12 rules of success for key account managers
I'm excited to share my recent conversation with Phil Bourne with you. Phil is an account management and sales professional professional with a wealth of experience and wisdom he's distilled into The Tenets of Account Management. These guiding principles have served Phil well and I know they will help you find success as a key account manager.
The Tenets of Key Account Management
- Great account managers are born not made.
- Talk to everybody, all the time, about everything.
- The more you know about your customer the more successful you'll be.
- Play the person, not the game.
- Be interested and interesting.
- It's all your fault.
- Always tell the truth, or a version of the truth.
- Always remember: it's show business.
- If you know, talk. If you don't know, say so.
- Don't ever do an important meeting alone.
- You must sell internally too.
- Pick the battles you can win.
I believe you have to have that spark within you. And it's about communication. It's about self-belief. It's about being driven. Not in a monetary way. Some people have it and some don't and you need to decide if it's for you or not
Let's get started at the beginning. And just, how did you end up in sales? How did you end up where you are today?
A little of both. I was an engineer. I'm actually a computer engineer I'm that old. Worked on mainframes. and I then went into worldwide tech support. Then I was a project manager, and after 10 years of living on planes, and living away from home for long periods.
I came into contact with salespeople as one does and marketing people and thought, this is interesting. This is interesting. And I got fed up of living away from home full time and when into an internal sales role. And then because I liked it and I had an aptitude for it, went into regional sales and then key account management, product management, et cetera, et cetera.
I was always destined to do it anyway, because I was a mediocre engineer. At best. I think that my personality would would have led me to a sales career anyway.
Most people's careers, I'm convinced and mine certainly included, are very rarely the product of a five-year plan or ambition. It's about taking advantage of opportunities when they come up. When you take on a new role or you get exposed to new things, and you're like, "Oh, I like that." Or "I can do that." Or a new job comes up and you think "I'm going to go for that."
1. Good key account managers are born not made
These are my Tenets of Key Account Management. I'm probably going to say a bunch of contentious things, starting with good salespeople, good account managers are born not made. That is a very contentious thing to say.
It is. Controversial!
But I believe you have to have that spark within you. And it's about communication. It's about self-belief. It's about being driven. Not in a monetary way. Some people have it and some don't and you need to decide if it's for you or not.
I've worked with some excellent people, that couldn't close. Did all the right things, had communication skills, but couldn't say, "What do we need to do to move to the next stage? What do I need to do for you to give me the order?"
You could hone. You can adapt. You can learn. I believe you're born with it, or you're not.
There's an element of truth to that because when you consider at any kind of skill - whether it's being a mathematician or a data scientist or a nuclear physicist, or an artist or a dancer - there are inherent skills and talents you need for an exceptional career in those fields. It's how you combine those elements that determine if you're a natural for the job.
When you talk about being excellent at account management, there are some competencies you need to have at your very core, so I agree with you.
Now, what those are maybe we may disagree on, but certainly anybody can do anything with mediocrity.
As my grandfather said, "The only guy you've got to please is the looking back at you when you shave in the morning." If you believe what you're doing is right, do it, do it.
Simple as that.
You need self awareness. You've got to be able to say, "I tried that. Is that something I enjoy doing? Is it something that I'm good at doing? Is it something I need to do? Is it something I can develop and get better at?"
If the answer is "no" to a few of those things, then maybe you weren't born with it? Maybe the job isn't for you?
But talent alone, or an inherent ability isn't enough. There are hard and soft skills that you can develop to help you succeed, things like commercial acumen or empathy.
Absolutely. I've known people that just couldn't close or were uncomfortable presenting and just couldn't get comfortable. Not their bag.
I've often seen this too, with managers. Top performers are invited to become managers because they're good at their job, so why not lead the team? So they lead the team and think, "I hate being a manager" and so they go back to their old job.
You've now described me. As a project manager, I was okay. But when I had a team, in my heart of hearts I think, "If I can do it, why can't you?" And that's not right. Or fair. So my skill is not in management. It's in communication and motivating teams.
2. Talk to everybody, all the time, about everything
You must talk to everybody. All the time. About everything.
That's particularly true at the moment. And that's internal and external. I'll put this in perspective, right now, I have the luxury of only a single account. The downside of that is it's strategic. It's a big chunk of the UK's revenue. It's highly political. So before I report anything internally up my chain, I've got to validate it three, four times. Different departments, different people, you know?
There are some people saying the end of the world is nigh, "You're never going to get orders." Other people saying, "You've got a shed load of orders and you've got to support that, we have to do this." So always talk to everybody all the time, validate everything you hear.
