I’m really excited to share a fantastic interview I conducted with Jermaine Edwards, Key Account Management and Business Relationship expert. We sat down to talk about Account Management, QBRs, and how to drive real value for your most important clients.
In this interview, you will learn:
- How to build proactive Account Plans
- Key questions to ask to build trust and value
- What to do instead of boring Quarterly Business Reviews (QBRs)
- How to take your Key Account Management to the next level
This was a fascinating conversation with a real Key Account Management pro. Enjoy!
My Key Account Management Interview with Jermaine Edwards
Alex Raymond: One of the things that we get asked a lot at Kapta is, “What’s the role of a Key Account Manager?” So, if we were to define Key Account Management, where does that live in an organization? What does that person do? Can you help to orient us to how you think about the role of a Key Account Manager?
Jermaine Edwards: The Key Account Manager today is not what we think. When key account management (KAM) started 30 years ago the original definition for a KAM was someone who was solely responsible for aligning and managing the needs, expectations and goals of a customer with their own business. And, that’s what I still think a Key Account Manager should be considering. Today, that definition has shifted dramatically.
Today, many Key Account Managers look after 30 to 40 accounts. They’re still prospecting new companies, and managing accounts. It’s no wonder the average organisation can lose up to 22% of its customer base every year. We’re not helping key account managers or our businesses generate meaningful customer relationships or growth results.
Even within a pure KAM role many companies have a working definition that is detrimental to the role, which says a key account Manager is responsible for maintaining the consistency, loyalty, and value of an account throughout their lifetime. Key word “maintaining”.
If you walk into the meeting of an account team, most questions aren’t focused on growth. They’re focused on opportunity and renewal. “What opportunities do we see, and what renewals do we see?” rather than looking at questions such as, “What evidence are we seeing that the lifetime value of this customer will be true for us next year?” It’s questions like this that forces us to have to think in a very different way. Opportunities aren’t evidence of commitment. They’re evidence of courtesy that somebody has told you something that they’re interested in. We have to make distinctions between client courtesy and commitment. Once you’re in a relationship with a customer, they’ll tell you a whole load of stuff. And, we know this.. Not everything your customer tells you is something they want to commit to. So, we have to look for the evidence and opportunity to influence commitment and know when it’s just courtesy.
In order to find commitment, we have to understand what the desire is. I often talk about looking at the outcome. What is the specific outcome that a company is looking for? Who are they actually trying to become as a department, as an individual, as a business? I’ll give you an example. A client I have in the chemical sector has a goal with their customers to enter a new market and grow their market share by 10% in a particular product category. They want to be the product leader. That’s who my client is trying to become. What I now need to do is, go back to my solutions, and ask, “Are my solutions aligned to the commitment and outcome of what they want most?” Meaning that, if I was to present this solution to my customer, would they immediately recognize the value of how it helps them achieve that desired outcome?
If my services aren’t aligned to that right now, then nothing that I give to them will be a something they’d commit to.
If it is compelling to my customer I ask “How does this fit in with the strategic plans of your CEO? How does this fit in with the commitments you’ve made to your department? How does this fit in with the commitments you’ve made to your budget and investment? And, is there an appreciated understanding of your investment?”
looking at the whole allows me to know the extent of the commitment. But, until you really understand those things, you won’t know with confidence.
What is the top thing that companies are getting wrong about Key Account Management? Is it about the team, skills, process, technology, executive support? And what solutions do you typically recommend?
It begins with clarity. A question I tend to ask every organization I meet is, “Do you have a known, understood, practiced, and proven plan for customer growth and relationship success?” Now, when I ask that question, I tend to get blank looks and very vague answers. And, the reason for that is that most people don’t know why they’re doing the activities they’re doing and what it’s meant to achieve.
I asked a question to an Account Manager recently, “What is the purpose or outcome of this particular activity?” The answer to that was, “to get the client to commit to a particular action.” I asked “Is the email to this person meant to help you achieve the outcome of getting them to commit to sign an agreement?” The answer was, “Yes.” I said, “You, may not have thought about what you’re trying to change. In order for your client to commit, you have to have evidence that an email is what is needed to move them forward”. Organizations can think so much about themselves, they actually forget what their customers want.
Does the client always know what they want?
