Roles and Requirements for Successful Key Account Managers

Anna Tukachinskaya wrote this on May 15

Even though key account managers only have one title, depending on the time of day they could totally have five. Business advisor? Check! Relationship guru? Check. Cross-functional team lead? Check... Being a KAM means leveraging a wide variety of skills, knowledge and psychological traits to be the best of the best, and if it sounds overwhelming - that’s probably because it absolutely can be. And, because we’re all human and it’s A LOT of hats to wear, KAMs will have their strengths and preferences: some of these roles will be favorites while others, well, not so much.

Understanding what the main roles of a key account manager are, what each one entails, and its relevance will help you assign the right people to the right customers, and also provide training and guidance when needed.

So many roles, and just one KAM...

So what are these “hats” that a key account manager has to wear to be successful at their job? And how do they correlate with the segmentation approach you took when first analyzing your customer base and choosing key accounts

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First, a quick reminder. There are three general approaches to customer segmentation:

  • General segmentation: possibly the most straightforward and common approach. It is based on formal criteria, such as geographical location, industry, company size.
  • Needs-based segmentation: this approach is based on assessing the needs of customers, as well as their interest in a particular product or service. Customers are demarcated based on their needs as opposed to location or industry vertical.
  • Value-based segmentation: in this case, customers are demarcated based on their long-term value and potential with your company. It is the most sophisticated approach that allows for the most targeted customer engagement, but it also requires thorough analysis.

Based on the approach you use, you’re likely to place more value in certain skills and expertise your key account managers possess. Of course, it’d be perfect to hire a superhuman (or several…) that is equally skilled in all the roles a key account manager can possibly play, but, let’s face it, it’s highly unlikely. That’s why knowing what those roles are and how they match up with the talent you have is crucial - leveraging your KAM’s strengths will pay off!

Now that this is out of the way, here are the roles key account managers are usually expected to play in an organization, inspired by Peter Ramsdey’s model. 

Trusted Business Consultant

How is this role relevant to key account management?

It’s very possible that the whole concept of key account management grew out of a customer’s need to have someone at the other side of the table that they can trust and rely on. In other words, a KAM is expected to be an expert and a go-to person for the customer about anything regarding your company and its products or services.

What does it take to be a trusted business consultant?

  • Deep understanding of customer’s goals and objectives
  • Clear vision of how these goals and objectives relate to those of your company
  • Ability to prioritize objectives and assets
  • In-depth knowledge of customer’s vertical and business landscape
  • Expert knowledge of the full line of your company’s products or services
  • Ability to uncover customer’s current or future needs and map them to internal resources in your organization that would help address them
  • Creative approach to solving customer’s issues while demonstrating value you’re bringing them
  • Leveraging various internal resources and expertise to help customer navigate the field they are not experts in

Segmentation and side notes:  

  • Especially valuable if your company does general segmentation. Providing customers with a KAM who is well-versed in their industry or specifics of their location is a helpful foundation to build trust.
  • In case your company prefers needs-based segmentation, deep understanding of client’s needs and your company’s portfolio means there’s a high chance your KAM will drive upsells.

Strategic Planner

How is this role relevant to key account management?

Because key account management is a marathon not a sprint, it requires thoughtful planning to ensure goals and objectives of the partnership are met. Understanding business strategy and competitive landscape, drawing from the whole team’s knowledge and being passionate about analytics will help KAM grow customer relationships - and do so based on science and data.   

What does it take to be a strategic planner?

  • Analytical mindset and a knack for connecting the dots in order to uncover external and internal mechanisms of customer/vendor relationship
  •  Being able to see the big picture and keep it top of mind at all times
  • Readiness to be held accountable for growth as well as losses associated with this account
  • Knowledge of economics and statistics
  • General business planning and financial planning skills
  • Patience and interest in systematization

Segmentation and side notes:  

  • This KAM role is core to the value-based segmentation - because, well, you’ll need to be able to determine said value. Be sure to keep a close eye on the Return on Customer metrics and adjust strategy accordingly.
  • Documenting customer and vendor goals and objectives, putting together relationship maps, determining the style of work this customer prefers (frequency of contact? Independent or hands-on approach?) are all part of this role. A platform like Synap can be extra helpful for this. 
  • Identify and agree on key milestones and benchmark to measure success of your relationship. Check in with the customer regularly to make sure you stay on track.

Customer Advocate

Why is this role relevant to key account management?

This is probably the one aspect of key account management that is universally recognized, and its main differentiator from sales. A strategic account manager’s main objective is to protect their customers’ interests inside their organization, and make sure they communicate customer tactical plans to all internal departments that affect the client outcome. Being a customer advocate also requires clear understanding of internal capabilities and a client’s expectations and masterfully balancing the two.

