Key Account Managers (KAMs) have a fairly hefty task when it comes to changing a client’s perspective. Key accounts are the focus of a KAM, but how do you make sure they see you as you want to be seen, and not just as another replaceable vendor serving them a product or service?
There’s a distinct difference between being a valuable partner to a client and being a vendor. Staying on the right side of that line is part of a KAM’s job. But, there’s a lot involved in staying away from “vendor” status with your most important accounts.
Strategic Partners Versus Vendors
Being a vendor is better than not having a customer, but it’s not a good position to be in if you’re looking to keep a key account on for the long-term. Vendors do not have security in their position because they are mainly competing on price versus value given. This is why a KAM needs to focus on growing out of the vendor stage and avoiding slipping back. There won’t be any room to grow the account or your company as a vendor.
Strategic partners are part of the decision-making process for clients. Instead of waiting idly to submit your offer when the call for proposals is issued, you will be a valued partner that’s brought to the table for discussion before the decisions are made. You won’t be involved in everything the client does, but you will be instrumental in guiding the progress of your contract and how the client uses your product or service to reach their goals.
A partnership gives you security in the future of working together with a client, while a vendor relationship only provides you with security on a transactional basis. This difference between strategic partnerships and vendor relationships is all in the duration of doing business. Strategy plans for the long-term future while vendors focus on winning the next contract in the short-term.
Stages of Customer Relationships
There are four stages of relationship with your clients, based on strategic importance and relational relevance. These stages are vendor, preferred provider, expert, and strategic partner (or value creator).
Vendors are the lowest stage of relationship, because they are the beginning of a business-customer relationship. In the B2B context, most companies start out as vendors in direct competition with other similar companies. At that stage, price competition is generally the only place you can compete because your clients do not have any knowledge of the value you can provide or how reliable you are.
Preferred providers are those who get recommended by clients and introduced to other customers through their existing clients. These are the companies that clients prefer to do business with, and they are not required to compete as fiercely over price. Preferred providers are perceived to provide the highest level of value out of the vendors that have been used by a company before. This is a good position to be in with clients, as it’s the first step towards a better relationship.
Experts are those who are seen to provide a level of value exceeding other competitors. Your company can be an expert when your clients recognize the mastery you have over strategic implementation for client benefits. At this stage, you are seen as a company that can fulfill needs skillfully and with a high level of expertise that’s not found in the average vendor. Your client may see the potential for a partnership, although it has not been pursued or is not developed at this point.
Strategic partners are value creators for clients. Clients see these companies as the ones who will give them the greatest benefit over the years, and they partner with them to get the most value from the relationship. Strategic partners do not have to compete on price because the clients see them as a source of added value. Whereas vendors are seen as providing equal levels of benefit regardless of the company chosen, strategic partners are seen as value creators that will be a huge benefit to the client.
How to Become More than Just Another Vendor
If you want to avoid sliding into vendor status, or you want to help upgrade your company to a strategic partner, you need to be actively involved in the process. Proactive and intentional actions to improve your client relationships will help you get to where you want to be, while be reactionary may see you fall even lower on your client’s priority list.
You need to approach this challenge head-on and take carefully measured steps to success. Here are some things you should be doing to work on becoming a strategic partner, rather than just another vendor to your customers:
- Keep Your VOC Up to Date
It would be a mistake to try to approach your clients about working more closely if you don’t really know about your clients. Voice of Customer (VOC) is a useful measure of where you’re at with your client, how they think about your company, and what your next steps should be. If you do it consistently and keep your VOC up to date, you will have a better idea about if you’re on track with your clients or not.
If something is working out like you expected with your client, do your VOC again to make sure you didn’t overlook something important. Make any necessary changes to your client approach once you know where they’re at how they are currently feeling about the relationship.
- Create a Long-Term Strategic Plan with Clients
Creating strategies for the long-term success of your clients helps to show them that you’re in it for the long haul. It’s also a way to put actions to your words. Anyone can tell their clients that they want to form a strategic partnership with them; creating a plan with your clients demonstrates a commitment to follow through.
