Key Account Managers are the quarterback of their team—and this role gets more complex as the team gets more complex. For example, if you’re an account manager at an advertising agency, you’ll manage your client relationships on one side, and on the other, you’ll work with an internal team comprised of creatives (art and copy), brand strategists, social media specialists, project managers, UX designers, developers, and potentially more. You may also have outside vendors—for example, vendors who build convention booths based on your agency’s design, or build a specific application you can’t execute in-house.
None of these people report to you; you certainly have sway as the owner of the client relationship, but at the end of the day, with the exception of outside vendors, you can’t hire or fire people on a cross-functional team, so you’ve got to get good at working with them.
Another example: You’re a KAM at a software company. You have your clients on one side; you also work with internal teams such as developers, marketers, customer success and training teams, and more.
We spend 90% of our time at Kapta talking about the client-facing side of your role, and that’s appropriate: Your role as a KAM in a cross-functional team is to own and develop the client relationship, making customers your primary focus and acting as the voice of the client in the internal room.
However, it’s just as important to act as the voice of the internal team in the client room. Strong communication and collaboration with an internal, cross-functional team isn’t something you do in addition to client service; it’s an integral part of delivering great client service.
The key to strong internal relationships is the same as with strong client relationships: Engagement. Just as you work to understand your client’s POV, you need to work to understand your internal team’s POV. Just as you actively listen to clients, you need to actively listen to your internal teams. Too often, account managers are seen as the enemy— the person who made the team stay late to deliver the impossible on an insane timeline. This kind of animosity represents a mutual failure on the part of the account manager and the internal team. The antidote is engagement and clear communication.
Here are some specific ways you can engage with internal tames, and be even more effective with clients as a result.
Check Before You Say Yes
As the owner of the client relationship, your main job is to ensure client satisfaction. So it’s understandable that when they ask you for something, your instinct is to say yes. But often, the better answer is, “Let me follow up with the team and get back to you.”
Why? Because nothing builds internal animosity faster than consistently promising the client things that can’t be done, or can’t be done on a certain timeline. Instead, bring the client request to the team. Make sure it’s possible. Ask how much time it will take. Listen attentively and with the assumption that your team is acting in good faith: If they need more time, it’s not because they’re lazy, but because they want to do it right.
At the same time, your role on the internal team is also to advocate tirelessly for your client. It’s okay to negotiate, or to push the team to a better answer. If they say something isn’t possible, challenge them to (a) articulate why, and (b) come up with 1-2 alternate solutions. If they say a timeline isn’t possible, again, ask them to articulate exactly why, and propose an alternate solution that happens faster.
Now, when you follow up with the client, you can either say: “Yes, absolutely, we can deliver what you asked, when you asked for it;” or “We don’t think it will work quite the way you asked, but here’s why, and here are some alternate solutions to choose from.”
When you check before you say yes, you not only avoid animosity with your internal team, but you also avoid making promises to the client you can’t deliver. And it’s much, much better to manage client expectations than to default on a promise. So don’t cave to the easy yes; engage your internal team to make sure you can deliver, time and time again, on your commitments, even if it means saying “no” or “not yet” in the short term.
Present a Unified Front
Whether or not they take your advice, it’s always more functional for your client to have a clear recommendation from your organization, supported by clear rationale.
But a strong recommendation isn’t synonymous with your personal opinion, or the personal opinions of any individual. It’s a collective effort from everyone on a cross-functional team. Much like checking before you say yes, you need to engage representatives from across your organization to make sure your client recommendations are comprehensive and well-informed. You need to hash it out internally. And you need to land on a clear recommendation.
Once you do, present it to the client as a unified front. Use “we” instead of “I,” even if you argued the other side internally. And whatever you do, don’t rehash internal arguments in front of your client.
If it was especially difficult to land on a decision internally, there are ways to express that to the client while still maintaining a unified front. For example, “We discussed this a great deal internally. On the one hand, we know your customers ask about this topic all the time, so we want to include it front and center on your home page. On the other hand, we don’t want to make the home page so long that we lose readers in general. So we landed on a middle path: A short copy blurb and a link to learn more.”
The client doesn’t need to hear you argue back and forth about whether you included the thing on the home page or not. They can hear your thinking and your ultimately unified recommendation, and then make their own decision armed with the relevant info. And you need to convey to your client that your cross-functional team works as a collaborative unit, not a series of disparate stakeholders.
Shield Your Team
Key account managers are, by design, a distinct function on a cross-functional team. That’s partly logistical: It takes a lot of time and effort to communicate constantly with clients, especially difficult or demanding ones. It also takes time to travel for client meetings. Some KAMs even have desks at the client’s office, and email addresses at the client’s domain. At this level of engagement, you need a dedicated person or team whose full-time job is to stay ahead of client communications, and everything that entails: Status calls. Contact reports. Receiving and processing client feedback. Billing and follow up. Contract tracking. Account reviews. And more.
But there’s another reason KAMs are their own function. Just as they’re a liaison between the client and the internal team, they’re also a shield. It’s not always the most pleasant part of the job, but it’s critical. By staying connected to, but separate from, the bulk of the internal work (such as adding software functionality, producing content, writing websites, etc), KAMs have the space they need to act calmly and professionally even when tensions are high.
Say the dev or creative team stays at the office until midnight, working hard to deliver a difficult client request on an aggressive timeline. They’re stressed and tired. The client is, too.
The next morning, the client sends an email with feedback, some of which is fair, some of which is not. As the KAM, your job is to field—and if possible—filter the response. Whatever happens, don’t let your tired, frustrated, stressed out team write a combative email to a tired, frustrated, stressed out client. Be the go-between. Protect each party from each other. Worst case scenario, let the client yell at YOU, so your team can stay focused on the next round of revisions, and you can all keep your eyes on the prize: Delivering a solid final product on time.
Taking on this role for the team is something your internal colleagues will notice, and appreciate. Your clients on the other hand, probably won’t notice it, and they shouldn’t have to. They have the right to take for granted that every response they get from your organization is professional and action-oriented. You might not get credit for being the person who makes that happen, but it’s better than the alternative: Losing a client because you didn’t make it happen.
In a cross-functional team, everyone has different priorities, and that’s by design. Though everyone should be focused on reaching customer goals, they do so in ways that reflect their strengths and expertise. Writers should be focused on making copy clear. UX designers should be focused on great UX. Project managers should be focused on timelines and budgets. And KAMs should be focused on the customer.
In order for a cross-functional team to truly deliver for customers, everyone needs to be engaged. They need to understand customer goals. They need a safe space to hash out ideas, vent frustrations, and align on unified recommendations. And they need to feel that their KAMs are not only the voice of the client in an internal meeting, but also the voice of the internal team in a client meeting.
The way to achieve internal trust and rapport is the exact same way you achieve it with clients: through clear communication, active listening, and strong engagement. Though it may seem easy to prioritize your customers over your internal teams, the time and effort you take to build strong relationships in both directions will always pay off in the end.
We’d love to hear examples from your organization or industry. How do you engage with internal teams as part of your process to engage with—and deliver for—your customers?
To see how Kapta can support seamless collaboration between cross-functional teams, schedule your personalized demo today.