How to manage clients during a crisis
Expect the unexpected they say. But who could have imagined the COVID-19 crisis would escalate into a global disaster with such far-reaching social and economic impact? Businesses everywhere face enormous challenges to manage uncertainty and limit the impact of the crisis to remain viable. Losing major clients right now would be a devastating blow.
With unprecedented disruption to global supply chains, it's increasingly difficult to conduct even routine business. The last thing you need right now is to lose major clients too.
Now, more than ever before, you must get aligned with your clients, secure revenue, preserve relationships and get closer to decision makers.
It's not the time to waste on "checking-in" or low value conversations.
But there's a challenge.
Research by Korn Ferry found buyers don't see their suppliers as resources for solving their business problems.
- 31% of sales organisations say they effectively identify and gain access to decision-makers.
- 39% provide clients with insights and perspective to reframe thinking.
- Only 40% indicate they successfully use questioning skills to reveal buyers’ realised and unrealised needs.
- Slightly more than half (51%) articulate solutions well aligned to buyer needs.
The good news is key account managers already have influential relationships in place with stakeholders built on trust, commitment and co-operation. They're in a great position to use their understanding of business goals and challenges to provide insights, solve client problems and intercept risks to defection.
What follows is an action plan to effectively manage key accounts by focusing on what really matters to your clients during a crisis.
Crisis management plan for key accounts
There are lots of things clients care about (Bain identified 40 B2B elements of value), but priorities get much narrower during a crisis. This plan has a range of rational and emotional factors to consider and actions you should include in your crisis management response for key accounts.
Your goals are to address your client's economic and performance needs and reassure them you'll be around if they need you.
Is this plan just to manage key accounts or can it be used for any clients?
The plan is suitable for any customer, but just know it's intense. Make sure there's a return on investment of your time, energy and resources. For smaller or less strategic clients, consider a simpler plan with only a handful of actions appropriate to your clients and situation.
Ease of doing business
Meet your clients basic economic and performance needs, reduce friction and be part of the solution, not the problem.
- Review your internal structure, processes and systems and where that intersects with the customer experience. It's in stressful times that cracks start to show and account managers will be the first person clients call if they do. Being familiar with the broader plan will help you manage client expectations. If there are gaps, volunteer to lead or be a part of a cross-functional team to resolve organisational issues.
- Create a relationship development plan to grow connections and influence. Review your key contacts and relationship maps for breadth (number) and depth (quality) of your network. With people laid off, reducing hours, furloughed or on extended leave, some of your champions may not be around.
- Contact your clients and to discuss their current situation and response to the crisis. Don't just rely on your main point of contact. Reach out to various people to get a complete view of the situation.
- What is the actual and expected impact?
- What initiatives have they planned, any potential issues and key priorities, and how can you support them?
- Are they concerned about supply-chain disruptions? How can you improve coordination with your client's supply chain and procurement partners?
- Is there anything you can do to make your products and services more competitive in the current market?
- Are there any changes to the working environment you need to know?
- Is the demand for their services increasing or decreasing?
- Are they facing shortages of inventory or supplies and what's driving it (e.g. panic buying)?
- What is the impact to their cash flow, and is there anything you can do to ease financial difficulties?
- What are the best ways for you to jointly emerge in a good place in the rebound?
- Stay alert to trigger events that could influence your client's business and their demand for your products and services.
- Merger or acquisition
- Decreased market share
- Implementing additional suppliers
- Operating in competitive or shrinking industries
- Changes in executive leadership (especially CEO and Purchasing)
- Significant reduction in workforce.
- Major outsourcing or off-shoring initiatives
- Short repurchase cycles
- Significant quality or service failures
- Regulatory or legal changes.
- During a crisis, demand will shift and client's needs may change, so don't be afraid to cross-sell or up-sell where appropriate.
- Offer premium solutions or features to clients with growth opportunities.
- Expand offers to clients that don't use all your products.
- Other factors may become priorities, like effectiveness, lower costs or innovation. What can you do to accommodate your client's requirements? For example, switching from sales to leasing or extending payment terms.
- Review your policies and procedures. Look for opportunities to serve your client's better, reduce friction and improve their experience, especially at a team or departmental level.
- Review terms and conditions of contracts. Do any of these need to be relaxed to reflect the new environment. You may already have legal guidance from your organisation - but it's still worth scanning contracts to look for any non-standard terms and make an assessment.
