KAM in 2024

19th February 2024 |   Journal Of Sales Transformation

2024 is going to be challenging, so what are the significant issues for KAMs this year? We asked some respected commentators.

What a decade it has been so far: a global pandemic, war in Europe and the Mediterranean, increasing geopolitical uncertainty and uncoupling of global supply chains, the widespread adoption of artificial intelligence (for good and ill), recession in major economies, the global net-zero challenge, deflation in China, a new space race…. We live in interesting times! And, of course, 2024 will bring its own complexities.

Mark Davies
Mark Davies

It’s against this backdrop that firms are seeking both to grow (and maintain) revenues while simultaneously cutting costs. Where does this leave Sales? Inevitably, the need to control costs will have an impact on what is a very expensive resource: the sales force. Sellers will have to be super effective at generating revenue if they are to earn their keep. At the same time, the widespread adoption of AI will likely further accelerate a trend that will see the demise of the salesperson in commoditised markets. Going forward, salespeople will be focused more than ever on complex, high-value sales: the spotlight will be on key account managers.

Mark Davies, a Visiting Fellow at Cranfield University’s Centre for Strategic Marketing & Sales tells the Journal: “2024 is going to be a very challenging year, for several reasons that will almost certainly have an impact on key account managers as they try to navigate strategic business activities across the supply chains that they operate within. Of course, the last few years have hardly been plain sailing, but this year has some known issues that will almost certainly present challenges and opportunities, depending on the industry concerned.”

Davies points to themes that emerged at January’s World Economic Forum meeting in Davos: two wars in Ukraine and Gaza that show no signs of ending, accelerating climate change with floods and drought causing new diseases and social distress, shifting energy transition and elevated prices, plus a race towards AI and quantum computing presenting opportunities but huge uncertainty regarding security and cybercrime. He adds: “On top of that, according to the Economist, 2024 will be the biggest election year in history, with more than half the world’s population heading to the voting polls. (1) Significantly, the US will be one of those countries, with the new president having a huge impact on the way most of the highlighted issues from Davos will be handled. Buckle up!”

What does all this mean for KAMs? “Given that KAM is really ‘Strategy Customer by Customer’ a major responsibility is to manage complexity between the supplier and the customer, with issues increasingly also stretching across the wider supply chain (raw-material supply and critical labour, for instance), Davies argues. “You could view 2024 as potentially challenging as commerce starts to navigate its way through an increasingly challenging and vague backdrop.”

Dr Phil Styrlund of The Summit Group
Dr Phil Styrlund

He continues: “Post-Covid, KAMs have had to deal with fractured supply chains. On the positive side, some KAMs have been able to prosper in this environment. Imagine that you have been operating in a traditional commodity industry, with plentiful supply for decades. Price has been your main negotiation lever. Now, with restricted supply, the tables have turned and negotiation can shift towards ‘supply security’. Prices can be raised, and you are no longer on the back foot with negotiations. In tough environments sometimes there can be opportunity.”

So, what-next? According to Davies, key account management has been rapidly shifting into a profession that organisations must have, as opposed to wondering “do we need this?” For suppliers and customers to jointly strategize, organise and respond to these constantly changing forces strategic relationships need to be forged.

Similarly, Doctors Philip Styrlund and James Robertson of the Summit Group highlight three factors that will shape KAM performance as the year unfolds: 1) Asymmetry of information and a proliferation of engagement channels enabled by artificial intelligence and technology; 2)

Increasing complexity and the rise of “wicked problems” in the buyingselling environment; and 3) The rising importance of trust, teamwork, and collaboration in selling and advancements in the science and understanding of human behaviour.

Dr James Robertson of The Summit Group
Dr James Robertson

Drs Styrlund and Robertson suggest that these three factors underline the importance of a new “meta-acumen” which they refer to as business empathy. “This new mindset and skillset will becoming increasingly important as the world shifts to a culture of demand co-creation with customers and internal business partners.” They argue that the empathetic business model emphasises human distinguishers and focuses on elevating your customer’s value proposition – as such, it depends on a KAM and the customer team’s ability to identify ways of making their client more valuable to its customers. “To identify these means we have to step beyond our customer into the hearts and minds of the customers they serve. KAMs will need to understand end customers’ needs and transmit this understanding and insights to their customers,” they stress.

