In 2018, CSO Insights, the research division of the Miller Heiman Group, conducted a Buyer Preferences Survey with 500 B2B buyers working for medium to large-sized companies ($240M USD or greater) who made purchases of $10K or greater. They defined “buyers” broadly, as decision makers in business purchases—not just procurement teams.
What they found was that buyers are changing faster than sellers. Buyers are demanding more and more personalization from sellers; they also have more and more opportunities, through companies like Amazon and Alibaba, to sidestep sellers altogether. In short, as we often say (and we’re not alone): Customers are harder to engage and easier to lose than ever.
It can seem intimidating to try to keep up with something as rapid and unpredictable as technological trends, and the inevitable changes in customer demand. But there’s good news: As much as things change, they also stay the same.
Digging deeper, the survey asked the question: What do customers really want from their sellers? The answers:
- Understand my business. Know me.
- Demonstrate excellent communication skills.
- Focus on post-sale.
- Give me insights and perspective.
Looking at this list, it’s clear: These are the same basic tenants of strong relationships that have informed customer engagement for years. They run deeper than tech and last longer than trends. If you can get good at them, you can weather any change with your customers.
Key account management (KAM) is how you get good at delivering what customers want. At its heart, KAM is the art of building strong relationships through deep customer knowledge, excellent communication, and insightful commentary. And, by definition, it happens post-sale.
In the post below, we’ll offer our take on the list from CSO Insights above, and we’ll talk more about why KAM is the way to deliver what customers really want, so you can build resilience, drive growth, and stay ahead of—rather than just keep up with—buyer change.
1) Understand my business. Know me.
The best way to understand your customers is to engage early and often. In a perfect world, you enter the conversation early in the buying journey, when they are still identifying and clarifying their needs. One great way to do this is through Account-Based Marketing (ABM)—essentially an upstream component of key account management. (See our recent post on why ABM and KAM make a great team.)
But all is not lost if you can’t engage as early as you’d like the buying journey. No matter when you come in, you always have an opportunity to understand your customers better. Chronologically speaking, this starts with doing your homework to understand their business, then asking thought-provoking questions to spark meaningful dialogue. And it never stops—as long as you’re working with a client, you’re doing your research and asking good questions, so you are always up to date on their industry, their company, and their goals.
Let’s start with the homework piece, though it’s fairly self-explanatory. Come to the table prepared and informed so you don’t waste your client’s time asking basic questions. A good example is advertising agencies who work with pharma and medical device companies. Their teams understand complicated disease states and cutting-edge treatments surprisingly well; they can speak with fluency about the cellular mechanism of action of the drugs they work on before they even meet with the client. That way, when they do meet with the client, they can jump right into the specifics, rather than spending hours on the medical backstory.
There’s another side to this coin. Clients like to be the experts in their field. They like to know more than you do. And as the SMEs, they can and should know more than you do. So there’s a balance here: You shouldn’t show up unprepared. But nor should you show up thinking you know everything. Be ready to hear their perspective and expertise. In blunt summary: People like being asked questions. They just don’t like being asked stupid questions.
2) Demonstrate Excellent Communication Skills
Throughout the course of your customer relationship, you’re being judged in every single interaction. We are sorry to say so, but it’s true—and it’s fair. Your customers are paying you, probably large sums of money, so it’s only natural that some part of them is always asking: “Is this worth it?”
Since every interaction contributes to an overall impression of value, it’s important to make every interaction valuable. Luckily, you can apply some basic human skills here, the most important of which is: LISTEN. Easier said than done, we know. If you’re not sure how well you’re listening, try an experiment: For a full month, ask yourself after every client interaction: “Did I learn something, too?” If the answer is more often no than yes, you’re not listening well, and you’re missing opportunities to understand your customer—the first thing they want you to do.
Now that we’ve put all this pressure on you to make every interaction great, let us take some of it away with 3 easy words: Don’t get weird. If you’re hyper-aware of the fact you need to add value, and your focus is adding value for its own sake, you’ll undermine your own efforts. Rather than trying to seem important, spend your time actually making yourself important: Do your homework. Know your stuff. Show up ready to share ideas you’ve thought through carefully, and ready to listen to the ideas of others. When you don’t know the answer, don’t pretend you do.
