Nurturing Key Relationships

Anna Tukachinskaya wrote this on Apr 05

Every day we hear some version of the following statements:

  • “Do the thing you love and you won’t have to work a day in your life”
  • “Make sure you marry your true soulmate, and you’ll see how effortless a relationship can be”
  • “Create the best product on the market and customer loyalty will take care of itself”

As cynical as it might sound, all of these statements are spectacularly incorrect and, frankly, irresponsible. Neither a personal nor a professional relationship can flourish without investing any effort into it. If you want a plant to grow and blossom, you better make sure you water it, fertilize it, and maybe even play it some music. Likewise, if you want your relationship with your customers to blossom, there are steps you need to take to achieve your goal.

In this article we’ll discuss what to do in order to nurture your key customer relationships. We’ll talk about what kind of information can empower a Key Account Manager to build true partnerships with the customers. We’ll also explore strategic and tactical steps you can take to ensure the success of your business relationships, and reveal a few life hacks (or should we say account-management-hacks?) that help bring extra value to the customer.

Go broad, go deep

First things first: knowledge is power, and having deep and well-rounded knowledge of your customer, their organization, current projects and challenges will make you an incredibly powerful account manager. Making sure you gather the right insights is key, but how can you make sense of the information immediately available to you, and what questions do you ask to unearth the things that are not on the surface?

Here are four levels of customer information that an account manager should dive into when gathering and structuring customer information:

  1. Customer’s market: What are current market trends in their industry? What are the projections? What is their competitive landscape?
  2. Customer’s business: How do they stack up against their competition? Who are THEIR biggest customers? Has the company experienced growth, stagnation or any issues recently?
  3. Customer’s company: What does their organizational chart look like? What is their power dynamic? Are they planning on hiring new teammates, and if so, for what positions?
  4. Concerns of individual people on teams: What kind of people are the major stakeholders that you rely on in your work? What is their background and interest? When are their birthdays and other important dates?

Think of it as a mix of detective work and a date with someone you really like. Being genuinely interested in people and their stories will help you understand the motivations behind organizational structure and power dynamics between key players in the company. Once you figure out the landscape on these four layers of customer information, you will be armed with enough knowledge to act on it.

This is a lot of very precise - and precious - information to gather. It is challenging, time-consuming and often won’t yield immediate results, which is why so many relationship managers don’t do it. This is also what makes key account management different from all other functions in an organization: it’s not transactional, it’s a long game, and it’s a combination of art and science. Your main focus is on adding value to the customer’s organization and not just your own.

Flexibility and Spirit of the Law

In one of the previous articles of this series we discussed different customer relationship stages:

  • exploratory
  • basic (streamline or declining status customers)
  • collaborative (prospective key accounts)
  • interconnected (your key strategic customers)

At the interconnected stage of customer / vendor relationship the organizations are spending a considerable amount of time together, and are influencing each other in a lot of ways: from redefining product roadmaps to building detailed collaborative strategies to helping uncover possible paths to cost reductions. Understanding that your key accounts are going to help shape (or at least have very significant influence on) the way your own organization is going is crucial, because you will want to choose your key accounts carefully. If a key account’s vision and strategy is dramatically different from yours, you either risk misalignment and having an unsatisfied customer, or you’ll have them drag you and your organization in a totally different direction than the values it was built on, with all the not-so-fun repercussions of restructuring and possibly losing yourselves along the way. Same goes for the customer: sharing vision and strategy with their supplier gives them a head start and makes initial synergy possible, which leads to faster ROI and an overall more effortless, effective and pleasant experience.

There’s a little catch here though. As we’ve established, customers want to work with suppliers who share their vision and can bring them a competitive advantage. They expect you to take time to understand the way their organization works and what it stands for, find and define the areas you are aligned in, and how you can bring them value. As is true of any partnership, key customers want their vendor to be flexible within the spirit of the overarching relationship, not just the letter of the contract. Think the eternal “Letter of the Law vs. Spirit of the Law” argument, only with a clear answer that you should always go for (and understand) the spirit.

Once you and your customer reach the interconnected stage, you become dependent on each other, and separating at this point would be a painful and time-consuming process. If you have done your due diligence and made sure your customer’s goals and values align with yours, it won’t be hard seeing which rules can be altered or enforced a little less vigorously. Transparent and open communication with your main point of contact at the customer’s organization will help figure out how critical a certain feature or service is for them. This sort of intel is truly invaluable when you prioritize product development internally, or have to be the bearer of bad news that the project won’t be delivered in time. Staying human, honestly caring for the relationship with this customer, and being well-informed and ready to act in the best interest of your and your client’s common goal is the key to capturing this proverbial “Spirit of the Law”.

Strategy, Tactics and Maps

Most of my friends know that I love maps. All kind of maps: geographical maps, organizational maps, relationship maps, and of course customer journey maps. There’s a reason for that: for an in-depth key account analysis, and in order to create a thorough and actionable key account plan, a simple organizational chart is not enough. You need to build a relationship map, e.g. to map out your org chart with theirs and connect the dots. Figure out who are the counterparts in your organizations, learn more about whether and how they are connected, evaluate how strong those connections are. Measure how much time, energy and effort both sides are putting into maintaining the relationship at every level.