You need that 360 degree view of your own business and your client's business so you can understand where they intersect. Because if you don't, what are you doing? What are you actually bringing to the table? You only know how your product works, that's it.
You don't actually know how the client uses it. You don't know how it impacts what they do for their customers. You don't know how you fit in with their other suppliers. You don't know anything about potential risks or gaps like regulatory, environmental things.
For example, right now a lot of procurement teams are focused on stabilising their supply chain, which means less reliance on single sourcing. Before COVID-19, single sourcing was the big thing: because one supplier for everything makes it easy. Now relying on one provider presents high risk if your country or your economy is in bad shape. So organisations bring in additional suppliers. No longer will you be an exclusive supplier, you'll be a preferred.
If you don't own your own business, if you're not on the leadership team, you might think, "What does this have to do with me? I'm an account manager."
But there's a problem.
If your client is sniffing around competitors because they want to reduce risk by bringing in additional suppliers, that could mean less business for you. But if you don't know that is an emerging trend in procurement, how can you anticipate the risk to you or intercept it?
3. The more you know about your customer the more successful you'll be
And straight away, you come to tenet number two. The more you know about your customer and their business, the more successful you will be.
I've seen people fall at the last hurdle because they didn't understand that strategic decisions go through Chicago. Or they're locked up with the competition. Or there's a regulatory thing that's just come in and you can't buy British, you have to buy American.
You know, the more work you do understanding your customer, because you're right.
If your numbers are good, remember they're only good today. What's next quarter going to look like, or the quarter after that? If you think it's going to roll on the same, guess what? It never will.
The changes that are going to come, how will that work? What will it mean? And you have to talk to everybody. I get involved with the innovation teams that on the surface are really nothing to do with me because most of my work is in the business as usual.
But by talking with the innovation teams I learn. What is the impact of new government legislation? How will the tech of electric vehicles change? What do we do and how do we do it? If you don't do that homework, someone else will. Then when the government legislation hits you and you'll be going, "but I didn't know." Meanwhile your client will have their solution up and ready with a competitor and you're locked out of it.
A lot of people assume that they'll be told the information they need to know when they need to know it, but it doesn't work like that.
Absolutely not. So talk to everybody all the time about everything. Do your homework and understand your client's marketplace.
If in any doubt, always, always ask. We're human beings. I don't know what's in our head. And sometimes you are talking about symptoms and not causes. I have to find a cause.
Don’t worry if it could be perceived as being stupid. If you say you want to be clarity about something because you weren’t sure - everybody gets that.
Especially in key account management and sales, your reaction is to jump into solution mode. Somebody tells you there's been a problem. You immediately think you have the answers and you jump right in and start to solve them. But you don't really understand what went on. You don't really have the full story. You don't really know what your teams have to say on this issue.
And I've been burned many times before where I've thought, "Oh, I can't believe our product team's done it again." And I've thought, "Okay, this is what I need to do." And then it turns out it was the client's fault. They didn't enable something. And I'm like, “Oh, dear. I've gone and done that."
I'm really cautious about that now. I like to make sure I don't just jump in to rescue the day. I go away and understand as much as I can about a situation before I take action.
4. Play the person, not the game
This links to inter-personal relations. Play the person, not the game. You have to understand what the person in front of you's win is. And it might be, links into other people. It could be, they're going to get a promotion if this project goes well.
If you don't understand their drivers, how can you help them solve the problem? And it will be different for everyone.
Some people lead from a personal perspective. How will this make me feel? If this works, will it make me look good in front of the board? You've got to give them what they need to get the results they want so play the person, not the game.
The more you prepare, either as an individual or as a team or whatever, for a phone call, VC meeting, presentation, the easier it gets.
One of the reasons I still do agendas and prepare and learn is that you never know who's going to turn up to a meeting. The meeting is with you but you know who they'll be talking to in the morning and say, "I got Phil Bourne coming in" and that person knows me and says, "Oh, can I come say hi?"
So regularly I have a Director level just come and say "hello" and hijack the meeting in a very nice way for 15 minutes.
If you don't prepare and are aware of things they might ask you'll be caught short.
Such an important point to prepare for the unexpected. And surprise guests at a meeting happens all the time. You arrive and your client says, "Oh, I asked so and so to join the meeting," you're quietly panicking, "Oh, suddenly now the CFO's here? Nobody told me that!"
The fact you've been able to wing it and get away with a lack of meeting preparation doesn't mean what you delivered was quality. And what I've realised that all I'm doing is letting myself and my client down.
Any seasoned professional will know you're unprepared because for sure somebody will know as much as you do, if not more about the subject.