- Review account plans and recent meeting minutes. Are there activities that make sense to delay or bring forward? Clients may have made a commitment that now seems unrealistic in light of current events and impact on resources and time. Don't abandon all plans – but do re-calibrate timelines.
- Review your calendar and re-think your client visits. Are there creative ways to deliver the same content and outcomes virtually?
- Regularly inform your clients of your work schedule and availability.
- Publish an online calendar with access to book appointments. If you don't have tools already, I use Microsoft Teams, Book Like a Boss and Bookafy and can recommend them.
- If you're busy, consider open office hours. Clear your calendar for a couple of hours each week, and share a meeting room link with your clients and let them know they can stop by and have their questions answered. It's a great way to reassure clients they can get in touch with you if you know you're going to be difficult to reach right now.
- Are there opportunities for your clients to increase the adoption of digital channels? Self-service is practical, instant, reduces costs and increases satisfaction.
- Let clients know about changes to locations, operating hours, staffing and other factors that may impact them. Frequently these are not communicated at a corporate level - don't let your clients be the last to know.
- Don't withdraw services from your most important clients if they down-trade or suspend certain activities.
- Where possible, remove any volume or time-based triggers that may be invoked to automatically alter product/service offerings.
- Reassure key accounts they won't lose any benefits during the crisis.
- Beware: clients may seek alternative suppliers to reduce costs. The SCRAM Model (supply chain resilience assessment and management) identified 16 risk factors companies can use to become more resilient to disruptions. Educate yourself on this model to elevate conversations with your client and give them confidence in the strength of your supply chain.
- If you must adjust prices to remain competitive, be careful of the impact to the bottom line.
- Customise discounts or offers to stimulate demand rather than respond to threats or ultimatums.
- Give price concessions temporarily and make it clear they'll revert at some point in time.
- Focus on renewals. For key accounts with contracts expiring in the next 12 months, get started on your capture planning process. While clients may not be ready to make commitments now, it will mean you're prepared to make an offer when the time is right. Consider rebates and volume discounts in exchange for a long-term commitment.
- How can you help your client improve their competitive position or support their business strategy?
- Create a plan to improve the quality of your internal networks so you can mobilise resources and bring influential executives into the client conversation if needed.
- Deliver on what you've been asked to do as a priority. The rest can wait.
These elements appeal to an individual's priorities, including personal and career motivated outcomes. During a crisis, you should also address highly emotional concerns, like how their lives may be changed and how it makes them feel.
- Understand your organisation's crisis communication plans, approved messaging and content and think about where you can add context and insight to reassure your clients.
- Create a plan to keep informed of developments and confirm you are on relevant distribution lists.
- Follow up with your client on any significant announcements regarding your organisation's situation to ensure they understand.
- Create an engagement plan to share information and stay connected with your clients. Use a variety of modalities (emails, telephone call, video) to improve rapport and intimacy.
- Demonstrate that you care about your clients, acknowledge their challenges and always remember that beyond business issues, people are also dealing with personal and family issues.
- Increase visibility on social media (especially LinkedIn and Twitter).
- Follow relevant hashtags like #Coronavirus and #COVID19 and create saved searches to help you find information.
- Post relevant content that inform your network on how to manage during the crisis.
- Contribute to the conversation by replying to your networks' posts with thoughtful commentary.
- Monitor CSAT/NPS scores and customer complaints - you may need to intercept these or bring these to your contacts' attention. You may also need to switch them off because it might not be appropriate to use surveys to measure service quality right now.
- If there are major problems, involve your organisation's senior executives to reassure clients you're treating the issues seriously. Confirm which of your top management you should include, under what circumstances and the process to engage them.
- Things you need to know about your contacts that will help you better help them during a crisis:
- Preferred communication (email, phone)
- Issues of most concern right now
- Work routine (e.g. do they start early, leave late?)
- Quality of their relationship with their boss
- Direct reports and relationships with them
- Personal issues they may be dealing with
- Personal style (e.g. detail vs big picture)
- Attitude and tolerance toward risk.
- Tensions are high during a crisis so beware of conflict. Before you talk to someone, always take a few minutes to plan for the conversation and think about it in the context of:
- Conflicting needs. Are you competing for scarce resources? Are there trade-offs you need to make to secure them?
