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.

KAM Leader Series: Shaping Innovative Solutions

By Tania Lennon, Global Space Lead, Talent Assessment and Leadership at ZS and Dominique Côté, CEO and Founder, Cosawi and Principal, The Summit Group

SAMA is proud to offer this 3rd 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.

As the market becomes more diverse and dynamic, the level of complexity that KAMs face continues to increase. In this context, both KAMs and KAM leaders need to canvass a range of perspectives to understand the problem and find more innovative solutions to address the changing market dynamics. Outstanding KAM leaders can both harness diversity and adapt their leadership style to address the needs of different individuals and cultures (1). Dominique Côté shares her experiences for harnessing diversity to deliver innovative solutions.

Dominique learned the value of diversity through her international experience (2). Dominique grew up in Canada but has led teams spanning 36 countries in her global leadership roles. These experiences developed Dominique’s appreciation for the value that different cultures bring to looking at problems and generating solutions. “One of the regions I led was Middle East, where the culture is grounded in a completely different philosophy in comparison with my home country of Canada. As a consequence, they look at the world through different lenses in line with their cultural values. When you combine diverse perspectives, it enables you to unlock new solutions and ideas for supporting customer success.”
Dominique’s experience aligns with research on the power of collective intelligence. The best predictor of the performance of a diverse group is not how smart the most intelligent group member is: rather, what makes the difference is the level of empathy and social sensitivity demonstrated by group leaders. High performing teams are those in which more people speak up and where more questions are asked to understand the perspectives of others. The level of diversity or the average intelligence of the group is not directly correlated to performance, yet where leaders are able to use their skills to enable the group to listen to each other and build on the ideas of others, groups perform almost 50% better in solving complex tasks and deliver more innovative solutions.

Adaptive leadership harnesses difference
Harnessing the ideas and perspectives of people with very different views is not an easy task, as Dominique describes. “Leading diverse teams requires a lot of humility. You are not the one with the answers: your job is to enable others to find solutions.” It also requires a high level of self-awareness. “Leading in international and diverse settings has encouraged me to become more self-aware. I have a better appreciation of my strengths, which enables me to be more assertive and supportive; I also have an understanding of how to manage or mitigate the areas where I am not so strong. That motivates me to support other people to shine and to encourage people to better appreciate each other’s strengths.”
Self-awareness is both a driver of high performance and a factor that underpins levels of empathy and social sensitivity. In fact, one study found that, without self-awareness, an individual only has a 17% chance of demonstrating empathy for others (3). Self-awareness encompasses both emotional self-awareness – an understanding of your current emotional state and potential triggers that may derail – and accurate self-assessment, which is the realistic self-appraisal of an individual’s strengths and weaknesses, as exemplified by Dominique.

Aligning a diverse team
Dominique applies her strengths as a KAM leader to rally diverse teams by drawing on a wide range of leadership styles. “The starting point is aligning people around a common purpose. A shared vision is what enables KAM leaders to focus the talents and different ways of thinking of the bright and ambitious people we work with. Our role is to awaken that intelligence and ambition, then foster a supportive environment to enable them to be at their best.”
Dominique’s approach reflects a broader trend in the leadership styles utilized by KAMs, as shown in the graph below (4). In comparison with First Line Managers with direct accountability for teams, KAMs tend to place more emphasis on styles such as involvement and storytelling in order to build commitment. They provide big picture direction, sharing the vision and mission for the team and the customer, but provide less specific task direction as they do not typically ‘own’ the resources in the team. As Dominique puts it, “KAM Leaders cannot dictate as leaders: they need to use leadership styles that are more about partnering and listening to create opportunities, growth and positive team environment.”

Source: ZS Associates (4).

The graph above shows that KAMs do not tend to use a coaching style as much as FLMs. This is usually because they do not have the same level of investment in team member’s personal and professional development. Dominique sees this as an opportunity for KAMs. “I’m passionate about coaching as a means to help people find their own solutions,” says Dominique. “Coaching is all about asking open questions, guiding people to find the answers for themselves.”