What does it take to be a customer advocate?

  • Clear understanding of customer’s goals and objectives
  • Ability to get different divisions in KAM’s organization on board with these goals
  • Holding teammates accountable when something gets off track internally
  • Negotiation skills to effectively liaise between all stakeholders internally and on the customer’s side
  • Understanding of internal production / development process and available assets to an extent where KAM can offer new ideas to help satisfy the customer to internal teams  
  • Great listening skills and the ability to relay feedback or technical recommendations both to the customer and to the internal stakeholders
  • Not being afraid to escalate an issue if needed
  • Firm yet likeable demeanor

Segmentation and side notes:

  • This role is vital regardless of segmentation approach. Being an effective liaison is at the core of successful key account management.
  • In order for KAM to set expectations correctly both for the client and for your internal teams, some technical training and understanding of company assets is required.

Relationship Architect

Why is this role relevant to key account management?

Key Account Management is a way more all-encompassing endeavor than just tracking the amount of their contract and helping them solve issues when something goes wrong. It requires looking past vanity metrics and reactive troubleshooting. As the main drivers of the relationship with the customer, key account managers are tasked to be not just formal consultants to the key account, but to an extent become their friends. Long-term business relationships become personal, which drives customer loyalty and interconnectedness.   

What does it take to be a relationship architect?

  • Being a “people person”, in other words, thrive in communicating with both internal and external teams in a clear, caring and respectful manner  
  • Competence in articulating complex technical issues or recommendations to people of all backgrounds and levels of expertise
  • High Communication Quotient, defined as the skill of “saying the right thing in the right way to the right people at the right time in a such a way that the message is received and understood as it was intended"
  • Ability to establish meaningful relationships with internal and external stakeholders and influencers  
  • Creativity in uncovering new ways to bring value to the customer
  • Personality that meshes well with main stakeholders on customer’s side
  • Ability to predict shifts in personal relationships and how this will affect the relationship with this key account (say, due to structural changes at the client’s organization)

 Segmentation and side notes

  • Generally, this is another role that is at the core of the whole key account management concept, so it’s a necessary thing no matter what segmentation approach you chose.
  • Friendly relationships are more likely to prompt the customer to share their plans, expectations and give the KAM some “intel” on internal changes that could affect their needs and long-term value.

Team Lead 

Why is this role relevant to account management?

As the quarterback of customer relationships, KAM is in charge of way more than being the middleman (or -woman) for their own internal departments and the client. They are expected to orchestrate projects and initiatives on behalf of their customers, oversee their progress, facilitate connections between their own and their customer’s teammates, involve experts across departments into solving complex issues. In other words, KAMs should have what it takes to be a leader.

What does it take to be a team lead?

  • Knowing how to evaluate the scope of work the customer requires on each journey stage
  • Technical training and analytical mindset that will help “translate” generic objectives into actionable tasks for different internal divisions
  • Ability to build and organize cross-functional internal teams to achieve key account goals and lay out clear action plans for every member
  • Communication and persuasion skills to manage goals, expectations, technical tasks and teammates both in their own and customer organizations
  • Ability to motivate people they are working with, and track their progress
  • Ability to quickly assess the situation and prioritize accordingly, be it internal scheduling issues, organizational changes in customer company, or some production emergency.
  • Personal attributes like respect, charisma and integrity
  • Leadership skills (either natural or acquired through instruction)

Segmentation and side notes:

  • Companies that took needs- or value-based segmentation approach especially benefit from a KAM who thrives in this role. If you took the time to analyze the requirements, value and potential of your key customers, you probably determined a few areas where you could collaborate. And true collaboration is only possible if the silos are destroyed. KAMs are the engines behind cross-functional efforts, they draw on the knowledge and expertise of the whole team to come up with the best solution for the client.
  • Assuming a leadership position and making sure the rest of the team takes the key account manager seriously can be a challenge, if top management is not communicating this initiative properly. Make sure the whole company knows what KAM’s roles are, and that everyone is ready to lend a hand or jump on the cross-functional team that is put together for a specific client project.

One last thing 

In conclusion, when discussing the roles KAMs play in an organization, one thing to keep in mind is that no matter how you segment the customers, your key or strategic accounts are the ones you expect to have a long-term and all-encompassing relationship with. As Harald Lau notes, these relationships, like those in a group of friends, will ebb and flow, shift and change. Key account managers will see it all through and realize the impact it has on their relationship with the client, and will adapt their strategy accordingly.

Choosing KAMs that are loyal to your company and are willing to take on this long-term commitment is a prerequisite. Finding a KAM that is comfortable with wearing all these hats and knows when to correct course and when to stick to the plan is priceless.  

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