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The single most important skill in key account management

What if leadership was what we really needed in key account management today?

Warren Buffett was once quoted saying:

“When the tide goes out you find out who’s been swimming naked”

In a very unusual and difficult time, many organisations have found themselves naked, exposing their customer relationships, business structures, talent and more.

I have to admit my own companies were part of that mix at the beginning of March. It wasn’t until we moved from customer management into personal and customer leadership that things shifted significantly.

We created new opportunities, maintained profitability and formed new partnerships.

I suddenly realised…

Almost never in the world of success and key account management, do we hear about the importance of leadership.

As I work on my leadership skills, and encourage my team to do the same, there were six traits of customer leadership that stood out for us. The ability to…

  1. Lead change
  2. Empower People
  3. Share a vision
  4. Inspire others
  5. Problem solve
  6. Execute with precision

What is your view on the importance of leadership with your customers today?

Posture of customer leadership

More than ever our customers need us to step up.

In a previous post, I talked about the importance of this as you look to lead your customers.

What is the posture we can take to successfully lead ourselves and our customers for future success?

We need to:

Lead from the Front

This is all about learning how to invite our customers into the result and not the activity. We must help our customers see the vision of where we are heading and why that is important to them.

We also need to:

Lead from the Side

This is about helping your customer execute to achieve the IDEAL result they want or need for themselves, their department or business.

“Become the kind of leader that people would follow voluntarily; even if you had no title or position.”

Brian Tracy

What kind of leader are you becoming?

Customer Leadership Qualities

In order to cultivate customer leadership we need to establish a set of qualities that focuses our activity.

Having had the opportunity to meet with, speak, and train more than 4,000 key account managers, executives and what I call customer leaders, these the qualities needed:

  • Lead change
  • Empower People
  • Share a vision
  • Inspire others
  • Solve problems
  • Execute with precision

Leading change as a customer leader

A key account manager, or directors ability to help lead and enable change is critical in the smooth process of profitable and effective delivery of results for everyone.

Without this skill you will see costly delays, diminished urgency and lack of commitments to move.

One of the most popular models for change is called ADKAR.

AAWARENESSThe need to change
DDESIRESupporting engagement in the change
KKNOWLEDGEShowing the path to change
AABILITYHelping implement the change
RREINFORCEMENTSustaining the change

Here are six steps you can use to start to manage effective change with your customers today:

  1. What kind of change are you trying to make with and for your customers?
  2. Make people and the result the focus, not the “change”.
  3. Who are all the key people in your and your customers’ business that may need support to sell or act on the change?
  4. Identify all the potential beliefs and obstacles that may sabotage the change.
  5. Agree on a path to sharing the route to change that supports point 4.
  6. Reinforce the message at different levels of why this next shift in investment, thinking or otherwise is so very important.

Empowering people

One of the unique opportunities key account leaders have is with empowerment.

Empowerment is the place where you as a key account manager or director have the power to enable others to act on your behalf and most importantly for the benefit of others.

You might say…

“that sounds really good Jermaine but how do you actually do this?”

I’m glad you asked the question. I didn’t say any of these traits would be easy to implement but they are very possible to do.

Here are three steps to begin empowering others to act on your behalf and for mutual benefits:

  1. Learn the skills and abilities of others around you. Make note of what you see in others and make those people aware of what you see. What specific skills do you need to serve your customer and help achieve the goals you have?
  2. Share with those people the skill you’ve noticed and be aware of their responsibilities and goals.
  3. Empower them the opportunity to share where they might contribute to the overall goal and benefit of your business and that of your customer. An example of this… you notice a colleague who has a real gift for analysing data and producing it in charts. You may not have that skill but you recognise having someone who has that skill on your team will greatly benefit how you deliver value to your customer.

The power of recognition is at the heart of empowerment. We can do this for our customers, our peers and our teams.

Sharing a vision

Sitting at the centre of all communication between you, your customer and your organisation is a shared view of the goals and outcomes you’re working towards.

You might call this “Your Vision”. But vision is a loaded word that is expressed differently by many respected people.

Here’s a definition I thought was helpful.

A vision is a clear, distinctive, and specific view of the future, connected with defined strategic advances for the organisation.

Effective leaders clearly define a vision and communicate it in such a way to foster enthusiasm and commitment throughout the organisation.

Now this can feel intimidating. Yet there is a helpful way to get started, if you decide to embrace the skill. High performing key account managers and what I call customer leaders can effectively share vision.

They have a clear view of where they, their customer, and the business is heading and the specific steps needed to get there.

Here are three ways to start sharing vision so there is greater clarity across your business and with your customers:

  1. Make sure you have clarity on expectations with every identified person in your and your customers’ business.
  2. Have a quarterly vision review. Any key account manager and customer leader has reasonable communication with their customers. Once the day-to-day grind begins, it’s your job to keep everyone focused on the outcome and it’s easy to get distracted.
  3. Rather than just a strategic review. Use this as an opportunity to re-share the vision. Ask: where are you going together?

Inspiring people

Are your customers inspired?

When you think of key account management or almost any commercial profession, very rarely will the role be described as one that is “designed to inspire”.

A recent Bain & Company research that surveyed 2,000 employees across 64 countries revealed there are 33 main traits that inspirational leaders have.

Here are some paraphrased versions of just a few of those traits:

  • emotional expression
  • positive attitude
  • keeping your word
  • appreciating your team
  • leading with humility
  • expressing empathy
  • directing the team
  • listening to and valuing those you lead

I wondered, what your clients would say an inspirational key account manager or customer success leader might be when they describe how they experience you?

Check out the Bain & Company research here.

When you practice the art of inspiring others you tap into an unspoken trait that we all look for.

We notice that almost everyone looks to be engaged, excited and encouraged; the skill of inspiring activates all three.

Wouldn’t you want your customers coming back to you more not just because of what you do, but also because of who you are? Absolutely!

Solve problems

As a customer leader one area that must be mastered is how to help our customers solve problems.

That means we need three things:

  1. Shift in perspective
  2. Focus on the root cause
  3. Framework for solving and executing with others

When we seek to be a prolific problem solver, we immediately increase our ability to get results unreachable by others, and positively reshape the perceived value with our customers.

“We can not solve our problems with the same level of thinking that created them.”

Albert Einstein

To support this process, you may find value in my article on problem-solving.

In short, embrace problems, shift your perspective, focus on the root cause and follow a framework.

Executing with precision

The holy grail in business is what every executive wants to know their teams and departments can do.

This is executing!

It is the ability to deliver on the right activities that generate the exact or better results intended.

According to FranklinCovey, leaders are good at planning but struggle with execution.

Organisations fail at execution because:

  • 85% of the employees do not know what are the important goals of the company.
  • 87% of the workers do not know what to do to achieve the goals.
  • 80% of the employees do not know or track their measures of success.
  • 72% of the workers are not held accountable for their results.

It doesn’t matter how good your strategies and tactics are, a good idea without great execution is worthless.

Whatever your process, the steps you take to execute consistently will either frustrate you or free you. Which do you experience the most?

Next Steps

What would it feel like to wake up confidently each day knowing you can lead your customers in a way that delivers results consistently and repeatedly?

I don’t mean this in a flippant way but one that is grounded in real research, application and results.

If you’d like to know how to activate customer leadership in your business get connected to the “Customer Mastery” mailing list.

Discover how you can amplify your leadership and become the kind of adviser your customer never wants to leave. 

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