“When KAMs understand what drives their client’s success, they gain a deeper insight into the value proposition they rely on and, henceforth, they can collaborate with them to elevate their value proposition to respond more effectively to their customers’ interests and unmet needs, they conclude. This raises an important question: How will companies develop these distinguishing KAM capabilities essential for future success? We explore some of these issues and look to find answers in the rest of this article, where we highlight the views of a range of distinguished KAM thought-leaders.

View from our experts

Bob Apollo, Chief Outcomes Officer, Inflexion-Point

  1. Ensure that the business value of your existing solutions is widely recognised. You need to ensure that the business value of your existing solutions is recognised by the approvers as well as the users. This needs to be a continuous process – there’s no point in scrambling to do this in the run-up to renewal in an era where the CFO is likely (and quite properly) to be challenging all expenditure.
  2. Be very aware of your customer’s changing priorities. Internal and external factors mean that your customer’s priorities are likely to shift over time. You need to ensure that existing solutions are clearly supportive of their current priorities, and look out for opportunities to promote new solutions that are aligned with their current initiatives.
  3. Establish “trusted adviser” status. You can’t afford to be seen as just another supplier. You need to ensure that you are regularly bringing fresh and relevant insights to key contacts across the organisation, such that they value their interaction with you and believe – whenever they engage with you – that they will learn something valuable and walk away from the conversation smarter.

Remember, risk is one of the few subjects that does not get delegated down in the organization but rather gets delegated up and to the C-Suite.

Mark Davies, Managing Director Segment Pulse Limited and Cranfield University Visiting Fellow

Suppliers should invest in their KAM capability, and these three areas will pay dividends:

  1. Adopt a value-based approach. KAMs should be developing innovative customer value propositions that address the challenges the customer is facing. These will likely need to change on an increasingly shorter time frame. The only people who can lead the development of these innovative solutions are the KAMs – who else is “at the coal face” with the customer? High performing KAMs are not afraid to see the opportunity and build a business around the customer, but this takes a grasp of the big picture and courage to implement new ways of working. KAMs should always be viewed as value ambassadors.
  2. Elevate the conversation. The bigger opportunities within the customer lie with the C-Suite executives. Step up and engage with the CEO, Strategic Marketing, Legal and Finance teams, and supply-chain leaders. Start being comfortable with having discussions about things where your current product and service may not be the answer (but you commit to go back with a proposal that will add value and help). You need different conversations, with different people about different things.
  3. Account-Based Marketing (and more). ABM has been accelerating in popularity for several years. Leveraging marketing expertise around a single customer is a great idea, and usually highly effective. But if the value exists with a customer to apply more resource (for a potentially bigger return) why not have more dedicated functions? Why not Account-Based Supply Chain, or Account-Based Finance? It does not have to be a full-time position; a few months might be sufficient. Scaling resource around opportunity is a way that supply organisations can help key account managers do a better job. This is supplying organisations by shifting beyond being customer-centric and becoming value-centric.

Andrew Hough, Founder and Director, Institute of Sales Professionals

The coming year sees challenges for business in a volatile world. With global conflicts threatening supply chains and increasing costs, businesses have inflation pressures. It is hard to “sell” out of this situation as both consumer and business confidence remains weak. As a key account leader this presents three challenges:

  1. Maintaining or increasing value to key or global account relationships. With cost pressures, key relationships will be looking for suppliers to enhance their attractiveness to customers, and bring solutions that increase their efficiency. This will enable them to navigate the economic situation described above.
  2. Increasing innovation in relationships. Exploring collaboration opportunities both with clients themselves, but with other partners and suppliers – some may even be competitors – so being able to innovate and navigate the dynamics of “co-opetition” will be a key theme in 2024.
  3. No one can escape AI and its potential in key relationships. Sales technology has to date not answered the ever-present performance issue. So, harnessing AI in key relationships, and exploiting its potential to deliver agility and authenticity, will be a key challenge.

Jim Druckery – Leader, Executive Practice CORPORATE VISIONS

Three top Issues for KAMs to consider in 2024:

  1. Focus on metrics to create a higher level of “commercial intensity” in customer conversations. Post-pandemic, your customers are needing to do more with less and decisionmakers have never been more focused on metrics. In all your conversations, focus on business impact and how you can specifically increase your customer’s revenue and decrease costs. How can you de-risk your customer’s revenue forecast? Focus on measurable business impact in each meeting and email – otherwise, you get delegated down to whom you sound like.
  2. Reach above your day-to-day contacts to engage senior decision-makers to drive more business. According to Gartner, 76% of KAMs rely on their existing personal relationships to drive decisions and secure more crossfunctional resources. At the same time, budget authority has tightened post-pandemic, resulting in more multi-party decision-making at a more senior level. Elevate your KAM conversations one or two management levels: according to research, 80% of major decisions are made at the VP+ level, but CRM data confirms fewer than 10% of KAM interactions are with decision-makers. Shake more hands and kiss more babies at the exec level!
  3. Customer experience is the next competitive battleground. Focus on what you can do to reduce friction within the customer experience and identify how your daily activities can help improve key customer metrics such as Net Promoter Score (NPS) and customer satisfaction. Focusing on these metrics will provoke executive interest and give you permission to elevate your KAM conversations to a more senior management level beyond your day-to-day contacts.

