Manage Key Accounts as If They Were Key!


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The idea behind singling out key accounts is that you will treat them as special, giving them the recognition and treatment they deserve. If the age-old “80/20” rule applies, 20 percent of your customers, or less, generate 80 percent or more of the profits. These customers should be made to feel as though they are really special. Most companies recognize this strategy as being important and create sales plans and organizations to reflect this idea. In my experience, though, many lose sight of the objective of this strategy when they implement tactics to support it.

As an example, one of my clients gave its top 100 customers a special number to call for customer service. The customers were to call this number only when my client’s product had failed, resulting in a serious loss of revenue for that customer. The customer would need assistance immediately. In practice, however, when “key account” customers called the special number, they were apt to experience a serious delay in service. That’s because they needed to be qualified for the special service before they were eligible to receive it. They may have been better off calling the number meant for the masses.

The key account sales reps did not have time to treat each customer with the special attention.

Another client considered too many customers “key accounts.” What happened was that, internally, each region of the company wanted to define its own key account criteria. No region wanted to be left out of the program. The result was that the number of customers who were put into this group far exceeded the number of customers that the sales staff could reasonably accommodate. The key account sales reps did not have time to treat each customer with the special attention that the customer deserved. The hope was that each special account would be visited at least once a month—or once a quarter at worst. In fact, many were visited only twice a year or less often.

What does a key account want from sales staff? Some key accounts do not want frequent contact, but most of them do. If its partnership with your company means that a customer is a key account, it’s going to have a number of wants and needs that have been expressed frequently in market research. Key accounts want you to:

  1. Understand their business. They don’t want to have to explain their needs over and over because you have changed sales assignments or don’t remember from last time.
  2. Know how they make money and how your product or service helps them accomplish that.
  3. Ask about their plans. Are they expanding? Are they moving? What are their major problems? In what direction do they see their business or industry going in the future? You need to know in case you can help, even if they don’t think the problems apply to your product or service. Find out what their problems are, all of them, and find ways to help.
  4. Know about their entire relationship with you. This means knowing not only their order history with you but also any problems in the relationship, even if those problems did not involve the sales activity (such as missing delivery dates or service delays).

One of my clients recently held several conversations with key accounts in this way. What the client discovered was that the key customers were seeing a trend in the industry toward using larger sizes of a product that interfaced with my client’s product. Unless it responded to this trend, my client could lose some business from their key accounts. This knowledge was worth millions of dollars. It enabled my client to develop products to meet the needs of the key accounts and stay ahead of the competition.

Many companies do not treat these types of customers as truly special. Designating them as a “key account” should be meaningful to you and the customer. If the people your company deals with at the key account don’t feel as though they are being treated as important to you, the designation of “key account” becomes a negative, not a positive, in their mind. I have heard several times in my consulting practice this complaint, “I don’t feel as though I am being given the attention that my purchases would indicate I deserve. I’m not being treated as a special customer should be treated.”

Make sure that your best customers don’t feel that way. You may want to ask them what being a key account means to them and how they would want to be treated. Some of the answers may surprise you. This type of research is invaluable. It may be done fairly easily if your C-level sales executive is sincere about making these customers feel like the select few. Ask the right open-ended questions about what being a key account should mean. Describe how the relationship should work and your reasons for designating them as key accounts. Find out their thoughts on how to grow the partnership, so both companies profit.

The bottom line: Don’t lose sight of your overall objective to make the key account feel special as you implement the tactics of that strategy.

Chris Stiehl
Chris has helped companies save money and sell more by understanding their customers better. He once saved a company $3 million per year for a one-time research expense of $2K. What does your competition know about your customer that you don't know?


  1. Oh, I wish that putting the extra effort out to make key accounts was the answer to growing a business. And, yes, the 80/20 Rule is most evident in the makeup of which customers/clients bring in the buld of the sales. However, the makeup of which firms make up this ratio is only a snapshot of what is now. Over a period of time, the makeup of which customers/clients are the generators of income can change. Tomorrows B, C, and D customers (A customers being Key accounts) may become A customers tomorrow and the A’s of today may be B, C, D or non-existant tomorrow. So, it is just as important to treat B, C, and D customers/clients as A clients as they may become A customers/clients.

    Better yet, why not treat all customers/clients as A customers/clients? Is it time, people, cost that make it impossible to do? From my experience working with clients, that is what they tell me the reasons are that they cannot do it. Can the afford not to do it is what I ask them.

    Where does my outlook on this come from. Well, I was a buyer for over 25 years many firms we were their A size customers, while they gave us good service, it was from the vendors for whom we were C and D size customers that gave us the type service they gave their A customers were the ones that I constantly looked to for new products/services.

    So, yes, look after the “big guy” and work harder at helping the “little guys” get bigger . . they are tomorrow’s key customers.

    Alan J. Zell, Ambassador Of Selling, Attitudes for Selling
    [email protected]
    Awarded the 1992 Murray Award for Marketing Excellence
    Member, PNW Sales & Marketing Group
    Member, Institute of Management Consultants
    Member, International Speakers Network

    You are invited to learn about our programs and services and read the
    articles on business topics that affect selling at http://www.sellingselling .com


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