Five key topics for KAMs

27th July 2021 |   Richard Vincent

This year marks the 25th anniversary of the Cranfield Key Account Management Forum. Here’s what participants discussed in Q1.

In 2021 we mark the 25th anniversary of the Key Account Management Forum at Cranfield University. Following the Covid-19 pandemic the Cranfield KAM Forum has created a series of on-line seminars to complement the regular face-to face meetings that will resume when it is safe to do so.

The webinars continue to address both strategic and operational themes and personal development topics of interest for KAMs. In Q1, delegates discussed five subjects of significant interest to anyone already involved with or in the process of introducing, Key Account Management.

  • Key Account Management in a Digital World – Nicolaas Smit, Visiting Fellow Cranfield University
  • Sustainable supply chains – Mike Bernon Associate, Professor in Supply Chain, Cranfield University
  • Mental health for high performance – Jack Green, Double Olympian and Mental Health Coach
  • Communicating the complex in times of crisis – Dan Marsh and Sharn Kleiss of Radley Yeldar
  • Lessons from Jacobs Key Account Management Implementation: The case of Network Rail – John Downer, Director of Sales and Client Account Manager for Network Rail at Jacobs UK

Key Account Management in a digital world

Nico Smit, a Visiting Fellow from Cranfield University, discussed “Key Account Management in a Digital World”, focusing on how the increasing capability of digital systems can boost the value available to both suppliers and customers. Four stages of complexity embody the different ways in which digital systems have been used in the past and how they are being increasingly used now by the most progressive organisations (Figure 1).

 Figure 1: Four degrees of analytics value and complexity.
Figure 1: Four degrees of analytics value and complexity.

The increasing capability of digital systems and the ever-increasing comfort of customers with using those systems, is leading to radical changes in the way they gather information about suppliers and potential suppliers. They are no longer just using data from traditional sales channels but from many sources which have not traditionally been thought of as customer communication channels at all.

The increasing connectedness of all aspects of an organisation’s structure and activities mean that customers have relatively easy access to data that once would only have been available to a select few people. All externally facing departments of a company and every location where a company does business generate data that is now accessible (Figure 2). To be customer-centric in this environment it is necessary to think of “unified commerce” that takes place across all of the activities of a company.

Figure 2: Customer centricity needs “unified commerce”.
Figure 2: Customer centricity needs “unified commerce”.

The consequence of this is that KAMs now need to be aware of and, to a great extent, in control of all of the information that will flow through all of these paths, while the traditional field-sales channel needs to be considered as only one of many channels to the customer. This will require a truly omnichannel and customer-centric conversation that requires the following qualities:

  • Focus on the customer perspective.
  • The ability to listen to what customers want and translate that into an understanding of what they need.
  • Provide relevant and useful answers to questions before they are even asked.
  • Manage stakeholders through the buying decision process.
  • Be present wherever the customer is, in order to win.
  • Organised to facilitate stakeholder value creation.
  • Make it easy for customers to make the buying decision with you.
  • Provide sufficiently accurate and detailed customer insight which will be the key to customer centricity.
  • Have a customer commerce strategy which is driven by that customer centricity.

All supplier organisations should be looking towards having a unified commerce strategy, and KAM managers need to evolve towards being more of a “General Manager” of Customer Centricity and setting that unified commerce strategy.

KAMs need to be aware of and in control of all of the information that will flow through these paths, while the traditional field-sales channel needs to be considered as only one of many channels to the customer.

Sustainable supply chains

Mike Bernon explored the question of how business models and supply chains need to transform in an increasingly sustainability-conscious world. Mike has been working on sustainability for some 20 years and has tracked changes in attitudes towards the importance of sustainability, which has moved from being a fringe belief with little relevance to supply chains to very much a mainstream concern with direct impact on both the long-term viability and the financial success of supply chains.

Sir David Attenborough’s statement: “Anyone who thinks that you can have infinite growth in a finite environment is either a mad man or an economist” exemplifies the issue that has been at the heart of the problem. At current rates of usage, the WWF believe we are already using three worlds’ resources, or in other words, using resources three times faster than the level that could possibly be sustained. This is being driven by an expanding global population and compounded by the ever-increasing expectation of income and consumption for populations around the world. Global population alone is on track to rise from seven billion now to nine billion by 2050 or even earlier. Lifestyle and consumption expectations will drive the need even faster.

However, there are some hopeful signs that the world is moving on. Forward-looking countries and organisations are adopting new approaches and while those that are not, are losing ground to those that are. This is exemplified by the change in outlook and approach in China: a few years ago sustainability was given a very low priority; now, however, there is an active focus on investing heavily in all areas of sustainable technology.

Positive ways of moving forward involve the adoption of completely new business models, and companies are already having commercial success by doing so:

  • Moving away from impact reduction to “no net impact”. Even if all existing companies were to reduce their impact, the fact is that the net effect would still not lead to a sustainable situation; therefore, the goal for every company should be to move to no net impact. A first and very positive step is the adoption of GRI (Global Reporting Initiative) which allows organisations to track and record their carbon usage in a standard and transparent manner. Understanding the impact that you are currently having, and being able to discuss it openly, is a key first step in bringing that impact under control.
  • New industrial age: the circular economy. Instead of the traditional “take, make and dispose” or linear economy, we need to look at ways to extend and reuse. For example, rather than just selling products, manufacturers may choose to retain title to them, retain responsibility for their maintenance and longevity, and then sell the use of the products as a service. Rolls-Royce aeroengines “Power by the hour” service is a good example of this. Others, such as Apple, have introduced incentivised return of old products which they are now recycling using specialist tools such as their Daisy robot, and they have been able to demonstrate that it is possible for green initiatives to make good financial sense too.
  • Disruptive technology can drive sustainability. For example, the use of 3D printing can be used to radically reform supply chains to reduce inventory and waste by only making products at the place and time they are actually needed.

