KAM Leader Series: Winning Customer Commitment

By Tania Lennon, Global Space Lead, Talent Assessment and Leadership at ZS and Jennifer Stanley, Partner, North America Lead, Sales & Channel Practice, McKinsey & Company

SAMA is proud to offer this 4th article in the 4-part series on the importance of SAM / KAM leadership. 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.

In the previous articles, we have explored some of the critical capabilities demonstrated by great KAM leaders. These capabilities enable them to develop deep insight into customers, to harness the complementary talents of others to shape and propose innovative solutions and provide strengths-based leadership and coaching to the account team. Outstanding KAM leaders also demonstrate more complex and sophisticated influencing strategies that enable them to gain the commitment of customers. Jennifer Stanley tells us what she has learned through her thought leadership and experiences with shaping customer thinking and engagement.

“My first job was in customer service – I really enjoyed it because it was the first opportunity I had to explore how I can help customers solve their problems. It was also where I first realized that I could do more to help them when I challenged them around what they may really need rather than simply what they are saying that they want. It is a fine line but an important one, since it requires listening deeply to the customer’s desires, how market dynamics impact them, and integrating their answers – not ignoring them – into a more comprehensive answer. That same mindset of engaging customers by respectfully and thoughtfully challenging them is at the heart of successful strategic account management.”
Jennifer’s insight about challenging customers echoes the literature on consultative selling as a driver of effectiveness in strategic account management. Consultative selling enables SAMs to uncover underlying buyer needs through skillful questioning and deep listening (1). The process also yields a significant positive impact on customer empowerment and their overall satisfaction (2). That in turn enables sellers and customers to build an increased level of trust in pursuit of mutual success. “I discovered that a high level of openness and radical transparency with customers enables me to deepen customer relationships and open them up to broader solutions that support their growth agendas,” says Jennifer. Successful B2B sellers also leverage consultative selling as a way to manage the increasing complexity of the commercial environment due to greater information availability across multiple interaction channels and consolidation within customers themselves (3). Great account managers use consultative selling to manage the essential paradox in strategic accounts today: a requirement for consistent high-quality delivery of bespoke and innovative customer solutions. The capabilities linked to success with consultative selling include connecting, shaping solutions and collaborating, areas in which research suggests that women form a significant part of the talent pool (4).

Resilience and grit
So KAMs and KAM leaders need both sophisticated consultative selling skills AND a strong focus on driving to deliver. For Jennifer, that meant developing her resilience and willingness to take risks. “I have had some formative experiences throughout my career where I realized I had more grit than I thought I had. I made a few mistakes and thought, well, that’s it for me! But I had some strong support around me, including seasoned sponsors and mentors, that helped me to bounce back and use mistakes as growth experiences. I aim to provide the same support for others when I see them making mistakes. That’s a theme I’ve also noticed about great strategic account leaders – they combine resilience and grit with active listening and they have worked out how to be human in the moment. They help others thrive, both customers and team members.” As Jennifer points out, this supports strategic account leaders to take risks. “Courage is required because sometimes risks can be irrecoverable – and sometimes they are the lever that enables you to transform the customer relationship to truly become a trusted and strategic advisor.”

Staying the course
Part of the courage required to be a great SAM leader is about taking a longer view. “You need to be in a mindset of service for the customer, in it for the long-term and on the journey with them,” says Jennifer. However, Jennifer highlights that this is not always easy. “Some public companies in particular can have a short-term orientation. The challenge for the SAMs is to manage on a parallel track: deliver to the promises already made and help the customer succeed with their near-term goals while engaging them around the vision for the future supported by constant innovation. That’s where the account team’s capabilities and mindsets are really important. I build teams that I trust implicitly to deliver to customer relationships, which means I can focus on the more strategic and future-focused lens. That way we bridge the inherent paradox in strategic account management and operate as a cohesive team across the parallel tracks.”
In addition to forming talented teams who are hyper-focused on the customer, Jennifer has also learned to build robust networks that enable her to draw on the strengths of an even wider group of talent. “I think strategic accounts leaders can intentionally cultivate communities outside their own organization that include a diverse range of voices, whether through non-profit and local community service or informal groups based on common interests outside of work. Communities and networks can be a powerful source of ideas and information. Being curious to learn about others’ perspectives by asking lots of questions and listening closely can enable you to uncover new ideas, break down barriers and work more effectively across organizational silos.”

Influencing to build commitment
These same skills are also important for creating value for customers. Outstanding SAMs identify and solve problems, align and integrate resources and communicate value propositions (5). As the commercial environment has become more complex and dynamic, outstanding SAMs have moved beyond this to demonstrate three additional behaviours. They disrupt the customer’s current view of what is needed using the ‘respectful challenge’ that Jennifer described; they provide support and reassurance during times of uncertainty and volatility; and they make themselves available and demonstrate their dedication to the success of the customer through ‘small acts of devotion.’ Jennifer encapsulates these three elements in her piece of advice to SAM leaders: “be curious, ask for help and offer help!”

Tania Lennon is Global Space Lead, Talent Assessment and Leadership at ZS. You can find her on LinkedIn. Jennifer Stanley, Partner, North America Lead, Sales & Channel Practice at McKinsey & Company. 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.

1. Graziano, J. E., & Flanagan, P. J. (2005). Explore the art of consultative selling. Journal of Accountancy, 199(1), 34.
2. Castillo, J., & George, B. (2018). Customer empowerment and satisfaction through the consultative selling process in the retail industry. International Journal of Customer Relationship Marketing and Management (IJCRMM), 9(3), 34-49.
3. Cuevas, J.M. (2018) The transformation of professional selling: Implications for leading the modern sales organization. Industrial Marketing Management, 69, 198-208. 
4. Zoltners, A. A., Sinha, P. K., Lorimer, S. E., Lennon, T., & Alexander, E. (2020). Why women are the future of B2B sales. Harvard Business Review.
5. Terho, H., Haas, A., Eggert, A., & Ulaga, W. (2012). ‘It’s almost like taking the sales out of selling’: Towards a conceptualization of value-based selling in business markets. Industrial Marketing Management, 41(1), 174-185.
6. Hohenschwart, L. & Geiger, S. (2015). Interpersonal influence strategies in complex B2B sales and the socio-cognitive construction of relationship value. Industrial Marketing Management, 49, 139-150.
7. Fernández-Martín, F. D., Arco-Tirado, J. L., & Hervás-Torres, M. (2020). Grit as a predictor and outcome of educational, professional and personal success: A systematic review. Psicología Educativa, 26(2), 163-173.

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