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Once these connections are tracked and you understand the roles different stakeholders play on both sides, it’s time to get strategic about how, when, and why you interact with the people critical to your long-term success.

Instead of only touching base with them to coordinate your new project or send over a renewal contract, focus on building relationships of trust over time. Do so by focusing on activity (training, marketing campaigns, account planning) and people (face-to-face meetings of all kinds: on-site visits, sponsoring a conference and getting them a ticket, dinners etc.). Plan out these activities based on your relationship map - leveraging existing connections and facilitating new ones should be at the back of your mind at all times, even if you’re setting up a very mundane training. Document them thoroughly, too, and make sure the whole team has access to these plans and can contribute. By the way, we built a neat tool for this type of thing here at Synap.

As you plan out all these things, make sure you engage your entire organization. Introduce people working on both sides of the same project and thus create more focal points and points of reference. Make the relationship more valuable by connecting the dots for the customer: business value does not have to be exclusively monetary. Expertise, connections, wider network and a little extra effort put into a business partnership is at least as valuable - all of this on top of financial benefits of interconnected relationships we discussed in our previous post.

Of course, as you plan out the strategy for becoming an important part of your customer’s business that brings immense amounts of value, it’s also crucial to think about tactical steps you’ll take. Having a clear goal or agenda when you talk to them, or preparing required high-quality collateral you’ll reach out to them with in advance are all parts of tactical planning you’ll do. These steps will vary from company to company, but the general idea here is understanding where you can create value for you customers and then leading them to this point. And no matter how good you are at big-picture planning, you’ll need your customer’s help. Share the vision and agreeing on the goal of every initiative will ensure they’ll help you where you fall short or in case some extra effort or resources are required.

Strategic Altruism

By now we talked about key account management best practices, but how about a few actionable “life hacks” to help you build true interconnected partnerships with your clients?

When your ultimate goal is to be a trusted advisor not only on your company’s area of expertise, but a go-to-person for everything, stakes are high. Simply developing good working relationships with key customers is not enough, because what you’re really aiming at is delivering real value and becoming as close to an irreplaceable partner as possible. To borrow the terminology from Malcolm Gladwell’s “The Tipping Point”, you want to be your key customer’s ultimate Maven and Connector.

With this pragmatic goal in mind, it might be a good idea to add some strategic altruism to the mix. If you remember you’re in it for a long game, not for instant profit, you’ll discover that a lot of means to be helpful, facilitate loyalty and foster inter-connectedness present themselves regularly if you only know where to look.

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Find them an expert

Remember that part when we sat down, figured out org charts for both your and customer’s organization, and mapped them to each other, rated relationship strength and facilitated several introductions? Take it one step further. Help them figure out an issue by leveraging your network, or your organization’s resources. Introduce them to your colleague who is a guru of graphic design and have them pick her brain. Recommend them your Customer Success consultant who helped you build out your own department and maybe they’ll use his services, too. Or even connect them to your college roommate who went on to become a horseback riding instructor because you’ve heard that they’re looking for one for their kids.
Opportunities for driving value often hide in plain sight if we only take the time and patience to listen.

Recruit for them

We also talked about learning as much as you can about the key customer company and individual employees you’re working with as possible. Being on the interconnected stage of customer - supplier relationship, you sure have a very in-depth understanding of what drives their organization, what their values are, and what kind of people do well in their company. It is only logical that you can take on a role of the recruiter!

Staying informed about their company’s current openings and formal requirements is easy enough, but you also have a huge advantage: you know their culture and intricate peculiarities of what it takes to succeed in their organization. By drawing from your own network and helping them find quality candidates you’ll become even more invaluable to your key account. What is more, you’ll do a bit of pre-screening for them by understanding what they’re looking for, and referencing people that have a high chance of fitting this profile. Sometimes they even pay a finder’s fee... Win-win!

Here’s a caveat though:

Make *them* look good in front of their bosses

There are many ways for you to bring non-monetary value to your key accounts, and some might even turn out to be of monetary value to you as a referral or a finder. That said, it’s crucial to remember the goal for it all: you’re building long-term, deep, partnership-focused relationships with your key accounts. In other words, you are doing these things to bring value, not to blow their CEO away. Your key customer’s interests and happiness is your first priority, and making your primary contact at their company look good in front of their bosses is a great step in that direction. It also helps you win over a champion! This means that instead of taking credit for those referrals, your main task is to facilitate introductions without expecting an instant financial outcome. You’re playing a long game and building strategic relationships here. So don’t forget to check back often to make sure you’re not losing track of your initial goals.

A Word of Warning

Just the fact that the company is large and has been your customer for a long time doesn’t mean that the relationship is strong. Becoming strategic about these relationships, going broad and deep and figuring out ways to bring as much value as possible beyond initial cost cuts and time savings is the key to a strong and impactful partnership.

Key account managers are expert facilitators who deliver more than just the product or service the customer contracted them for. They are Mavens and Connectors, bringing immense value to the key interconnected relationship between the two organizations.

The steps we discussed in this article are not a once-and-for-all type of approach. It’s a constant process that is to be iterated and perfected. Keep in mind, this list is not necessarily complete, but it does offer a framework to get started with laying out a strategy for nurturing key relationships and taking them to the next stage - interconnected key accounts.

What are your own key account management life hacks? Drop us a line and let us know!

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