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Manage Key Accounts As If They Were Key

Mar 7, 2008
The idea behind singling out key accounts is that you will treat them as special, giving them the recognition and treatment they deserve. If the age-old 80/20 rule applies, 20 percent of your customers, or less, generate 80 percent or more of the profits. These customers should be made to feel as though they are really special. Most companies recognize this strategy as being important and create sales plans and organizations to reflect this idea. In my experience, though, many lose sight of the objective of this strategy when they implement tactics to support it.

As an example, one of my clients gave its top 100 customers a special number to call for customer service. The customers were to call this number only when the product had failed, resulting in a serious loss of revenue for that customer. The customer would need assistance immediately. In practice, however, when key account customers called the special number, they were apt to experience a serious delay in service. That is because they needed to be qualified for the special service before they were eligible to receive it. They may have been better off calling the number meant for the masses.

Another client considered too many customers key accounts. What happened was that, internally, each region of the company wanted to define its own key account criteria. No region wanted to be left out of the program. The result was that the number of customers who were put into this group far exceeded the number of customers that the sales staff could reasonably accommodate. The key account sales reps did not have time to treat each customer with the special attention that the customer deserved. The hope was that each special account would be visited at least once a month, or once a quarter at worst. In fact, many were visited only twice a year or less often.

What does a key account want from sales staff? Some key accounts do not want frequent contact, but most of them do. If its partnership with your company means that a customer is a key account, it is going to have a number of wants and needs that have been expressed frequently in market research. Key accounts want you to:

1. Understand their business. They do not want to have to explain their needs over and over because you have changed sales assignments or do not remember from last time.

2. Know how they make money and how your product or service helps them accomplish that.

3. Ask about their plans. Are they expanding? Are they moving? What are their major problems? In what direction do they see their business or industry going in the future? You need to know in case you can help, even if they do not think the problems apply to your product or service. Find out what their problems are, all of them, and find ways to help.

4. Know about their entire relationship with you. This means knowing not only their order history with you but also any problems in the relationship, even if those problems did not involve the sales activity (such as missing delivery dates or service delays).

One of my clients recently held several conversations with key accounts in this way. What the client discovered was that the key customers were seeing a trend in the industry toward using larger sizes of a product that interfaced with the product of my client. Unless they responded to this trend, my client could lose some business from their key accounts. This knowledge was worth millions of dollars. It enabled my client to develop products to meet the needs of the key accounts and stay ahead of the competition.

Many companies do not treat these types of customers as truly special. Designating them as a key account should be meaningful to you and the customer. If the people your company deals with at the key account do not feel as though they are being treated as important to you, the designation of key account becomes a negative, not a positive, in their mind. I have heard several times in my consulting practice this complaint: "I do not feel as though I am being given the attention that my purchases would indicate I deserve. I am not being treated as a special customer should be treated."

Make sure that your best customers do not feel that way. You may want to ask them what being a key account means to them and how they would want to be treated. Some of the answers may surprise you. This type of research is invaluable. It may be done fairly easily if your C-level sales executive is sincere about making these customers feel like the select few. Ask the right open-ended questions about what being a key account should mean. Describe how the relationship should work and your reasons for designating them as key accounts. Find out their thoughts on how to grow the partnership, so both companies profit.

The bottom line: Do not lose sight of your overall objective to make the key account feel special as you implement the tactics of that strategy.
About the Author
Chris Stiehl is an author (co-author of the soon to be released Pain Killer Marketing), teacher and consultant. He has 35 years of experience working in Fortune 500 companies to improve customer satisfaction and performance. Find out more at http://www.stiehlworks.com.
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