The implication of this for KAMs is, as we change our business models, we will need to move our focus away from just “shareholder” value to consider wider “stakeholder” value as well. We will need to broaden our engagement, not just with more stakeholders within customers, but with external ones as well (Figure 3).

Figure 3: From shareholder value to stakeholder value.
Figure 3: From shareholder value to stakeholder value.

Mental Health for high performance

Jack Green, double Olympian and ex-head of well-being for BBC Studios worldwide offered insights into what businesspeople can learn from Olympic-level sport in order to achieve high performance and maintain a good level of mental health. His experience of overcoming some significant personal mental health issues himself helped him to understand both the problems associated with poor mental well-being and what can be done to create and sustain good mental well-being, not just personally but within organisations as well.

He invited the Forum to reflect on five useful life lessons:

  1. Effort over results. It is important to realise that measuring yourself on effort rather than achievement is much more sustainable and therefore much more effective and successful in the long run. Achievement is often heavily influenced by luck or circumstances and so is much less under your own control. Therefore, solely measuring yourself by achievement is a route to generating unnecessary stress and pressure.
  2. Motivation is rubbish, what is your why? Motivation is temporary; it will inevitably fluctuate. Find your purpose, that will stick. Be clear on your beliefs and your purpose and that will keep you going with resilience.
  3. Fear of failure or fear of learning? Understanding that any failure is an opportunity to learn and should be embraced as such helps overcome the fear that otherwise can be associated with attempting anything new.
  4. Circles. Understand the importance of circles of influence. One circle is close friends and family; a second circle is people whose opinion you value and respect. Everyone else can be thought of as is in the third circle, and worrying about their opinions is entirely counter-productive.
  5. Stay in your lane. Concentrate on what you can control and do not stress about those things that you can’t.

Well-being is often seen as soft, or a “nice to have” organisational outcome. In reality, however, well-being is about creating environments that enable people to thrive both personally and professionally, so it is the true foundation of high performance. If it is not under good control, high performance will never be possible.

Communicating the complex in times of crisis

Dan Marsh, Brand Director and Sharn Kleiss, Employee Experience Lead from Radley Yedar, looked at ways to help clear communication in difficult environments such as the current pandemic. Since the onset of Covid-19, a sense of fear has become pervasive. Even as the end of the pandemic is starting to seem closer there are still many unknowns and people are not feeling reassured. Most businesses have realised that they will need to revisit their long-term priorities, their core strategies, and their organisational structures.

What is the impact?

  1. Working memories are less able to process information.
  2. Long-term stress affects ability to recall information.
  3. Attention span becomes overwhelmed.

All of these stress perceptual load: so, in order to be effective, repeat messages, take time, and be more measured. As we come back to normal, the customary channels for communication have changed radically, with online video and live streaming now coming to the fore.

In order to bridge the gap from the climate of fear to one of trust, it is imperative to communicate in a much more human way, with a greater degree of empathy, compassion and authenticity. Daniel Kahneman’s work on the processing of information is useful here. His model of an elephant with rider – where the communications to the rider (slower measured and analytical) and the elephant (faster, impulsive and emotionally stimulated) both need to be addressed – can help.

Typical business leaders are also changing, becoming more nimble, disruptive and socially conscious. These new-style managers are often referred to as BETA managers. Their different outlooks and attitudes need to be taken into account (Figure 4).

Figure 4: The traditional business leader is changing.
Figure 4: The traditional business leader is changing.

Ensuring authenticity

  1. Embrace your purpose.
  2. Be consistently genuine, even if the message is uncomfortable.
  3. Deliver with conviction, believe in what you are saying.

People don’t readily trust institutional entities, but they do trust other people, so lead with your values. Do be aware of and follow the trust-creation process (Figure 5).

Figure 5: The trust-creation process.
Figure 5: The trust-creation process.

Trust is built by your behaviours and backed by your beliefs.

Lessons from Jacobs KAM implementation

John Downer, Director of Sales and Client Account Manager at Jacobs UK, provided an extraordinary account of how he transformed a strategic relationship between Jacobs and Network Rail.

As part of his recent Cranfield Executive MBA, Downer completed modules on Leading Sales Organisations and Strategising in Challenging Contexts. He was able to use these advanced insights to create a client strategy for Network Rail and to design and implement an encompassing and holistic KAM structure. By using KAM, both Jacobs and Network Rail have improved their competitive advantage and the new approach is now being adopted more widely within Jacobs.

There are some key principles underlying the success of this key account implementation.

  1. Know the numbers. Introduce systematic approaches and data science to drive decisions, including hard decisions about what business you should tender for and what you should walk away from.
  2. Stickability. Co-creating strategy with the client ensures that it is mutually beneficial and robust in the longer term.
  3. Zippering. Ensure there are good contacts at every level, from the technical contacts or “T-Suite” all the way up to the most senior manager or “C-Suite”. This transformed C-Suite communication and Network Rail’s enthusiasm for communication.
  4. Advocacy. Recognise that implementing the key-account strategy will need to be handled as a change-management project and use the Kotter 8-step process for leading change.
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Richard Vincent spent nearly 29 years at HP and Hewlett Packard Enterprise where he specialised in Strategic Business Operations and Key Account Management. He is a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University where he has been an active member of the Key Account Management and Strategic Sales forum, since its early days. He is also a self-employed consultant, helping companies build long-term profitable relationships with complex and demanding customers.