Understanding how your customers view their key vendor relationships is essential to getting your account management program right. Ignorance of your customer’s perspective will lead to disappointment and misalignment of interests. As such, seeing the world through your customer’s eyes is a prerequisite to success.
We mentioned in our prior post on key account management the importance of researching each of your potential key customers. In fact, this part of the process is so important that we’re going to examine it in greater detail. Remember, relationships have (at least) two sides. This process will not be successful if you only take into account your view and your desires. It is critical that you understand the buyer's perspective, as well.
Getting to know you (and your friends)
As you get to know your customers during the early stages of the customer journey, of course you can determine what kind of relationship you want with them. Then, once you know what kind of relationship you want with them, you can invest more - or less - in developing an understanding of their motivations, resources, and internal/external pressures. This can help intelligent sellers gain a competitive advantage. The best way for a seller to achieve its own long-term objectives is by helping its customers achieve their strategic objectives. Developing in-depth knowledge of the factors driving the customer makes it easier for vendors to develop solutions for them that go beyond their own products and services.
This goes beyond researching their position in their market, or how quickly they are growing, or who their competitors are, and so forth. This means understanding how your service fits into their ecosystem of providers. As technologies have become more specialized and less one-size-fits-all, the number of supplier relationships a business is engaged with has grown. As we know from our own personal relationships, this can be time-consuming and sometimes draining. It takes significant effort to maintain relationships.
That is why it is so important to understand who a customer’s other service providers are, what challenges those providers address (and, maybe more importantly, introduce), with whom at the customer the other vendors primarily engage, and how much the customer spends with them. Do they already have one or more “interconnected” vendor relationships? Just as vendors should endeavor to keep their interconnected relationships to a reasonably small number, customers need to do the same. And, remember, they have their own interconnected customer relationships to tend to; the capacity to maintain interconnected relationships with vendors is even smaller.
Beyond understanding the circle of suppliers the customer is working with, it is also important to have a strong understanding of the customer’s expectations of a deeper relationship with your organization. In other words, does what they would expect from you align with what you are able to give to the relationship? And would they be able to partner with you in the way you expect? Your journey map can be a very helpful discussion point for this. A shared understanding of the value each of you bring to the relationship is critical.
You may be wondering, “How do I get this information?” The main way is by listening. You can glean a lot of information from your customers if you do your best to be present when you’re with them and truly listen. They will give you helpful insights into things like key objectives and challenges they are facing, what other systems they use and whether they like using them, how they work with other teams, and who is on those other teams.
And sometimes you just need to ask. As part of your regular surveying of your customers, I encourage you to ask the following questions, particularly of your champions and primary stakeholders:
- How do we rate relative to your other vendors?
- How important is our partnership to the success of your company’s strategic objectives?
- What do you perceive to be our biggest strengths as a vendor?
- What do you believe to be our weaknesses as a vendor?
- What could we do to improve our relationship with your company?
Being aware of particular things to listen for and having a place to track this information also helps. Of course, we eat our own cooking and use Synap for this, but you could also simply set up a form or document and spreadsheet to capture and track this information.
Understanding the full landscape of vendor relationships and the nature of each of those relationships will make it easier to understand how the buyer sees the relationship with your company. Failure to do so can result in one of those lopsided relationships where you are ready to propose and spend a lifetime together only to realize - after a lot of expended energy - that the other party just wants to be friends who hang out occasionally. This is a crushing experience. Taking the time to assess the customer’s vendor ecosystem and having open, honest conversations with them about how you fit in will save you heartache down the line.
Friends with benefits
Even if your company is unlikely to be a key supplier given the nature of your products and services, you can still be an influential supplier. Understanding where your products fit in the mix and knowing what other third parties they work with opens doors for you to extend your service, facilitate ancillary relationships, offer alternatives that work particularly well with you and your other customers, etc.
Buyers look to their trusted suppliers to point out opportunities to reduce costs or improve the utilization of existing tools that work in tandem with their other services. For example, a system like Synap can help a customer who is using it for their customer success team save money and become more efficient at the same time by integrating their sales automation platform with Synap. This would increase visibility for the customer success team and allow the organization to reduce their sales automation licenses.
I recently attended the fifth annual Customer Success Summit and heard Claire Burge, CEO & Founder of This is Productivity give a talk on how the future of work is chaos. People are in a constant process of change. She says the thing customers want more than anything is to be understood by their suppliers more broadly. To do this, we need to understand how the client is managing their chaos. Where does our service sit in their line of priority? When do they use our service? How does our service require them to rewire their process? Basically, look at the customer realistically - as if we were in their position. It is very unlikely that you are the most important thing in their chaos at any given moment. But if you can demonstrate that you are willing to understand their chaos and can help them embrace it, they are a lot more likely to keep you in it and, hopefully, become closer over time.
The key takeaway here is that your key account program is not all about you. Your customers are making these decisions, too, and they may already have a serious supplier relationship or two. This doesn’t mean you should forego trying to take your relationship to the next level, but it may take more time to get there.