Key Account Managers are not just responsible for retention of certain customers, but also for improving and growing those same accounts. This is a daunting task on its own, but it will be infinitely more difficult if you are constantly getting surprised by issues or challenges that you didn’t see coming. You can make your job a lot easier if you take the right steps to remove blind spots in your Key Account customer relationships.
Knowing Your Customers
Before you can really hope to eliminate blind spots, you need to understand your customers. This should always be step one for Key Account managers, because you can’t create a solid partnership without a foundation of information about your customer. If you build up the partnership based on outdated or incorrect information, it’s not likely to last or to fulfill either company’s needs.
Learn to understand your customers by building a Voice of Customer (VOC) profile for each Key Account customer. This is something that should be regularly updated and requires you to do the legwork. But, it’s worthwhile to have the right set of information to act on. To make sure you’re getting the best information for your VOC profile, ask the right questions of your customers.
Questions should be strategically planned and crafted to get the most actionable information. Ask direct, open-ended questions and then follow up. When you get answers that aren’t clear or don’t seem complete, ask follow-up questions. Get to the root of whatever information you get, so you can understand each answer in the right context.
Following Up with the 5 Why’s
An excellent strategy for follow-up questions is the 5 Why’s. This strategy requires you to identify a problem in specific terms and determine the cause by asking why it happens. You will start out by writing down a specific problem you’re focusing on. In practice, you can identify the problem verbally with your customer contacts.
The next step will be to ask why that problem happens. This will lead you to a specific cause, but it may not be the true root of the problem. For each answer you get that’s not the true root of the problem, keep asking why until you do get to the bottom of it. Although it’s called the 5 Why’s, it may take more or less than 5 rounds of asking questions to get to the right answer.
Do You Know the Right People?
Although companies act as one entity, they are made up of a collection of individual people. Knowing the right people within an organization can help you get a head’s up about what’s really going on beneath the surface. If you don’t have the right contacts, you may be getting a shaded opinion on how things are going for your customer’s company and what they opinion of you is.
If one of your contacts in your customer’s company has a strong positive or negative opinion about you, it can cause them to unintentionally give you an inaccurate answer. You must try to avoid this by keeping as many contacts as possible within each Key Account customer’s company and getting information from each. One may have inside information that another doesn’t have, giving you a more complete picture of what’s really going on from the customer’s point of view.
Analyzing Customer Risk
Blind spots only exist because you are unaware of something coming towards you. To avoid blind spots, you must make a strong effort to become aware of what’s around your business on all sides. Just like a car is built with side mirrors to avoid blind spots, you must create the mechanisms needed for a useful flow of information without blind spots.
Here are a few ways to keep risks in your sights and to analyze the situation around your Key Account customers:
1) Look for unexpected risks
Risk management should already be a regular part of your Key Account strategy, but there are certain risks – called “unknown unknowns” – that are difficult to plan for ahead of time. These are risks that you do not know you are unaware of, because you simply don’t have the knowledge to anticipate them in any way.
Keep up with your industry and market-specific research to make sure you’re not unaware of certain risks to and from your customers. Additionally, it’s good to train your staff and members of your organization on how to react in a crisis, so they can be ready in case of the “unknown unknowns” becomes a reality that you have to deal with unexpectedly. Some flexibility, crisis management, and project buffers are prudent measures to consider for risk management scenarios.
2) Changes in the industry or customer situation
Part of being a Key Account manager is keeping up with what’s happening in your customers’ industries. To know how useful you’ll be to them and how you’re helping them meet their goals, you must also understand how well their company is doing and what’s happening around their industry. If there are changes in their industry, their needs may change. Being aware of these situations can help you adapt on time instead of being too late to make a big enough impact.
3) Potential new opportunities for your partnership
Risks and challenges also lead to opportunities for advancement. If you are vigilant to understand what your Key Accounts need from your business and how you’re helping them fulfill their goals, you can put yourself in a great position to take advantage of new opportunities as they come. You want to see these
4) Status of known risks
It’s not just the unknown risks that can blindside you. If you know about a risk and actively ignore it or don’t monitor it enough, it can also create problems for you. Record every type of risk you can for your customer contracts and monitor each risk as you’re going, so that you don’t get crippled by a known risk that you could have prepared for or prevented.
5) Alignment of products or services with customer needs or wants
A large part of doing your VOC profile for Key Accounts is to make sure you’re still meeting the needs and wants of your most important customers. If you’re not helping your customers reach their goals, you’re not doing a good job. They will look elsewhere if you cannot meet their basic expectations, so you need to constantly be aware of how well you’re doing in that area.
6) Competition for your position
Prudent customers will have back-up suppliers on hand. You need to understand that if your customers are wise, they will have your competitors on stand-by in case something falls through on your end and you can’t keep up with the deal. Make sure that you stay on top by understanding what you’re facing and focusing on fulfilling exactly what your customers need.
A lot can happen during a year. People can change positions or leave companies, new strategies can be implemented, and you can easily get lost in the milestones and goal benchmarks. Because of this, you need to record everything you’re doing with Key Account customers. This will make sure you always remember anything important that came up, you have something to reference when you need information, and you are prepared in case of employee shifts.
Document everything you’re doing with Key Accounts from the VOC results, risk analysis and identification, actions taken to mitigate risks, and more. Accurate documentation can make the difference between being prepared for something ahead of time and being accidentally blindsided by something you could have avoided with the right information.
Share Your Findings
How else can you know if you’ve gotten everything right except sharing your results with your customers? They are the ones who can confirm or deny whatever you’ve found out. This is a great way to double-check your findings from the source of the information.
You don’t want to directly approach each customer from the beginning to ask for information and take them at their word. This is a poor practice that may lead to inaccurate information, because your customers may not be willing to share their exact thoughts about the partnership with you. But, if you come with your documented findings and ask if you are correct, and if they want to add anything to it, you are more likely to walk away with accurate information.
Even if you’ve discovered ill will towards your company from your customers, they may still be willing to discuss it further if you bring it up and ask them directly about the negatives you’ve found. This helps to show your customers you’re listening and that you’re interested in correcting any problems in the partnership.
You may not be able to eliminate every blind spot, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. Being prepared for anything is a very desirable quality that will show your Key Accounts that you’re taking their business seriously. Do everything you can do identify and prepare for risks ahead of time, but remember that some unexpected problems may still be able to creep in.