Most people think that the biggest challenge for a Key Account Manager is the need to understand their account but is this all that is needed?
In most cases no; a good KAM also spends time internally trying to win over the expertise and resources they need to serve their customer. To serve their accounts as effectively as possible, the KAM needs to access resources across different business units and silos of their own company. And usually they have to do this with no direct authority – and in direct competition with colleagues.
It’s about scale
Why is this such a challenge? Well, when we think of selling externally in most situations there are usually three or four competitive offers on the table for the customer to choose from. Yet when we compete for time and resources internally, we are competing with all of the other accounts to which our colleagues could allocate their time – at the very least all the other Key Accounts.
Given that one of the ‘keys’ to KAM success is offering a personalised, expert customer offering and knowledge of the customer’s business, it’s vital that a KAM is able to leverage the very best resources, solutions, services, expertise, skills and people that his or her company has to offer – and thus competition for these assets is tough.
Winner takes all?
So who wins in these situations?
Sometimes it’s the account manager who has the largest account. Sometimes it’s the one who has the most profitable or high-profile account. Sometimes it’s the KAM with the best internal relationships. Or the KAM with the most charisma. Or the KAM who makes the best business case for investment. There’s no hard and fast rule for determining success in who gets access to the best resources, but there are certain factors that are relevant.
An interesting academic study from 2019 looked at seven separate ‘elements of internal alignment’ – shared values, style, skills, staff, strategy, structure, and systems. The authors recognized that:
“One of the main tasks of key account management (KAM) practice is the creation of customized value propositions for business-to-business organization’s most important customers, which often requires the support of multiple internal departments. Thus, making internal alignment central in KAM in order to exchange value and serve the key accounts (KA) long-term.”
In other words, it’s all about alignment. A good KAM has to operate on multiple levels, both fighting for resources as mentioned earlier, but also trying to find common ground and align around a common purpose – that of furthering the overall strategic cause of the company. It’s a delicate balance between competition and collaboration – and it’s not a goal that is ever entirely reached, but rather an ongoing process of refinement and improvement, or rather “internal alignment is not a target state, it is rather a measure of progress”.
The challenge of alignment
However, when we talk about ‘alignment’ we also need to acknowledge the organisational factors that make achieving it challenging in most companies – specifically the KPIs by which the business is measured and run, particularly P&L. In most companies these KPIs are there to manage the silos or departments – and that influences where the power resides to allocate resources. Whilst the KAM can do a lot, for example building good business cases and trying to influence people, the organisation also has to take responsibility – enabling them to make their case for their account.
Some companies have taken steps to reduce this problem – introducing account level profit and cash flow measurements, adding an agenda item to all internal meetings about the customer, including board level account plan presentations, for example.
So, how can you make sure that the right resource decisions are made for your business? Well, it requires that a company – at the highest level – recognizes the critical strategic importance of Key Accounts (and those that manage them), to their long-term strategic success. These are the accounts that provide the very best chance for sustainable, reliable revenue and growth and need to be fully supported. By giving KAMs prioritized access to the resources they need and developing structures and systems that encourage cross-functional departments to contribute fully to nurturing these most valuable of accounts, occasionally ahead of their own immediate interests.
- Ramstedt, C. Johansson, E. Weltman, J. (2019) “Seven Aspects of Internal Alignment Within Key Account Management”