Even if they don't think you're unprepared, they'll sure know it was a waste of time. So next time instead of ten people at the meeting, there will only be two. You've lost their engagement. Or the actions you recommended never get implemented because nobody cared about them anyway. So there's always going to be consequences.
Plus, preparation helps me remember things and make sure I get to all my points. It helps to stay focused when things get off topic or stray from the agenda. Which means you don't walk out the door and forget to ask for the sale. You don't walk out the door without the very thing you went in to get.
Always do what you're going to say. If you can't say, and say why.
And never miss a deadline. Renegotiate, let them know beforehand that you’ve got push it out
You know how sometimes you have a meeting agenda and the meeting minutes and there's 20 things on it and you've done 18 of them and there's two left and no one said anything ever since.
And think to yourself, "Maybe I don't even need to do it? We haven't talked about it in weeks. Maybe they've forgotten?"
Don't think that. Your client will remember. Your teams will remember. Everyone will remember if you didn't do something.
What will happen is no one says anything for three months. Then out of the blue somebody's Director will explode because it hasn't been done in three months. Then you've got a series of angry phone calls or angrier emails, "You've had three months and you've done nothing.
Yeah, it comes back and bites you.
5. Be interested and interesting
Another tenet of mine that is crucial is, to be interested and be interesting.
If you are interested in people, and if you're interesting, people will be drawn to you.
People remember that. People have said to me, you know, "Even the account manager came! He’s nothing to do with it but he stood in a muddy field and watched the work being done because he was interested."
That kind of curiosity, it's unusual. That's why you get those reactions. And there's rewards in terms of how people perceive you. If you say to your client, "Hey, listen, can I just sit with one of your account managers and learn a little bit more about what you do with your customers?" They'll remember that five years from now because no-one had ever done that before.
And as an account manager you'll learn something interesting about the client. You'll learn more about what they do.
And it's not just for clients. Do the same thing with your internal teams and ask if you can shadow them in the field. Or spend a few hours listening to the kinds of calls your service team get. They'll be blown away.
You'll also lean the language of your stakeholders. You'll communicate more effectively because you're using jargon and terms they're familiar with. You have different conversations that help you get things done.
I love that. Big fan.
I couldn't agree more. I go into the field, literally with my customer and put protective equipment on and see installations with my tech guy, and support people once, twice a month. You meet new people, you learn new things, you have a new language and you can speak with authority.
I was at a real substation, a real application, installing this in the rain and the snow. Rather than theoretical, I watched them do it.
We're not talking about site visits all day, every day for months on end. Just here and there, where it's fit for purpose at the right time with the right people.
Realistically, one or two mornings or afternoons a month and you can make it fit in with something else. Nobody in my organisation has ever said anything about it or been negative - ever.
6. It's all your fault
I do believe it does begin and end with you.
I begin every meeting when you do the round-robin introductions with "I'm the account manager. It's all my fault." Everybody laughs but it's an important point to remember. You need to know everything and if you don't know you should've known.
And when things go wrong, the account manager is who the customer turns to. You have to find the root cause and then address the root cause, not the symptom.
Clients like to think they experience problems, not cause them. The same could be said of account managers. When you're dispensing advice and sharing what you know, and what you've learned - it doesn't mean that you're infallible.
90% of the time I give good advice to my clients. But there'll be those times where I ignore everything that I have ever known and do something stupid or make a mistake or change course. It's frustrating when you know better, but it happens.
Anybody who walks out of a meeting. and says, “That was perfect," is lying to themselves. You and I still attend meetings and afterwards think, "I didn't follow the agenda. I forgot to mention this. I didn't do that. We didn't address this." Because one of the beautiful things is we're human and we fail.
And you're right. 80, 90% of the time we get it right. But sometimes your brain goes walk about.
Or people can push your buttons or your in a bad mood and emotion takes over from logic. You don't do things the way you normally would or you react differently. It's an important point.
7. Always tell the truth, or a version of the truth
This will resonate with your audience: always tell the truth or version of the truth. People will check on a lie. It'll come back to haunt you.
I agree. That's such good advice. It means you have to break bad news sometimes, you know the truth isn't always good news. That's the problem. I think that's why people struggle with the truth.
"The truth is we lost your order. You placed the order through the portal and it sat on somebody's desk. And then we lost it. I'm sorry. "
That's a horrible thing to have a conversation about. And people are more understanding than you think if you tell them why.
I like how you say "a version of the truth." Clients don't need every gory detail or every fact revealed. It can overwhelm them. They don't understand your business like you do and can easily take things out of context or assign more importance to them. And once in a while you may have to sugar-coat something.