I’m not saying they do. But, here’s the challenge. There are two aspects to this, and it comes down to the definition of the value that you’re creating or delivering for a customer. When we’re serving a client, we are adding or creating value. “adding value” is the use of our knowledge and expertise based on our service and products to help our clients achieve a goal. When we are looking to grow a customer, we don’t do that by adding value, we do it by creating value which is the knowledge we gain through the information our clients give us about themselves. Once we know more about the customer, we then have insight that they don’t know about themselves. we can use this to help them make better decisions and effect change for greater influence.
Our clients are really interested in is the art and science of account plans. How do you see account planning evolving? How do you see best practices emerge? What are your typical recommendations these days when people come to you and say, ‘How can I do account planning better?’
This is an interesting one, because my thoughts on this issue have shifted significantly in the last few months. Perhaps I would’ve been a traditionalist saying that your joint account plans should have x, y, and z in it, and that would be enough to be clear on knowing who your key accounts are.
But, today, if you want to do really effective account plans, it needs to include a range of things that aren’t being discussed today. It begins with what I call “growth mapping” which has three components. It allows you to gain a balanced and holistic view of where you are, and the known and undiscovered opportunities. The first area is evaluating risk. What specifically are the risks to the relationship right now?” This is anything in the relationship that might prevent you deepening trust, delivering for your client, gaining influence and growing opportunities.
Then you have known opportunities which are the current service opportunities, your upsells known to you and your client, but they’re probably unexplored. It’s your typical white space evaluation. But, then you have something else which is more significant which is the new and undiscovered, which are the opportunities unknown to you and your client that could significantly accelerate your results together. Key Account plans in many cases miss that piece, we think that growth comes from the white space, but it actually doesn’t. It often comes from the unknown opportunities that we haven’t taken time to explore or to evaluate.
How do I get my account plan from what is typically today something that I maybe do once a year, and it sits on the shelf, and it’s in PowerPoint or it gets lost in the CRM record or something like that, but what do I do to make sure that this gets reviewed? What are your recommendations on cadence for checking in on these things? Do you recommend that people share them with their clients? What is your tactical advice there?
I don’t advocate sharing anything with the client in terms of your specific activities. You may offer high level goals and outcomes that are agreed between you. If you’re going to be really effective with an account plan, you need to have clarity of the activities you will need to execute be each week, against a specific goal. Your clients obviously don’t need to know this.
Let me give you an example. Imagine that within an account plan there is an identified target for you to grow your contacts across the executive suite. Maybe you decided as part of your activity you will send out LinkedIn requests, make a phone call, or ask for a referral that sets up a meeting, where you can present ideas and start meaningful connections. Those activities are great but, alone do not help you understand the whole client growth picture. We can often add new relationships without a plan for how we’ll manage them and what we want from them. Then it’s all confusion and randomness trying to catch up with yourself.
You need sales leaders that help account teams think about those things weekly. I created a resource called “The 10 Most Important Questions to Ask in an account team meeting,” (download here).
It includes questions like, “What one question haven’t you asked your client that would help you understand how you can help them better?” Or, “What one thing did you do this week that yielded the biggest results for your client? How do we repeat it? If I don’t know my activity is effective and have a clear measure. All I’d be doing is an activity without knowing I’m moving forward. So, the point of these management meetings and these questions is to really get people conscious and asking, “Am I actually moving forward? Am I making progress? How do I know?”
Let’s talk about the skills and behaviors of Key Account Managers. What’s your advice for a Key Account Manager who is looking to take their performance to the next level? How do they become the best possible Key Account Manager?
The first thing I’d say is: become a master question asker. Really improve your ability to ask questions. Here’s an activity that I often do for any Key Account Managers because of what I see in the average QBR, and I have a particular thing about QBR’s myself, but in any client meeting, we tend to ask the same questions over and over again. And, because we ask the same questions, we don’t get different answers. It doesn’t allow us to evaluate and really see the truth of where our actual relationships are and doesn’t challenge the customer to think about things differently so they may want to make new changes with you as an organization. This activity is simple but hard. Write down the 20 or 30 most common questions you ask your accounts, typically in that first early process or any time during a year. And, once you’ve written them down, imagine you can never ask them again. Doing this forces your brain, or yourself, to be much more specific and think in terms of outcomes, “What specifically am I trying to achieve or understand from this question that I’m asking?” And, “How does it help me serve my client better and achieve this particular goal?” That’s the first frame, preparing to ask better questions so you get answers that help you move forward.
