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The Keys to Key Account Management

April 9th, 2015


feb-04_240By Phil Jesson

Account management is not rocket science. It is hard work and takes a lot of skill, but there is nothing complicated about it. Because when you think about your business pipeline, sales can only come from four places:

  • Suspects: Those Identified, but not yet contacted or visited
  • Prospects: Contacted/visited but not yet buying from you
  • Customers: Buying from you on a regular basis
  • Key Accounts: The 20% of customers producing the 80% of your revenue

While your results will be affected by external factors, your Account Managers are directly in control of the two things that will have the most impact i.e. the quantity and quality of their work. It is as simple as that.

Clearly, if you neglect your key accounts, you’re in trouble. Thankfully, the golden rule of key account management is simple:Look after your most important customers before someone else does.


So who are your most important customers and what makes them “important.”? Are they your largest top ten customers looking back in time? Are they your top customers of the future? You may choose to define a key account based on potential future spend. Maybe “size” doesn’t matter. Some key accounts might be low spenders but with huge prestige or status value. They might be “door-openers”, clients with the wow factor!

With key accounts, your goal is to become a partner not a supplier. This is achieved by being brilliant at developing relationships with the key players within the account and by having a great understanding of the key account’s world. So how would you know that you are a partner? We need some partnership indicators – things that you could either see, feel or hear. Here are twenty typical indicators (but the action point here, of course, is to develop a list that is tailored and relevant to your world).

  • They tell you that you are a partner
  • There is clear evidence of added value and return on investment
  • You understand their future strategy
  • They give you pieces of confidential information
  • Price resistance drops, over time
  • They ask for advice – not just on your core services – they value your opinion
  • You have a rolling agreement, not fixed term
  • Reverse hospitality – they pay!
  • They invite you to shape tenders
  • There are joint action plans in place
  • They give you referrals
  • There are no nasty surprises in the relationship
  • Strong multi-level relationships in place
  • More sales and more profits
  • They accept your new products and services
  • They collaborate on case studies and testimonials
  • Your logo appears alongside theirs on marketing material/websites
  • There is tolerance and understanding in the event of a problem/issue
  • Feedback is dealt with openly
  • They bend the rules to keep you

Find out how the key account feels about you.

What is the process within your business for proactively auditing the feelings and perceptions of your key accounts? You may use questionnaires, telephone research and web-based surveys etc but for your top ten customers something else is needed.

Questions about the past / present

  • Where do we meet your expectations?
  • Where do we exceed your expectations?
  • Where do we fall short?
  • What unresolved issues are there?
  • How do we compare to other suppliers?
  • How do you measure us?
  • How would you sum us up in a sentence?
  • How many marks out of ten?
  • Do you see us as a supplier or partner?
Questions about the future

  • How is your business changing?
  • What pressures will you face?
  • What are you main objectives?
  • How will you achieve them?
  • How could we help you?
  • Where could we add more value?
  • What could we do that we are not currently doing?
  • Where would you be happy to see us have more of your business

My suggested action point is a “key account audit.” Think of this as a face-to-face “annual appraisal”, an opportunity for a senior-level executive to say “thank you for your business”, to find out how the customer feels and to identify opportunities for the future. The questions below are not a script. They are a “menu” which, once again, should be tailored to your needs.

Position key account management as a team sport.

Account management is not a job for lone heroes going in pursuit of personal glory. It is something for the whole account management team. It starts with Directors, of course. Account management starts at the top or it doesn’t start at all!

So what does “team sport” actually mean?

Account managers working together as “buddies” discussing dilemmas, opportunities and challenges within their respective key accounts.

  • Establishing good multi-level contact with all three levels within the decision-making process – the policy instigators, the policy influencers and the policy implementers.
  • Removing any interdepartmental friction or friendly fire. The quality of service the key account receives will be influenced by the quality of service your people give each other!
  • Internal team meetings to discuss specific accounts.

Build effective account plans that can be shared by the relevant team.

Key account plans do not need to be complicated. They can be as simple as three questions loosely grouped under the headings intelligence, intentions and implementation.

Intelligence: What is the current situation within the account? The good old SWOT Analysis works well here. Where is the relationship strong? Where is it weak? What are the opportunities? What are the threats?

Intentions: What are the plans for the future? (e.g. to add value to the key account, to improve your business and to develop relationships between the two organisations).

Implementation: Who is going to do what, by when? What action is your Account Manager taking? What are his/her colleagues going to do?

Although there will always be demands and challenges, business (at the end of the day) is remarkably simple:

It is about making a profit by selling products and services that don’t come back to customers that do!


Phil Jesson is an expert on partnerships with key accounts. His workshops juggle key themes such as: working as a partner not a supplier; standing out from competitors rather than standing up to them; being perceived as a value creator not a cost creator; becoming an expert in the customer’s world and key account management as a team sport. He also provides a range of consultancy and coaching activities designed to convert his clients’ plans into a sustainable, profitable reality.


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