8. Always remember it's show business
Always remember it's show business. If you don't entertain them, someone else will.
You're not the star of the show. That's the thing to remember.
They are. Engage them. One of the things that people love to talk about is their own jobs, experiences, and whatever.
It's not hard to keep them talking either.
They will give you these nuggets and then you drop them into the conversation. Is your sister doing this? She's an A&E nurse in Sheffield, you said?" And they're engaged because you remembered.
But it comes down to this, we're all playing roles, which is a show business and a lot of it is entertaining people. And you can entertain people a bunch of ways.
I think key account management is show business.
Just because you're good at working a room and delivering a presentation - that's a such a small piece of the whole role.
And in fact, probably the smaller piece, in some ways.
If you can do that on your own stage and you can be the producer and you can kind of be the director and you can assemble all of the cast and you can make sure it's a good production without any, you know, mishaps on stage and that the audience is engaged and enjoyed it.
And entertained at times. I mean, that's such a great analogy for how you can look at managing the accounts.
9. If you know, talk. If you don't know, say so.
This is obvious. If you know, talk, if you don't know, you say, "I don't know," but don't talk.
Salespeople want to talk, want to take over.
Say, "I don't know for the most part. Or I haven't the faintest idea what you've just said, but tell you what I'll find out and I'll get back to you."
Self-evident. I know.
I've been guilty of throwing opinions out there which have no basis in fact in the interests of getting the client a quick answer.
Or pretending I know something and then wasting a whole bunch of time later, trying to figure it out. I could have just said , "What do you mean? I don't understand," instead of "Oh yes, no problem. I'll take care of that."
And now I've got days of work which could have been avoided by asking a simple question or I have to go back to the and admit that I didn't know the thing I said I knew and need them to explain it to me.
So what's the point?
10. Don't ever do an important meeting alone
This is a simple one: don't ever do an important meeting on your own. Multiple heads are always better than one. If you can. There are times when you can't.
You're probably right. Because if the meeting is to win business, or secure business at risk, you're better off to have the right people in the room that can make decisions. People that lend respect to the importance of whatever's going on because you want your client to know you're treating it seriously, whatever it is.
Sometimes the rest of the business, maybe doesn't feel that way. And as an account manager, you can struggle to get the right people there. I know who should be at meeting but it can be harder for me to convince them that they should.
Because if you say," Oh my God, my client's ready to walk. Big problems, data breach, potential fraud." People run a mile, thinking, "I don't want to go. That sounds like a hard meeting."
11. You must sell internally too
Then it's comes down to internal selling. Another tenet is you've got to sell internally.
You need to know that when I ask you "Warwick, I need you at this meeting," you need to have faith in me because when I've invited you for meetings, it comes back to adding value. Why am I there? Another powerful thing we can say is "why do you want me at this meeting?"
Good point. Don't just invite somebody to a meeting and say, "it'd just be good if you were there." That's not enough of a reason to get somebody to join you for an important meeting.
On the flip side of that is don't go with too many people. I remember a meeting - I wasn't invited, but my boss was. It was a huge piece of business. So everyone was beside themselves wanting to win it. And there were seven people from the client side. We were going to take 15. That’s a little bit like overkill and it looks like an army of people now and they're outnumbered.
So, it was a little bit too much. I'm not saying you have to have one to one ratio of attendees, but be conscious of bringing out the whole army, if you don't really need them in the context of the number of people there.
And then it comes back to the account manager Tsar philosophy about bad news.
"You can't come to that. Warwick you're not going to add value. I know you want to. The reality is you've seen the agenda, right? There's only going to be a few there. We have to cut numbers. You are half of point 8. Your director's going to handle that.
You could VC in if you wanted to, but I don’t think it’ll be the best use of your time. I'm sorry."
When you break it down like that, people understand.
12. Pick the battles you can win
I think this is important: you pick the battles you can win. They're the only ones with fighting. Learn when to walk away. And some of that is experience, some of that is instinct. You're not going to win every time. The reality, even seasoned professionals like you and me are going to lose.
And the secret is now I know when I'm going to lose.
It's difficult, because you've got to decide what you're going to lose and what you're going to win? And they're very tough calls. But there's some battles you’re never going to win.
What did you think? Phil is so amazing. Not only is he funny and interesting and just so easy to talk to, but he's full of so much knowledge and wisdom.
He has such a clear point of view on account management which makes a hug difference to your mindset and the kind of impact you can make to the success of your clients' business and your own.
You can find Phil on LinkedIn.