Customer accounts must be developed not just managed. Occasional internal account reviews and customer questionnaires are not enough to stop your competitors poaching your customers. Indeed, the best account management in the world won’t be enough to keep and grow your existing customers.
If customers are viewed as no more than accounts, then the seller will be seen as no more than a supplier. Indeed, the notion that suppliers can or indeed should manage their increasingly strong-willed and independent customers is absurd. The reality is that you cannot manage customers as you would manage a tax audit or class of unruly kids.
Another problem with the term account management is that it is too often seen as the role of one person, the account manager. However, strong customer relationships require the development of relationships between buyer and seller at all levels. While one person may be charged with overlooking the account, everybody from the CEO to the call centre representative has a role to play in that account’s development.
Account management is something that needs to be ongoing and responsive, because the business environment each customer operates in is in constant change. Even though customer needs and priorities are unquestionably changing, many managers struggle to describe exactly how they are helping their customers respond to changing marketplace realities. As a result they are ‘on the back foot’ when faced by a demand for the re-negotiation of terms or a change in strategy.
Develop, Don’t Manage
In a constantly changing marketplace, either a customer account is moving forward or it is moving backwards. That is not just in revenues, but in terms of the depth and strength of the relationship. Unless you are continuously adding value, developing the relationship and, for example, innovating in terms of delivery, then your client is vulnerable to being poached by a competitor.
From the customer’s perspective it is your organization’s performance last week and last month, not last year or the year before, that matters.
Suppliers cannot live long on their laurels, hence the importance of ongoing innovation and improvement. To be secure, the supplier must anticipate their customer’s present and future needs and engage in an ongoing dialogue about these needs.
Focus On Client Success
The main difference between account management and account development is the focus on client success. So, the right question is not ’how are we managing the account?’ but ’how are we helping the customer to succeed?’
Let’s be clear about the real difference between account management and account development, as shown in the table below.
Account development is a long-term proposition and views relationships as more than the sum of individual contracts or projects. It is where the seller believes ‘we can be good together’ and demonstrates to the buyer that they want to contribute further to their success. In respect of key accounts the supplier strives to be more than just a supplier — their aim is to become a strategic partner.
In order to make good on this promise the seller needs to understand the evolving dynamics of the buyer’s business and connect with the buyer’s strategic objectives. The seller has to invest in building the relationship post sale, seeking to ensure their contact base is higher, wider and deeper within the customer’s organization.
Innovation is one of the most important characteristics of this special type of relationship and is reflected in the two-way exchange of ideas between supplier and customer.
Ray Collis is a Facilitator and Director at The ASG Group and the author of 3 books . He teaches on the NEW IMI short programme “Growing Key Accounts“, starting on the 26th of October.