The second thing, is relational excellence. What I mean by “relational excellence” is changing your philosophy. I’ll give you an example. So, when I was helping run and manage an account team last year, before selling a company, we had a card printed on everybody’s table. The card read, “Whenever I’m in front of a customer, I’m in the greatest competitive position to deepen value, raise trust, and eliminate risk so we become the provider of choice every time we pick up the phone.” that was a key philosophy we had. It shaped everything about how we thought about our engagement. Once you raise your intention, meaning the philosophy or the thoughts that you have about the interactions with your customers, it raises your ability to raise the standard in your communication. “How do you want to be experienced each time you pick up the phone to a customer?” having that in front of you reminds you of the intention and the quality of communication that needs to be there. That’s number two.
Number three is client leadership. What I mean by client leadership is your ability to take full ownership over the result for your customer, your colleagues, your peers, business, and department. And, that could be done in many different ways. It begins with saying, “In order for me as a Key Account Manager to be successful, I need to own the outcome for everything that touches the customer.” Now, that may seem quite unwieldy because there’s so many different touch points for the customer, but it’s very possible if you’re willing to take a collaborative stance and begin the collaborative process of building what I call “super teams.”
Collaboration for me is the ability to harness the skills, experience, and expertise of the people around you to achieve a result faster than by yourself. But, you can only do that once you have a clear view of the customer, what you’re trying to achieve, and you communicate that well to everybody else so you have one unifying theme and goal each person can execute on based on their experience, their role, their expertise.
There’s been a theme in my recent conversation that Quarterly Business Reviews (QBRs) are dead, or at least they aren’t as useful as they once were. What are your thoughts and ideas about QBRs?
I think they’re a waste of time. Not because they aren’t important but because, usually, QBR’s are based on two objectives. One, is that you’re trying to convince the customer that things are going right. Or, you’re trying to position things that have gone wrong. But you’re not really exploring how you actually move forward together.
We approach QBR’s like we know everything we need already. These assumptions are killing Key Account Managers success. We can turn up ‘asking the same questions and,hoping the customer will renew with us or give us a pat on the back and tell us we’re doing okay.
That’s just not it. For a QBR to be effective having these questions are a must.
- “What do you know about your customers today that impacts the way you do business?” then validate (is this true? how do we know?)
- “What don’t you know about your customers today that impacts the way you do business?” (discover the good and the bad)
- “What do you need to know about your customer today that impacts the way you do business?”
You should be looking for answers to these questions in every QBR. Never assume. With your customers ask. “Hey, what don’t we know right now? What do we need to know about where you’re going that will help us serve you better?” or “Based on where we are today and where we started, has your goal of who you want to become changed? If so, how?”
Think about what the three to five most important questions you should be asking your customer will be in your next meeting?
Another important aspect in a QBR is understanding if your customers are actually getting better. I’ll give you an example.
When serving your customers we can often get them a result but they don’t get better because you’re facing the exact same challenges over and over, they’re giving you the exact same answers, you’re not getting any other leverage, you’re speaking to the same set of people. So, basically, what’s happening is, you’re getting results but the relationship isn’t getting better.
QBRs are a great place to change that. If you’re getting results but your clients aren’t getting better the QBR should be focused on that. How do we make the relationship better?” and focusing questions on that. The research shows 84% of organizations today are not meeting client growth expectations. And, this is one of the reasons why.
Tell me about your training and consulting work are and what type of companies are ideal customers for you.
I help organizations answer the most important question for their business to experience phenomenal customer success. Do they have a known, understood, practiced and proven plan for customer growth and relationship success? My clients leave with the confidence, that whenever they walk into the office, they’ll know exactly what to do with a customer that moves them to a significant position, both in profit, sales and relationships. That service is typically a consulting program or sometimes a talk or workshop. Most often I’m in the trenches having conversations with their clients and their teams to get to the truth of what actually matters to growing their client relationship, and building a framework to go out and reproduce and repeat anywhere in the world.
The ideal company for me is somebody who recognizes they’re not doing their best. They’re open to change, being given feedback. They also have buy-in from senior management that change is needed. I work for organizations that are doing millions to billions in revenue. I tend to find technology companies who have high customer acquisition benefit very quickly from the process. The implications of the change and process can actually double their revenue fairly quickly. Learn more at JermaineEdwards.com