How to Get Unstuck and Accelerate Your KAM Journey

Commercial leaders invest in key account programs as part of a broader go-to-market sales strategy to drive business growth. They recognize growth with select customers requires a coordinated, cross-team approach to drive meaningful engagement and deliver mutual value that justifies the ongoing KAM investment.

Yet, many initiatives struggle to realize the desired outcomes, elevate customer relationships, and/or secure sufficient executive support. First-time KAM programs often rely on individual heroics (unsustainable) or success with few accounts (unscalable). Some leaders become overwhelmed with the degree of complexity and change required, and revert to shorter-term selling efforts. The KAM program often stalls and has limited impact. 

Launching a KAM initiative will never be a smooth, mistake-free endeavor without career risk. And with modern business being more complex, and unforeseen disruptions such as the coronavirus pandemic crisis make it increasingly more so, astute commercial leaders realize the risk-reward payoff that an effective key customer program offers. Embrace the change or accept competing on features and price, while being marginalized in your marketplace. 

Given that KAM means launching a small-scale transformation program – aimed at changing behaviors, capabilities and priorities across several functions – what perspectives and frameworks would be most helpful for commercial leaders looking to launch or improve their key customer management? 

Our experience with dozens of companies suggests that KAM can be viewed as a three-stage journey progressing through a series of transformations that yield higher performance. With clarity of where they are “stuck” on the journey, leaders will be more confident to prioritize time and resources needed to address the specific change (in behaviors, capabilities, etc.) and avoid the overwhelm that leads to stagnant performance. 

The framework in Table 1 illustrates the KAM as a journey of three development stages – Align, Advance and Accelerate – with a series of nine transformations to be undertaken. Each stage consists of three capabilities (or steps) with a corresponding transformation hurdle to overcome that enables the leader to make progress. 

The over-arching goal of the KAM journey is to evolve out of a KAMINO state (“key account management in name only”) with a reliance on individual heroics – to a state of accelerated momentum with a broad portfolio of key customers supported by cross-functional team collaboration and engaged customers. 

ALIGN stage: Navigating Complexity

The Align stage establishes the foundation for how KAM will serve as an extension of the business growth strategy and a driver of customer-centricity in the service of key customers.

The transformations required are:

  • Developing a compelling KAM value proposition for customers and the company
  • Effective teaming and role clarity in account management
  • Shared accountability with customer to create relationship goals and mutual value

Changing B2B buyer expectations, different buyer journeys and trends in customization and specialization are examples of the market dynamics that confront KAM leaders. Navigating complexity requires a laser focus to build on-going alignment with three stakeholder groups. 

  1. With its executive team on KAM priorities and progress, target investments and executive support for delivering customer growth strategies; 
  2. With cross-functional teams (product management, service, operations) to ensure role clarity and clear accountability in account management; and
  3. With the customer teams to ensure a mutual account vision and goals derived from a joint customer planning process. 

Creating an aligned and fully committed strategy, a plan for sustainable growth and an organizational focus will ensure a strong foundation for dealing with complexity and change. 

ADVANCE stage: Driving Engagement 

The Advance stage centers around the individual competencies and organizational capabilities that drive effective customer engagement and advances relationship goals, supplier relevance and customer responsiveness.

The transformations required are: 

  • Tailoring sales/marketing message campaigns
  • Conceptualizing business cases for joint value pursuit and capture
  • Customized and aligned offerings and processes responsive to customer needs

By leveraging the customer planning process, KAMs can identify stakeholders in other budget centers where opportunities may exist to develop new value propositions. Then, KAMs must secure deliberate engagement from those individuals to explore ideas for delivering meaningful outcomes. Converting a target opportunity into a defined project and capturing tangible value requires flexible supplier processes and capabilities for tailoring solutions, product or services that meet customer expectations. 

 ACCELERATE stage: Building Momentum

The Accelerate stage focuses on building momentum in the key customer relationship by delivering target outcomes, becoming a thought leader within their value chain, and continuously adapting program tactics for optimized performance.

The transformations required are: 

  • Disciplined execution and performance support
  • Development of influence and leadership skills for KAM leaders
  • Instilling agility and resilience to respond to changing dynamics

Driving outcomes requires a disciplined customer-centric execution culture – across sales, product, operations and service – to deliver the customer success metrics (financial, relationship and solution delivery) and internal revenue and other sales strategy goals. Successful account leaders have developed leadership competencies that position them to be an influential advisor within the customer’s value chain, which often leads to further opportunities to expand value.

The capstone capability on the three-stage journey is seeking continuous improvement by incorporating customer and internal feedback as well as best practice sharing. Adaptability to the dynamic changes and inherent complexity of multi-tiered B2B relationships builds resiliency and broader support for the true value delivered by well-functioning KAM programs.

The key to success in transformational change is to break the journey into manageable pieces and solve for one behavior or capability gap at a time. 

The three stage Acceleration framework provides sales leaders with a useful template to examine where they are in their KAM journey and what small transformation is needed to achieve greater organizational effectiveness and accelerated customer growth.  

A table showing the 3 stages of Align, Advance, and Accelerate