KAM Leader Series: Insight into Customer Needs

By Tania Lennon, Global Space Lead, Talent Assessment and Leadership at ZS and Renae Leary, Chief Commercial Officer Americas, Ansell

In this series we explore the key capabilities that drive the success of great KAMs and KAM Leaders.  Using the experiences of four amazing KAM leaders underpinned by research into KAM leader capabilities for success from ZS, this series of four articles illuminates the foundations of high performance in KAM leadership roles. In addition, this panel of four leaders will be featured at our Annual Conference, May 23-25 in New Orleans. Register here to join us.

The foundation for success for Key Account Managers (KAMs) is insight into the needs of customers.   Understanding the needs and priorities of others emerges as one of the most important drivers of success for leaders:  leaders who succeed in achieving their potential demonstrate around three times more empathy than those whose do not show high levels of interpersonal insight or organizational insight. Renae Leary describes how this capability is at the heart of KAM success.

According to Renae, developing empathy and strategic insight is not easy.  “While technical KAM skills can be learned, the key to creating a strong value proposition for customers is understanding their unique needs.   The better your insight, the more likely it is that you will be able to see opportunities that others cannot.” 

Renae’s marketing background was a key lens to generating deep customer insight.   “Marketing is all about leveraging data and information to create insights from a range of different perspectives. These enable you to understand the market, the organization, the customer and their competitive environment.”  Fundamentally, Renae suggests that customer insight is about tuning in to customers.   “Whether you use Voice of Customer, Voice of Market, formal research or just glean insights from your ongoing conversations and through your networks, the heart of understanding customer needs is really good listening.”

Insight forms the foundation for value propositions
This process yields deep insight as the foundation for co-creating value propositions to address unique customer needs and build strong relationships.    It requires a level of long-term investment to generate these insights and use them to forge robust partnerships.  Based on Renae’s experience, this level of investment can generate up to twice the growth of other customers.  However, choosing the right accounts is vital.  “The default position is often to choose the largest accounts. However, you need to look beyond size to factors such as growth potential and willingness to partner.  A partnership is composed of at least two parties.  Without partnership, it is a service relationship that does not offer the chance to expand value through co-creation.”

While building trust-based partnerships is primarily a person-oriented activity, KAM research suggests that we can leverage multiple channels to create broader trust in the organization.  The multi-channel environment creates the opportunity to shape the customer’s overall experience with your organization.  The notion of ‘social client relationship management’ is about engaging the customer in a ‘collaborative conversation’ across multiple channels, with the KAM as the main custodian and orchestrator of the customer experience.

Insights are strengthened with a team approach
While KAMs and KAM leaders are at the forefront of customer insight, Renae describes how adopting a team-based approach enhances the ability to deliver to customer needs. “To really generate deep customer insight, you need to look at the account and the market through different perspectives.  That’s where the leadership element becomes vital.  KAM leaders are able to pull a team around the customer to create a shared sense of ownership and accountability. That way everyone is concerned with both understanding and meeting the needs of customers.”   And what is the secret of creating this sense of alignment and ownership across the account team? “Communication, communication, communication,” says Renae. “I get so much benefit from connecting with people.  It gives me a chance to learn from them and enables me to share insights and priorities with them – people stop reading emails.”  Renae likes to take the opportunity to bring people together and ‘work the problem’ on the whiteboard.

Customer Insight forms the core of account strategy
Customer insights are shaped together to identify underlying themes and anticipate likely market developments. “Seeing the bigger picture is vital.  KAM leaders look for the underlying trends and focus on longer-term profitability. That’s one of the ways in which key account management differs from sales. Sales cycles are shorter:  you win the sale and move on.  Key account management is about creating a sustained relationship that generates mutual value over many years.”

The ability to see the bigger picture consistently emerges as one of the drivers of high performance in leadership roles and KAM roles.    Outstanding leaders draw on seven characteristics to support them in shaping strategy: conceptual thinking ability, visionary thinking, creativity, analytical thinking ability, learning ability, synthesizing ability, and objectivity.  This diverse array of characteristics supports one of the factors that Renae feels is most important to connect with a wide range of customers in a dynamic environment – make it simple.  “As a KAM, you have to understand different customers at different levels of maturity.   The more you can communicate clearly and simply to them, the better – lots of pictures and diagrams.”  That sort of simplicity requires high levels of strategic thinking to synthesize complex multi-faceted data and boil it down to its core elements.

Key capabilities for identifying customer needs
Renae’s insights highlight two of the key capabilities for success as a KAM leader:  IQ and EQ. The IQ element is the strategic thinking capability that is important for gaining insights about customer needs from a broad range of analytical sources to identify key trends and underlying needs.   The EQ element is the empathy needed to elicit information about the personal and business needs of customers using open questions and deep listening.     These are sophisticated capabilities that are difficult to develop, which is one of the reasons why KAM is often described as an ‘apprenticed skill.’  Women often demonstrate build customer relationships using approaches grounded in EQ, especially deep listening, while men are more likely to build relationships founded on common interests.   For both men and women, it is important to ensure the right balance between the IQ and EQ components.  Interpersonal insights are a powerful source of information:  they are most valuable when they are balanced and validated with additional data.    In the next article in this series, we’ll explore how KAM leaders can fully capitalize on diverse perspectives.


Tania Lennon is Global Space Lead, Talent Assessment and Leadership at ZS. You can find her on LinkedIn. Renae Leary is Chief Commercial Officer Americas, Ansell. You can find her on LinkedIn. You can hear from this panel of four leaders at our Annual Conference, May 23-25 in New Orleans.

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