How to become a key account manager?
How do you become a key account manager when you have no experience? Where do you even start? What does it take and what do you need to know? It's difficult to change professions but not impossible, if you're willing to put in the work.
What does a key account manager do?
The Key Account Managers job is to keep their clients so happy they never want to leave. This is one of the major targets for account managers and it'll be measured as either:
- Retention: how many clients you keep (hint: you want this number to be high) OR
- Churn: how many clients you lose (hint: you want this number to be low)
You'll conduct regular analysis of how much your client is spending and on what. You'll give advice on how to get the most from the products and services they already have. Account Managers must also find extra revenue:
- sell add-on products and services
- get more business
- improve margins (e.g. increase prices)
Targets are usually based on a forecast that your company wants to achieve.
There may be a few other targets thrown in, like number of meetings sat or calls made, and you'll be expected to create a strategy to achieve them
Account management is also highly relationship and service driven. You'll need to meet lots of different people within your client base, from users to decision makers, influencers to CEO's - the more people you meet, the more opportunity you'll have to improve loyalty and sell more stuff.
You'll also frequently be involved responding to queries and complaints.
Depending on the type of account management and the industry you may have anywhere from one to more than a hundred clients and they might be in your country or anywhere in the world.
It’s a great career, very exciting and rewarding because you truly get to know your client and understand what they do, what their challenges are and how you can help.
Selling is easy. In fact, it doesn't feel like selling at all because most of the time, you're just solving their problems with solutions that just happen to cost something
Of course, that's the simple version, but you didn't come here to read War and Peace did you?
What qualities do key account managers need?
If you want to be a key account manager, then you need to:
- enjoy working with people
- work well under pressure
- be able to deal with difficult clients
- be flexible - it's not a 9 to 5 job
- enjoy selling
- good time management
- take responsibility
- communicate well
Don't worry, these can all be learned. Let's find out how.
Research the job
There are lots of different types of account managers. From telephone-based to field-based; local to global.
Start with a search for key account management jobs on LinkedIn - pick a few you like the sound of and write down the responsibilities and skills they're looking for.
Here's an example of one I found:
KEY ACCOUNTABILITIES / RESPONSIBILITIES:
- To exceed targets and challenging KPIs
- To forecast accurately
- To work well independently as well as in a team
- To communicate effectively both internally and externally
- To take ownership
KEY SKILLS REQUIRED:
- Hard work
- Hunter, proven track record of generating new business is essential
- Strong focus on solution sales and selling on value
- An excellent understanding of the sales cycle to ensure full control in opportunities and accurate forecasting
- Highly self-motivated, energetic individual who builds strong relationships quickly
- Great negotiation and communication skills
- Flexible and adaptable to meet the needs of the changing market, our customers and the business
- Good levels of IT literacy are expected
Keep looking at jobs until you have a list of 30 things you don’t know about account management. What do you already understand about this role and what do you need to find out? Then start to do your research on every topic until you have the answers.
Save any jobs you're interested in. Copy and paste into a word document or save them as a PDF. Don't bookmark them as jobs postings often get deleted once the position is filled. These job descriptions will be invaluable later when you are updating your CV.
More on that later.
Take a skills inventory
As you research jobs ask yourself:
- What skills do you have now?
- What skills do you have, but need to improve?
- What skills don't you have?
Make a list
For the skills you have:
Write down all the career stories you have about times when you’ve demonstrated those skills - even if it wasn’t as an account manager.
For the skills you need to improve:
Practice those skills in your role now. Think outside the box. Maybe you could practice your communication skills by volunteering to chair team meetings or give your next update to your boss in a presentation instead of just a chat over coffee.
If you have no idea, ask your colleagues or your boss what you might be able to help with or how you can adapt your existing responsibilities to learn these skills.
If you want to explore this a little further, here are some free online surveys to help you discover what strengths you rely on the most and how to make the most of your gifts.
- Via Character Strengths Survey. Research has found that only 1/3 of people have an active awareness of their strengths. The VIA Survey has been taken by over 8 million people in 190 countries so they can discover their greatest strengths and how to use them in everyday life.
- High 5 Strengths Test. Find out what you’re naturally good and use your strengths to be happier, more engaged and more likely to achieve your goals.
- Personal Strengths Inventory. 30 minutes to complete, this assessment will help you Understand which strengths you rely on most, how your strengths manifest in your daily life, and how to make the most of your natural gifts.
Want to take your career to the next level?
book a career power hour
Find a mentor
A great place to start in your quest to become an account manager is to seek out a mentor. Hit someone up in your company with the relevant skills and ask if you can spend some time with them every month to learn about their job. If you don't know anyone or don't want to ask, mention to your manager what your career goals are and ask if they can help you set up a mentorship.
Mentorships aren't just for newbies. All of us, at any age and any point in our careers can benefit from a mentor. So don't be shy about asking because you think your too junior or too senior to need a mentor. I have gained so much wisdom from colleagues and I think we underestimate the power of peer learning and mentorship.
- How’d they get into account management?
- What’s their advice on what it takes to be a great account manager?
- What do they find difficult?
- What do they love about their job
- What are they skills they think are essential and how did they acquire them?
Think about situations you've encountered and ask them for their perspective and how it might impact a client.
Ask if you can shadow some of their client calls (many of them are probably by conference call where you can listen silently) - then ask them questions about what you heard on the call.