Key capabilities for finding innovative solutions
As customer expectations rise and the market becomes more global and dynamic, KAMs need to utilize all available resources in order to create innovative solutions for customers that provide value and competitive differentiation. Diverse teams offer a prime source of insights and ideas. To harness this resource, KAMs and KAM leaders need to draw upon a broad range of leadership styles. Creating a vision that can align team members is a vital starting point: research suggests that a lack of alignment around goals accounts for about 80% of conflict in teams (5).
There are gender differences in how leaders apply leadership styles (6). Men tend to use leadership styles associated with task delivery more frequently while women tend to use styles that have a stronger people orientation. As the situation becomes complex and the stakeholders and team more diverse, KAM leaders need to leverage more of the people styles, such as coaching, involving and aligning.

Tania Lennon is Global Space Lead, Talent Assessment and Leadership at ZS. You can find her on LinkedIn. Dominique Côté is CEO and Founder, Cosawi and Principal, The Summit Group. 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. DeRue, D. S. (2011). Adaptive leadership theory: Leading and following as a complex adaptive process. Research in organizational behavior, 31, 125-150.
2. Woolley, A. W., Chabris, C. F., Pentland, A., Hashmi, N., & Malone, T. W. (2010). Evidence for a collective intelligence factor in the performance of human groups. science, 330(6004), pp. 686-688.
3. Burckle, M. & Boyatzis, R. (1999). “Can you assess your own emotional intelligence? Evidence supporting multi-rater assessment.” Hay/McBer Research Report. 
4. Billingsley, T., Thompson, J. & Lennon, T. (2021). KAMs as Leaders: The challenges and benefits of informal leadership. SAMA Conference Presentation, VACA2021.
5. Beckhard, R. (1972). Organizational development. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley. 
6. Eagly, A.H., Johannesen-Schmidt, M.C. and van Engen, M.L. (2003), ‘‘Transformational, transactional, and laissez-faire leadership styles: a meta-analysis comparing women and men’’, Psychological Bulletin, 129(4) pp. 569-91.

KAM Leader Series: Delivering for Customers

By Tania Lennon, Global Space Lead, Talent Assessment and Leadership at ZS and Denise Juliano, Vice President, Life Sciences Premier Inc. 

SAMA is proud to offer this 2nd 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.

Customer expectations are rising. According to salesforce.com, 73% of customers expect companies to understand their needs and 62% expect them to adapt based on this insight (1). For KAMs, this often means co-creating solutions with customers as an approach to radically refocus the business around customer value creation (2). Denise Juliano shares her approach to creating solutions that deliver mutual value for customers and clients.

“I’m an athlete by background – I’m really competitive. And that translates into business intensity. I give 120% to everything I do.” Throughout her career, Denise has successfully channeled this drive into delivering outstanding performance, whether as a sales leader, marketing leader or key account manager. Denise’s performance orientation has propelled her to take on new challenges and overcome obstacles by channeling a desire to continuously learn and adapt.
While leveraging her intensity was a core foundation for her success, Denise also had to learn to utilize it confidently. “Women sometimes struggle with intensity – they are often expected to be more passive and less assertive. That means the same behavior can be perceived differently.” Denise’s experience aligns with the research, which suggest that assertive behavior from women can be perceived negatively (3), even while it is key to driving successful outcomes. However, Denise describes a strong sense of mission in finding a way to deliver for customers. “I always try to find a way to yes – there always has to be a way to figure out a solution. I use my intensity as a way to push things forward.”

Harnessing the power of others
When it came to her role in strategic accounts, Denise learned to harness and modulate this drive. “In strategic accounts, the level of complexity and diversity increases. That requires balance: leveraging your own strengths while tapping into the strengths of others to create something that is more than the sum of all parts.” According to Harvard Business Review, the number of people involved in B2B solutions has increased from 5.4 two years ago to 6.8 today (4). “In today’s environment, the secret of being a great KAM is being patient and adaptable. You need to put yourself in others’ shoes and communicate using the client’s language, so they can really see the solution.”
From Denise’s perspective, getting the balance right also means giving others the space they need to step up. “I try to encourage everyone to lead, to see themselves as a leader. This means cultivating an environment where everyone can be themselves and where it is okay to take risks. That’s especially important for women, as they have a tendency to wait until everything is absolutely perfect, whereas men are more likely to step forward even when it is not 100%.” Creating the conditions that enables people to be themselves and take more risks is proven to be good for business. A climate that fosters inclusion generates improved well-being amongst the team, higher profitability, greater sales revenue and bigger market share (5).

