot be managed – the activity which produces it can be..!!
In much the same way as new business salespeople forecast the probability of winning new pieces of revenue (or they should do), the Account Manager’s sales activity plan must feature a means of forecasting the likelihood of contracts being retained and incremental slugs of revenue being achieved. It is also worth noting that ‘qualifying-out’ a situation which is very unlikely to convert, is in itself a result in terms of opportunity cost.

  • Are we sure we are not confusing our sales process with the customer’s buying process?
  • Do we really understand the buying process?
  • Does a realistic budget exist? (Bearing in mind that the more strategic the purchase the more likely that the budget is merely a guide).
  • Do we understand the key needs and wants of all the players within the decision-making process? (Needs are logically-based. Wants are emotionally-based).
  • Can we meet the customer’s needs and wants with our resources?
  • Does our solution contain uniques which are central to the customer’s perception of their problem/s?
  • Has a preference been expressed for our solution?
  • Are we talking to all of the decision-influencers?
  • Do they know they have a decision to make?
  • Do we really understand how and when the decision will be made?

A great ‘litmus test’ question we might ask ourselves when assessing the likelihood of success is: “If they cast their votes today, would we win?” As I said, an Account Manager needs to be well organised! He also needs the courage and integrity to ask the customer, and himself, these tough questions. After all, why allow hard qualification questions to obscure an appealing sales forecast ..?

We must penetrate an account before we can manage it
A sales manager of mine many years ago listened patiently to me complaining about an affable but ineffective Sales Administration Manager. I can still hear his wise words of counsel: “… never forget that lots of people within an organisation can get you promoted …” He went on to explain how the individual concerned had known and worked with the Sales Director for over 20 years, and still played golf with him twice a week …

It is important to fully understand how the customer’s buying decision is made (i.e. the process) – but it is arguably even more important to understand who the people are who make the decision and the dynamics which exist between them. In considering this, never lose sight of two guiding principles:

  • Organisations do not buy anything – people do
  • All men are equal, but some are more equal than others

I have heard it said that the Account Manager needs to understand his customer’s decision-making process better than his customer. Given that the customer, despite outward appearances, often doesn’t fully understand his own decision-making process, I am inclined to agree! This is a big and vital subject in its own right, which could dwarf the scope of this article, but here is some food for thought:

  • Do not confuse the process of evaluation with the process of making a decision.
  • As illustrated within the mysalespunch ‘Decision-Making Grid’, all of those participating in the process can, and should be, categorised in terms of their influence and their support for you.
  • This categorisation should then become the basis of planning to neutralise / convert your ‘Threats’ and build upon the support of your ‘Drivers’ and ‘Advocates’.
  • Things are rarely what they seem. Declared agendas and personal agendas are often miles from each other. People award their vote for very different logically based, and emotionally-based reasons. The selling which takes place with each of the influencers must reflect the Account Manager’s understanding of their differing agendas.
  • In line with the grid, votes vary from the notional to the hugely influential.
  • The sales activity piece of the account plan needs to contain the steps necessary to justify air-time with, and sell convincingly to, the less accessible players within the decision-making process. Usually this takes steel, sponsorship and flair (courage, intelligence and deft networking – remember …?) To quote one of our clients: “ensure that you sell to the customer’s power zone, not your comfort zone …”

No man is an island
Without resorting to cliché, and waxing lyrical about the value of teamwork, it is a fact that many people within an organisation influence their company’s sales success (positively and negatively) who do not necessarily wear obvious sales ‘badges’. By definition therefore the Account Manager may own the relationship with the customer, but he certainly is not the only one selling to the customer.

Equally, many players within the customer’s organisation influence the corporate view of us – and can impart useful and important views and observations which can help us to strengthen our position. To ‘oil the wheels’ and optimise our position I suggest these focus points in particular:

  • Exploit your ‘width on the field’. Take the opportunity of ‘wiring up’ those individuals within both buying and selling organisations who can relate to each other professionally.
  • Enlist their help! Make each of your players part of the relationship and part of the sales ‘campaign’ by ensuring that they are well versed in your value propositions.
  • Equip them with the tools and skills they need to spot problems, tag interest in your propositions, gather helpful information, and, where appropriate, flag threats to your position.
  • Ensure that the feedback and communication mechanisms are in place to capture and use the information which is obtained.
  • Continually ‘turn the wheel’ by bringing the players together internally and ensuring that they feel part of the on-going sales campaign which this amounts to, and actually see and touch the benefits that the information they have contributed is delivering for both businesses.

What gets measured gets done
Finally, if you are in the mood to be entertained, ask your Account Manager how he feels about your business relationship with his major account. When you have listened to the hyperbole – ask him how he quantifies the strength of that relationship. The business relationship can be quantified. Here are some examples:

  • Generally, valued business partners get paid more promptly than those who aren’t valued.
  • A customer’s senior executives will more regularly attend a partner’s business events if they buy into the value of the relationship.
  • A sharing of business plans (or not) is telling us something about the strength of the relationship.
  • Top level testimonial is a useful indicator of the quality of the relationship.
  • Peer level contact at all levels between both organisations is a great indicator of the strength of the relationship.

If these (and no doubt others you can think of) focus the mind, go one stage further and quantify them in something which resembles our ‘Relationship Assessment’ model and use this as a planning model which sits within your account planning process.


  • The account manager’s position is a vitally important and pivotal role far removed from the ‘shunted side-ways’, default slot it has often occupied in days gone by. He walks a fine line between the expectations of his company and the expectations of the customer.
  • An unusually wide blend of attributes is required to be successful. A good account manager, by definition, must be a ‘top drawer’ salesperson.
  • He must be obsessively interested in what makes his customer ‘tick’, and where and how this connects with his company’s value propositions.
  • Sales activity planning, although ‘shaped’ differently, is as important in account management as it is in new business sales, and needs to be connected with an objective and accurate means of ‘sales pipeline’ quantification.
  • A deep and wide grasp of the customer’s decision-making process is a pivotal issue in high quality account management.Many people within an organisation contribute to sales success. This needs to be harnessed.
  • The quality of a business relationship can be separated from hype and quantified.

As that most-quoted of men, George Bernard Shaw, once said:
“The people who get on in this world are the people who get up and look for the circumstances they want, and if they can’t find them, make them”.


Posted on

April 11, 2022