Pick their brains.
Take a course
TRUE OR FALSE: You can't learn on-the-job skills when you're not doing the job?
There's no avoiding the fact that there will be some core skills you lack. You can wait to learn them on the job (which might take years... or never) or you can fast track your learning and take a course.
It's also super-impressive when a candidate says they're passionate about a career in account management and accelerated their learning by taking a few courses. You need to differentiate yourself from the pack of other would-be account managers and this is an easy way to do it.
If you seriously want to become an account manager, there are plenty free online courses available on:
- Relationship building
- and lots more
A lot of them only take a few hours. A small investment in time if you want a new job, don't you think?
Check out my free Trello Key Account Management Career Development Plan with links to lots of free courses to help you gain the skills you need for a career in account management.
Read as much as you can about account management. A Google search will get you started. Also, check out this list of 15 blogs which write regularly on key account management. Here are a few of my favourites:
It's important to stay informed of business trends and developments. Account managers should be able to understand the impact of world events, how they relate to their clients and the opportunities - and risks - they present.
There's some amazing free advice to be found on Podcasts on selling and account management. Here’s two of my favourites:
- Sales Success Stories: Microsoft's #1 Inside Sales Corporate Account Manager - Phil Terrill
- Inside Selling with Josh Braun
Podcasts are an easy an effective way to learn how to become an account manager and to pick up new skills. I listen to them on the way to and from work and at the gym. Think about switching out your Spotify playlist for a few podcasts now and then.
Optimize your resume
Now that you've learned a few skills and have some great examples of success to share, it's time to update your CV so that it reads like someone with account management expertise (even if you don't have the experience just yet).
Remember when I asked you to save those jobs you liked?
Look at the qualifications and the skills and make sure you have included these in your CV and use the exact phrases and verbs from the job description. That way you'll get past those pesky applicant tracking systems and through to a real human who will look at your CV.
When you say you have a skill be sure to include a great result you achieved because of it.
Now the hard part: you MUST tweak your CV for every job you apply for.
The keywords, responsibilities, qualifications and experience will vary. You need to make it easy for the hiring manager - or the applicant tracking system - to connect the dots and to see how relevant you are.
If you include a lot of things they're NOT looking for, it'll be that much harder for them to see the experience on your CV they ARE looking for.
The easiest way to do this is with a resume optimisation tool like Skillsyncer - it will compare job descriptions with your CV and let you know what to include and what to add.
They also have a nifty job application tracking project board which makes it a piece of cake to stay on top of the status of each application.
You can get started with Skillsyncer for free and their paid plans are EXTREMELY reasonable - only $14.95 a month. The free plan allows up to 10 scans a month, but if you're hitting the job search hard, it's worth upgrading your account to a paid subscription temporarily until you land the job of your dreams.
Apply for jobs
Which brings me to the final step. The only way to become a key account manager is to apply for key account management jobs.
Only go for the ones you really want - why waste your time and the recruiters on a job you're not interested in.
Don't worry if you don't have every last skill and qualification listed in the job description. Here's why:
- You don't know what the recruiter is looking for. They may be flexible they are with the requirements. Many times I've been open to hiring someone from other industries because I wanted a specific skill and knew I could coach them where they needed development.
- Sometimes it's about the budget. Quite frankly, someone who doesn't have all the skills or has never done the job before is a lot cheaper than a hotshot account manager with loads of relevant experience.
- You have no idea who the candidates are or what their background is. I've looked to fill some very senior and well-paid jobs that haven't attracted a single candidate that fit the profile. I've had to reconsider what I'm looking for and sometimes a senior job gets turned into a junior job because that's all who applied. This happens a lot when an existing role is vacant and someone is doing the job of two people. You can only wait so long.
- Who says you'll get the job? You've got a long way to go from application to offer, so don't talk yourself out of it before you've even had a chance to be considered.
A couple more things to think about:
- Don't apply for every job under the sun. Not only is it a waste of time, it'll mess with your mind. Stick to jobs you are genuinely interested in.
- Be realistic. If you've never had a job in account management, you may need to consider more entry-level roles, like telephone, virtual and inbound account management.
- Consider hybrid roles. My first account management role also included operations and office management. I was only in it 12 months before I caught a big break.
- You might need to take a pay cut. When I moved from operations to account management I took a $20,000 drop in salary (even though I was customer facing and had managed 45 staff). But I knew this was a long-term career move and that I would eventually earn that money back.
That's up to you.
All I can say is prepare, prepare, prepare. Make copious notes, bring them to the interview and make sure you have at least half a dozen questions you want to ask.
Beyond that, there are thousands and thousands of blogs, articles and podcasts dedicated to interviewing skills so seek them out. Here's a few of my favourites:
- The LinkedIn Talent Blog
- HR Bartender
- HBR Ascend
- Career Revolution Podcast
- The Career Confidante Podcast
- My Career Advice Pinterest Board
- 35 Smart Questions Great Candidates Ask During Job Interviews
The more you understand what an account manager does and demonstrates that you have the skills or are learning them (even if you don’t have the experience) the more you’ll impress hiring managers with your abilities and I’m sure a career in account management will find you before long.
Here's a couple more articles I've written worth reading:
Key account management is a great career and it can be all yours if you put in the hard work and be intentional about your career development. If you'd like my help, you can always book a Career Power Hour with me and we can plan your key account management career strategy together.