Strategic plans won’t be effective unless both you and the client work together to make them. A one-sided effort won’t represent the interests of both parties, whereas a jointly created plan will show a path to success for both your company and your client. Collaborate with your customer contacts to learn more about their long-term goals, targets, and ambitions. Make sure you’re on the same page as your clients in terms of where you want the partnership to go in the future.
- Demonstrate Your Commitment to Your Client’s Future
The best key account managers are those who can show their dedication to the client’s success. For a KAM, a successful customer means they are also successful. Focus on what will bring your customers the most success, even if it doesn’t necessarily provide your own company any immediate benefits. Remember that key account management is a long-term strategy that’s going to revolve heavily around your client being as successful as possible.
As your client grows, their account with you will experience growth as well. This is the nature of strategic partnerships, and it depends on you as a KAM acting in a manner that benefits your clients at all times. If what you’re doing is of no benefit to your clients, you may be wasting your time.
- Maintain a Transparent Partnership
Trust is vital to any successful partnership. Without transparency and great communication, your client won’t ever feel like they know what’s going on with you. This is a bad characteristic for a partnership, as it can make the client feel insecure about what you’re supposed to be bringing to the table. If they are not in the loop, they will not want to rely on your company too much or provide inside information about their own operations.
- Avoid Rushing the Relationship
Trying to push a client relationship into a strategic partnership too quickly can lead to an even worse client relationship than before. You need to follow the natural progression of things instead of trying to force your clients to build trust more quickly than they are comfortable with.
It takes time to build a solid relationship with your clients. Give yourself the time you need, plan ahead for it, and invest the proper resources to make sure you’re doing it the right way. If you try to rush things along, your client may feel like you’re pandering or schmoozing too much, which may, in turn, push them further from creating a partnership with you.
- Build Your Industry Knowledge
You may have clients in multiple industries, especially if you work in the SAAS field, but your clients will most likely not be spreading their focus around to different industries. They won’t be concerned about how much general knowledge you have. If you don’t understand their industry in depth, you won’t be able to keep up with their evolving needs.
If you’re trying to build a stronger relationship with a client company, learn as much as you can about the industry they’re in and keep on updating your knowledge. Having a solid base of knowledge about a client’s industry will help you to understand their company and their strategies better, to give better advice about how your product or service can help them, and to make better decisions that will favor both parties.
Showing an interest in understanding your client’s industry also helps to prove your commitment to a partnership. But, this only works if you’re also keeping up to date with new developments as they come. When you’re telling your clients that you want to help them be more strategic, you’re going to have to demonstrate this by understanding what challenges and opportunities lay ahead of them.
- Provide Consistently Excellent Work
The quality of your work over time is one of the biggest determinates of how a customer will feel about your company. If you are not doing the primary function you were recruited for, your clients will never trust you enough to give you even more responsibility and access to their company. Partnerships are only for those who are willing to work hard for them, not for the companies that do the bare minimum required.
Consistently exceeding your client’s expectations is how you’ll gain their trust. If you’re providing fantastic value every time, your clients will notice your efforts and may be willing to give you an ear when you want to talk about forming a stronger partnership. You have to first show by your actions that you’re willing to put in the extra work before you can expect your clients to have any interest in taking you on as a partner.
There is a reason your clients don’t want to discuss partnering with just any company. Why would they give up their ability to negotiate on price when there is no added value being provided? When you’re providing exactly what they expected with no additional value, you are doing a useful service, but you’re also most likely replaceable if a competitor offers a better price.
Going above and beyond to provide more value to your clients shows a dedication to their success, which is going to be an attractive quality to them. If they find that your company is going to benefit them in the long-term and that you provide irreplaceable value, they are likely to want to keep you around for as long as possible.
- Share Research & Information
By giving clients the information they need to succeed, you will help them to see you as an expert in your field. This is an important step in becoming a strategic partner for your clients. If you can demonstrate the value of your expertise and understanding through research, case studies, and best practice information, you will gain an edge over your competitors.
Successful customers lead to successful KAMs. As a KAM, you cannot advance your company unless you first focus on advancing your customers. Strategic partnerships are the best way to make sure both you and your customers are getting value out of the relationship. Do what you can to start forming strategic partnerships with your key accounts and correcting your mistakes to make sure your current partnerships don’t fall back into vendor-buyer relationships.