    Overall, in your KAM role, focus on how you can accelerate your customer’s “Big Bets” and mitigate their “Big Risks”. Remember, risk is one of the few subjects that does not get delegated down in the organization but rather gets delegated up and to the C-Suite. Lastly, remember that digital transformation tailwinds are stronger than economic headwinds!

Robin Hoyle FLPI, Head of Learning Innovation, Huthwaite International

Key accounts are costly to service and sales cycles are potentially long and involved. It’s very easy for salespeople to be tied up in administering orders or resolving problems which may be best dealt with by customer service teams. Key is not just large! A key account has significant growth potential and a strategic plan to realise that growth.

In tight economic times, managing the cost of sale is massively important:

  1. Accounts need to be segmented – with only those with clear growth potential provided with the resourcing normally provided to key accounts.
  2. Key accounts need to be reviewed regularly – are they still key? Do they still warrant extra resourcing? Could the limited sales resource we have – usually involving our most experienced and skilled sellers – be better deployed elsewhere?
  3. Understand the key players in the account and ensure that you have multi-level relationships. The KAM should be the quarter-back – determining how and when these key players are meeting the most relevant individuals from the supplier team, based on a strategic plan to achieve defined goals.

Dr Simon Kelly, Lecturer in Marketing and Sales, University of York and President and Chief Cohesion Officer, SHAKE Marketing

  1. One for every year – not just 2024. Central to every KAM role is understanding new types of value for the customer and their own company. We call this the Zone of Balanced Advocacy (where value for the customer and the KAM’s own company aligns).
  2. AI, AI, and AI. If you sell AI, what can you actually deliver, how is it better than what your competitors do, and what do customers actually want from it? If you don’t sell AI, how can you get time and attention for your offers when the leadership of your customer might be consumed by AI? How can you use AI to help you sell more effectively?
  3. Changes in buyer behaviour and larger decision-making units. Three trends have continued apace, accelerated by Covid-19. There are more and more millennials in the buying centre (DMU), who are less and less likely to want to talk to a salesperson, so salespeople might only be contacted 70% of the way through a sale. Further, there’s lots of evidence to show that the size of the DMU is still growing in risk-averse organisations. The last time I saw a credible measure it was 6.8 people; it’s probably more now.

Key is not just large! A key account has significant growth potential and a strategic plan to realise that growth.

Dr Beth Rogers PFHEA, Visiting Fellow, Cranfield University

  1. What will global political uncertainty do to decisionmaking in organisations? The news from around the world is always frightening, and 2024 may or may not deliver new disasters. Scenario planning is a well-proven way to anticipate risks and therefore have a proactive approach to managing them. For key account managers, engaging customers in scenario planning for unknowns such as supply-chain disruption, sudden raw material price rises or sudden spikes in customer demand strengthens the business relationship and the robustness of the key account plan.
  2. How will AI affect perceptions of authenticity? Artificial intelligence can be very helpful and reduce manual processing of information, but it is artificial and often very obviously so. Customers will not mind re-buy prompts for parts or regular supply items based on their buying behaviour. In major proposals, and in negotiations with suppliers, they expect authentic personal knowledge of their industry, their competitive position and their aspirations. Scepticism about what IT can and cannot do for us is healthy. The adage that “people buy from people” still holds weight.
  3. What is the right balance of online and personal contact? We all know that our concentration and adrenalin levels are higher in face-to-face meetings, but face-to-face meetings are time-consuming for purchasing decision-makers and sales professionals. As a general rule, online is sufficient for information exchange or urgent queries, but whenever any kind of exchange of ideas is needed, personal contact is better. Gaining agreement for face-to-face contact at critical points in a business relationship requires planning. It is best to start negotiating meeting schedules at the beginning of the customer’s buying cycle.

