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.

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.