Clients know when someone is engaged, earnest, and genuinely acting on their behalf; they also know when someone is full of it. Again, we return to what we think is a comforting thought: Everything you need to do to be a good client communicator is grounded in basic human skills: Think before you speak. Listen actively. Don’t BS.
3) Focus on Post-Sale
A sale is like a wedding. Yes, it’s the culmination of months—maybe years—of planning. It’s a big accomplishment; a literal cause for celebration. But it’s only the beginning of a marriage—and that’s where the real work happens. A sale, like a wedding, is not the end. It’s the beginning.
If your company focuses too many resources on winning new customers at the expense of cultivating existing customers, you’re doing both your company and your customers a grave disservice. Existing customers are your company’s most important asset—organic growth tends to be more profitable and more sustainable than winning new business.
Post-sale is what KAM is all about. It’s why KAM should partner with but operate separately from sales. It takes infrastructure—people, process, and technology—to make KAM work, and ensure your company is treating the sale as the start of the customer engagement, and not the end of it.
4) Give me Insights and Perspective
This is where the list culminates. Insight and perspective come from a combination of customer knowledge and long-term, post-sale commitment. And they have to be delivered with good communication.
One form perspective might take is healthy disagreement. Some clients might think they want you to agree with them all the time—and it’s certainly easier in the short-term to do so—but it doesn’t improve the relationship, or the work, in the long run.
In the movie Bohemian Rhapsody, Freddie Mercury returns to his bandmates to plead his case for reunion, after having left to pursue a solo career. “I hired a bunch of guys. I told them exactly what to do. And the problem was, they did it.” Without “push-back, re-writes, and funny looks” from his bandmates, the musical product was not as good.
Clients hire you because you presumably know more than they do about whatever product or service your firm provides. They need you to push them towards better solutions—but they need you to do it skillfully.
- Stay relevant: Show them you understand their business, and your disagreement comes from a place of deep knowledge
- Stay supportive: Show them you’ve been listening, and your perspective actually comes from a shared vision for success
- Stay client-focused: Demonstrate your commitment to their goals, rather than your own sales quotas
Remember: Your job is to make the work better, and your client’s life easier. So if you disagree with an idea of theirs, don’t just point out the problem. Propose potential solutions. Give them options to choose from—one that reflects their idea, and one that reflects your recommendation. Don’t try to force them into your POV; lead them there in a way that respects their own expertise and contributions. And finally, know when to let go and just do it the way they asked.
Of course, “insight and perspective” isn’t always oppositional. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to build on your customer’s ideas. And you’ll reveal opportunities for upselling. When it’s done right, upselling doesn’t even feel like “selling,” in the traditional sense—it feels more like offering a proactive and fitting solution to a client problem. Upselling works seamlessly when it’s a genuine reflection of your customer’s needs, rather than your own need to meet a quota or number.
How KAM Helps You Deliver on What Customers Want
Key Account Management starts exactly where this list did: Understanding your customer. Pushing beyond the marketing data to know them personally: What are they trying to achieve? How do they expect you to help? How can you exceed these expectations?
Knowledge is the foundation of strong customer engagement, as well as the foundation for strong key account management. KAM software can help, with Voice of Customer tools, SWOT analysis templates, dynamic org charts, and detailed profiles of key customer contacts. Kapta has all those tools, prompting various kinds of customer questions and interactions designed to dig deeper than a traditional CRM.
Key Account Management is also inherently focused on post-sale—something more buyers wish more companies could be. In fact, KAM is your post-sale customer engagement method. And KAM software understands that. KAM software isn’t about lead generation. It’s about ongoing strategic client management.
When you use key account management to deliver what customers want, you build relationships that withstand changes in the market, in technology, and even in customers themselves. Why? Because rather than just keeping up with trends, you’re going a level deeper, fulfilling what customers really want from their 3rd-party partners: Knowledge, communication, commitment, and perspective.
To see how Kapta can help you deliver on what customers really want, schedule your personalized demo today.