Dr Philip Styrlund and Dr James Robertson, the Summit Group

As organizations seek to accelerate and sustain profitable growth, we see dynamic shifts in the role and distinguishing capabilities of key account management in 2024 and beyond due to three primary factors:

  1. Asymmetry of information and a proliferation of engagement channels enabled by artificial intelligence and technology. Technological advancements have significantly increased data availability, influencing the ability to leverage data to improve decision-making and provide actionable insights. This environment affects information asymmetry from seller to buyer and, increasingly towards the end-user or consumer, fuelled by social media, generative AI and search-engine-optimization algorithms. Additionally, a rapid expansion of the number of channels through which customers can access data and interact with suppliers, from five channels in 2016 to ten in 2021, further increases complexity and challenges to engage customers throughout their journey. This omnichannel, AI-enabled environment accentuates the KAM imperative of:
  • Orchestrating digital, hybrid and inperson buyer-seller interactions across the enterprise
  • Being “real-time relevant” in each human interaction moment-that-matters to empower the customer in optimizing their decisions and realization of value.

How companies engage their customers will, arguably, become more important than what they sell.

  1. Increasing complexity and the rise of “wicked problems” in the buying-selling environment. (2) Such complex, difficult -to- define problems are typically unique, with solutions that can have unforeseen consequences, making them a challenge to address effectively. This complexity is evident in the number of decision influencers, the extension of length, time, and stages of the buying-selling cycle, and the dynamics of globalization. These different factors influence the KAM’s role which, in turn, is influenced by the complexity of products, services, and solutions, their scope, and the number of competing options to consider. These complexity factors impact the buyer’s perceived risk in making and implementing decisions, leading to customers becoming trapped in the status-quo. 2024 and beyond will demand Key Account Management organizations elevate their acumens in:
  • Facilitating collaborative co-creation with customers.
  • Solving complex problems, drawing on practices such as agile innovation, action research, “transdisciplinarity”, and systems thinking.
  • Boldly leading and sustaining change in an uncertain world.
  1. Rising importance of trust, teamwork, and collaboration in selling and advancements in the science and understanding of human behaviour. KAM and overall sales effectiveness have been enhanced by step changes in our understanding of human behaviour, decision-making, the processing of information in the brain, and the role of emotional intelligence in influencing behaviour change. There has been an astounding number of scientific breakthroughs in the last few decades, which have revealed how humans are influenced and how the brain processes information. These scientific advancements have been proven to significantly enhance a KAM’s effectiveness as they collaborate and lead teams and interact with customer stakeholders throughout the buying-selling cycle.

Furthermore, enabling real-time relevance in an omnichannel, AI-enabled world, challenged with increasing complexity, demands key account management organizations develop capabilities to lead and orchestrate cross-matrix teams (internally and across the market ecosystem) to show up as one and simplify the customer’s complexity.

All of which reinforces the need for business empathy as discussed in the first part of this article.

Scott Waugh, Head of Sales and Account Management, Cyber Digital Solutions UK, Thales UK

  1. Customer intimacy. We are facing increased challenge in getting face-to-face with customers, what with hybrid methods of working impinging on the want, desire, and convenience of meeting up. We are seeing a marked increase in events and exhibitions (E&E) platforms being used by sales and KAM as the place to “bump into” customers – even for my KAMs who have established relationships. Customers seemed to have evolved some of the negative sales characteristics of only being in contact “when they want something”. Evolution? Has the pendulum finally swung in favour of “sales” professionalism?
  2. Workload overload. We are seeing customers inheriting workload (disguised as promotions!) meaning their areas of responsibility/accountability and output has increased without the equal amount of resource capacity. Thus, it is more difficult to get the customer’s attention to take the time to “explore solutions” – they simply don’t have the bandwidth. This comes back to (1) in that KAMs are using the E&E platforms to try to find moments of time to speak with customers.
  3. Budget constraints. Budgets are always tight – fact. We’re seeing greater scrutiny – and privacy – around customer management electing projects for investment. And where there is an incumbent vendor – be they good or bad – they have the ear of the customer and can close down the competition before KAM has a chance to position the value proposition. Customers are sticking with “better the devil you know”; maybe contractually it’s a headache or cost-prohibitive to cancel and change suppliers?

(1) “2024 is the biggest election year in history”, Economist, 13 November 2023.
(2) Wicked problems are complex issues that are difficult to define and have no clear, definitive solution. They are characterized by high levels of uncertainty, complexity, and interconnectedness, often involving multiple stakeholders with different perspectives and values.