Finding your superpower
Denise’s willingness to seek input and ideas also extends to her own development. “I’ve always sought out mentors and sponsors – I try to be open to coaching and feedback, both from those who know me and those who don’t.” This openness has enabled Denise to develop a strong sense of self-knowledge. “To be successful as a KAM leader, you need to know your strengths and weaknesses: you need to know your superpower and capitalize on it. And the things I don’t love to do or am not so great at are opportunities to bring others to the table. I try and surround myself with people who really complement you. Finding talent that is different to you can be a way to expand possibilities.”
There is accumulating evidence that playing to your strengths is an effective strategy for success. Strengths-based leadership has been linked to positive business outcomes such as profitability, customer satisfaction and leader confidence (6). The starting point for leveraging your strengths is identifying those outstanding capabilities and characteristics that define you, then owning them and investing in the additional knowledge and skills necessary to fully capitalize on them (7). This is especially important for women, as research tells us that female leaders tend to underestimate their strengths (8). Female leaders tend to show less confidence in their strengths and abilities, even when other raters see them as being as effective or even more effective than others (9).

Compassion enables risk-taking
In addition to self-knowledge, Denise also highlights the importance of being kind to yourself. “My intensity means I apply high standards to myself. I’ve had to learn to allow myself space to make mistakes in the same way as I extend that to others.” Kindness to yourself – known as self-compassion – can be a further tool in the armory of high performing KAMs. Self-compassion facilitates calculated risk-taking and innovation because it reduces fear of failure (8): it also increases levels of engagement and connectedness with others (9).
From Denise’s perspective, compassion and empathy for self and others has been even more important in the context of hybrid and remote working. “While we’ve always been remote, we’ve put a lot more focus on culture lately. We’ve worked hard to make sure people have a voice as it can easily be lost when everyone is behind a camera. It is easy for louder voices to drown out the others and we can lose vital insights that way. You need to actively seek out input from everyone to make sure that you’ve enabled everyone to contribute their ideas. You may be surprised to find out who has all the answers!”

Tania Lennon is Global Space Lead, Talent Assessment and Leadership at ZS. You can find her on LinkedIn.Denise Juliano Group is Vice President, Life Sciences Premier, Inc. 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. Salesforce.com (2020). What are customer expectations and how have they changed? https://www.salesforce.com/resources/articles/customer-expectations/
2. Lusch, R. F., & Vargo, S. L. (2006). Service-dominant logic: reactions, reflections and refinements. Marketing theory, 6(3), 281-288.
3. Mensi-Klarbach, H. (2014). Gender in top management research: Towards a comprehensive research framework. Management Research Review.
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. Herring, C. (2009) Does Diversity Pay? Race, gender and the business case for diversity. American Development Review, 74(2), 208-224.
6. Harter, J.K., Schmidt, F.L., & Hayes, T.L. (2002). Business-unit-level relationship between employee satisfaction, employee engagement, and business outcomes: A meta-analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology, 87, 268-279.
7. Clifton, D.O., & Harter, J.K. (2003). Strengths investment. In K.S. Cameron, J.E. Dutton, & R.E. Quinn (Eds.), Positive organizational scholarship (pp. 111-121). San Francisco: BerrettKoehler.
8. Kay, K., & Shipman, C. (2014). The confidence code: The science and art of self-assurance – what women should do. New York: Harper-Collins Publishers.
9. Herbst, T.H.H. (2020). Gender differences in self-perception accuracy: The confidence gap and women leaders’ underrepresentation in academia. SA Journal of Industrial Psychology, 46(0), a1704
10. Neff, K. D., Hsieh, Y. P., & Dejitterat, K. (2005). Self-compassion, achievement goals, and coping with academic failure. Self and identity, 4(3), 263-287.
11. Neff, K. D., Kirkpatrick, K. L., & Rude, S. S. (2007). Self-compassion and adaptive psychological functioning. Journal of Research in Personality, 41, 139-154.