Key account management should be mission critical for professional services firms

It’s a business truth that all clients are not equal. Some are transactional; others relationship-based. Some are contracted; others are not. Some are price sensitive; others value-driven. A key account or account-based strategy acknowledges this inequality by identifying those clients that are ‘critical’ to your organisation and working to make your organisation ‘critical’ to theirs.

Account-based marketing is not a new approach but with the advent of marketing technologies it’s now a viable one for businesses of all sizes. In fact, according to Marketo, around one-third of B2B small to medium-sized businesses are “investing in account-centric thinking to more effectively utilise their resources and focus their efforts”.

Chiefly, account-based marketing provides focus, directs your marketing resources and budget to the most important clients and best opportunities, and aligns your business development and marketing teams.

Wondering how to get started? Read on.

1. Select the right clients

A critical success factor of any key account program will obviously be identifying the right clients owing to their revenue, profitability, strategic significance, allure, growth potential, loyalty and strength of relationships. Importantly, both the criteria and the ranked clients should be revisited from time to time to ensure your firm remains focused on clients that are key account-worthy.

2. Appoint the right relationship managers

Client relationship managers should be one of your firm’s most respected stakeholder groups. After all, these are the people who have been charged with protecting and growing your organisation’s most valuable clients.

Occasionally, the identification of a client relationship partner will be obvious. In a professional services firm, it’s more likely to be political. Still, the selection of a client relationship manager will not always be within your firm’s control. Sometimes a client will gravitate toward the person they consider holds the relationship. Some clients will even dictate who its relationship manager is to be. This can be a source of tension in some firms – powerful people can be peculiarly paranoid.

Appoint the person the client wants, the client favours. Appoint the person who knows the client, cares about the client, is focused on the client, and who is motivated to protect and grow the client.

3. Let relationship managers know what is expected of them

How can you expect someone to perform an undefined role? How can you hold them accountable if there are no clear key performance indicators? To position your key account program for success, define the role of a relationship manager. What are the duties and responsibilities of the role? To whom does it report? How will performance be evaluated and rewarded? How does it fit within the organisation? What training and resources will be provided?

4. If you fail to plan, you plan to fail

Once you have identified your key accounts and ‘blessed’ your client relationship managers, you’ll need to develop account plans. Each of these plans will be unique. And each should have short, medium and long-term goals, supported by specific and actionable initiatives.

5. Commit. And by that we mean really commit.

Key account management is not for the half-hearted. It requires a long-term commitment. It would be naive to believe your program will pay off in the first quarter. It may, but it will probably take longer.

Demonstrate your commitment to protecting and growing your most valuable clients by pairing your client relationship managers with business development experts who have credentials in strategic planning, coaching, project management, client feedback and pursuits.

6. Monitor, measure and report on progress

Make it easy for everyone in your organisation to participate in your key account program. Remember, the goal is to increase the revenue and profitability of your key accounts; to subtly increase the perceived switching cost, and to build barriers to entry that cannot be readily penetrated by your competitors.

Design and generate financial reports that are meaningful and easy to digest. In addition to tracking total revenue and hopefully profitability, you also want to know which services or solutions your client is buying, and from which locations.

Schedule internal account reviews, both one-on-one with the relationship manager (these can also serve as coaching sessions) and with the client team.

Ensure you have a system in place for the measurement of client engagement and satisfaction. This should be a mix of qualitative and quantitative measures. Schedule relationship reviews and periodic health checks with the client. Address issues quickly and appropriately. Act on feedback.

Encourage (mandate) transparency through the adoption and disciplined use of your firm’s CRM system and adjacent marketing technologies.

A word of caution

If your firm lacks discipline or is not well managed, there’s little point in establishing a key account management program or even nominating client relationship managers. The framework will only be ignored and your clients will soon see through the pretence.