Critical Skills for Key Account Managers: The Power of Purposeful Listening

Key account managers (KAMs) carry a very big responsibility. They are tasked with protecting the business of an organization’s most valuable customers. KAMs achieve this in two ways: They use their expertise of their own company’s products and services to show how they will deliver the results the customers need, and they build relationships with their customer contacts.

Strong relationships are built on confidence, trust, and satisfaction. Strong relationships are a barrier to competitors and a glue that keeps thing together when there is a problem.

A Key Account Manager’s Skills

Key account managers use specific skills to generate the sales and to build those relationships. One of the most-used skills is questioning. This creates a huge need for one obvious skill: purposeful listening.

Listening, on its own, is not always purposeful, so it does not always support the business relationship or advance a sale. Skilled key account managers understand and apply purposeful listening. They know what to listen for and what to do with the information they hear.

What is Purposeful Listening?

To state the obvious, it is listening with a purpose. The purpose is to support the two primary KAM objectives: to bring in more business and to strengthen the relationship. Most, if not all, contacts with key accounts help to advance one or both of these goals—more business, stronger relationships.

Sometimes the key account contacts the KAM. They do that for certain reasons. To keep it simple, the reasons are usually to help achieve a goal or to help solve a problem. The KAM’s role is to understand the reason, listen to the details associated with that reason, focus on the keywords they hear, and then agree on what they will do to help remove the problem or achieve the goal. The KAM must, of course, listen for the contact to confirm the agreement.

The alternative is for the KAM to contact the key account. This time, the KAM owns the reason and needs the contact to agree with it. Few people agree by being told to agree or by being persuaded to agree, which is why talking too much rarely advances a sale. Human beings prefer to persuade themselves. This is where asking questions, listening to what you hear, and then giving out useful follow-up information become the KAM’s most powerful tools.

It boils down to asking the right question and listening to the most important parts of the answer.

Effective Questions Direct Purposeful Listening

Questions engage the mind and direct the thinking. When a key account manager asks a pertinent question, the listener automatically pays attention and tries to come up with a sensible answer. KAMs must understand enough about their own role and the key account’s situation to be able to sell, solve, or support. The questions they ask, therefore, typically have to do with one of the following objectives:

  1. Opening a sale, advancing a sale, or closing a sale
  2. Solving a problem
  3. Enhancing the business relationship

Effective questions provide useful information that the KAM can use to further one of the three points above. The questions give them answers to listen to. To achieve all of this, KAMs set goals. Those goals provide the framework for the questions and the answers. The goals are:

  1. Ultimate, long-term goals for the key account
  2. Goals for the next sale
  3. Goals for the current conversation

When a KAM is clear about those three types of goals, the questions become obvious and logical. The answers give them everything they need. The questions they ask in their conversation or sales presentation, therefore, often focus on six things:

  1. The key account’s goals
  2. The account’s problems and pain points
  3. The needs that come out of those goals, problems, and pain points
  4. The implications for the account of not fulfilling those needs
  5. Exploring the value of potential solutions (products and services offered) that will meet those needs
  6. Confirming the practicalities (quantity, price, delivery, etc.) that the KAM and the contact agree will meet the needs to achieve the goals or solve the problems and remove the pain points

The Takeaway

Successful KAMs know their goals and know the six things that make up a conversation or presentation. They, therefore, know they must ask questions to get their contact to talk about them. They know that some of the details and specific words in the answers will be critical to advancing the sale or strengthening the relationship. They know that is what they listen to, so they can use the detail in the answer to frame their next question and guide their contact closer to a decision. The questions, and the answers they produce, advance the relationship.

Pro tip: make sure to use purposeful listening when you do Voice of Customer interviews!


Curious to see how you can take your Key Account Management skills to the next level? Download this helpful ebook on how to create powerful account plans for your key accounts or sign up for a demo of Kapta.

CEO at Kapta
Alex Raymond is the CEO of Kapta.