- Conflicting styles. Behaviour styles may be heightened so adapt your communication style accordingly. DiSC is a widely used model; the behavioural styles are Dominance, Influence, Steadiness and Conscientiousness.
- Conflicting perceptions. Be aware that your view on what's important may be different to clients and colleagues. Where will you compromise and where will you need to persuade?
- Conflicting goals. How will you manage client expectations with your ability to deliver?
These elements deliver social impact and offer a vision - and hope - for the future. 86% of business leaders take values into account when making important buying decisions, so demonstrate you're adhering to your values - even in troubled times.
- Let your clients know about how you're helping the wider community during the crisis:
- Any programs to support individuals and businesses during the crisis?
- Share what your company is doing to help laid-off employees above and beyond what is required or expected.
- Look for people who are helping, and find ways to support or celebrate them. Do you have heroes among your employees, clients or community that you can shine a spotlight on?
- Ask yourself how you can support local communities and non-profits to address their immediate needs? You can lend a hand by donating supplies or volunteering. Become a mentor by activating LinkedIn's career advice feature and you'll be connected with people who need your help. Check out Facebook's new free service to find and share support with people near you.
Is this crisis a contract breach?
During a crisis, some disruptions may impact the ability of organisations to meet their commitments. It's essential you know how to respond if there are any issues.
In particular, be aware of conditions related to force majeure - defined as an event that can't be anticipated or controlled and make it all but impossible to meet contractual performance (e.g. acts of nature like floods and acts of man, such as wars).
Forewarned is forearmed, so ask your legal representative for a briefing to discuss:
- Does the COVID-19 outbreak constitute force majeure and excuse non-performance under your contracts? Does this view change depending on the severity of the impact and how long can performance obligations be avoided due to COVID-19?
- Under what circumstances might you issue a force majeure notice and what steps should you take if a client serves you a force majeure notice?
- Are you responsible for losses if you can't supply a client due to the COVID-19 outbreak? Are there any limitations on the amount and what is the claim process?
- What is the process if there's a dispute about responsibility for losses.
- What should you do if your client threatens litigation due to disruption to your services?
Key account crisis management plan templates
With the situation changing daily, you need a system to stay on top of your key account crisis management plans and activities. Set up a client scorecard to document your client's priorities, business impact, key activities (choose the appropriate ones from above). I also like to have a column to document any help I need from colleagues or leaders.
CRMs aren't designed to manage crises - there are better tools to create your plans and track progress. My favourite is Airtable and you can get started for free. It combines the power of a database with the simplicity of spreadsheets and online collaboration for an incredibly flexible solution that's ideal to manage complex projects. I use it to keep all my communication templates in one place which makes things so easy. You can copy my base template below.
For a simple alternative, Excel is an easy way to keep all your notes in one place. It's also quick to circulate by email or use as the foundation for your 1:1's with your manager.
Here's a Key Account Crisis Management Plan Template you can download, which includes all the actions listed in this article as well.
- New article from McKinsey, Leadership in a crisis: Responding to the coronavirus outbreak and future challenges.
- Ongoing updates from McKinsey, COVID-19: Implications for business. Rolling coverage with a business perspective, economic impact and recovery.
- LinkedIn course: Remote Working- Setting Yourself and Your Teams Up for Success. LinkedIn have made more than 13 hours of video training available for free. Great course whether you're new to working from home or just want to be more effective.
- Mindtools COVID-19 Support Pack. A range free resources to help you stay informed, think critically and make decisions during the COVID-19 crisis. Also helpful content on working from home, wellness, mental health and teamwork.
- How to Make Better Decisions About Coronavirus. Emotion-driven beliefs and intuition can lead us to bad decisions. MITSloan explores 9 different biases coronavirus may surface, and how to recognise and control them so you have a better chance of moving toward better choices.
- Forrester Crisis Prevention Guide for some new ideas or to validate your crisis response.
- Talkwaker COVID-19 Global Report. Daily report by region with the number of mentions of Coronavirus in online conversation to top themes, industry trends and consumer insights.
This isn't a definitive list of actions. Keep digging for ways to add value and go the extra mile. If you need more inspiration, take a look at page 5 of this study Theory and Practice of Value Co-creation in B2B Systems. You'll find a list of more than 50 ways to create value for your clients.
Clients need their account managers to be calm, confident and communicate authentically. Stay focused on problem solving and be action oriented.
And you'll get through whatever challenge lies ahead.