Key Account Managers – Understand the Stakeholders
The greatest problem in the years to come is the question:
How much change can a human being accept, absorb and assimilate and what is the rate at which it can be managed?
A question Toffler posed in the face of the change that technology drives in business. Alvin Toffler was an American writer and businessman who was regarded as one of the world’s outstanding futurists. Toffler was known for his commentary on how modern technologies have, and will continue, to impact on business cultures worldwide.
Perhaps the greatest change that technology and communication has driven is transforming many roles into positions where incumbents are dealing with constant change, when stability was once the norm.
Talk to people who manage the high value complex relationships that are key accounts, and they will tell you there is little stability. The past is not a sea of tranquillity, the future brings challenges that must be managed to retain and develop key accounts.
Change is driven by new strategies, new product offerings and changing markets that bring new opportunities. However, perhaps the greatest catalyst for change is people, or more accurately when the people change!
It has long been my belief that developing a strong contact network in a key account is the foundation for long term success. This is the skill of stakeholder management.
It is a wonderful thing to have a great business relationship with a key decision maker in a key account. Such a relationship might generate sales opportunity, sales revenue and a confidence to plan future business activity.
However, what happens when change comes and that individual moves on. If that relationship is protected with a strong stakeholder network who will influence a new person in your favour that is great. If no such network exists then a level of influence is lost, and a new person may feel free to introduce a preferred competitor.
The aim of Stakeholder Management is to establish a network in each key account through which you can understand, influence and develop the account relationship. Ideally in each account the customer team is mirrored by an internal team led by you the key account manager. The purpose of the internal team is to build relationships based on role, that create ties which strengthen the relationship e.g.
- Directors meet directors
- Technical meet technical
- Financial meet financial
Under your leadership the internal team contributes to achieving account objectives by building relationships in their own areas of expertise and ensures:
- Communication is focused on agreed account objectives
- Problems are dealt with before they become an issue
- Opportunities are quickly identified and actioned.
As an account manager your objective is to build stakeholder networks that are:
- Deep: featuring contacts from board to shop floor. If you hear the comment
‘We have the deal; it just has to be signed off by the board’
Ask yourself why somebody else is selling your proposition to the board. A position that is made worse if it is a competitive situation and a competitor is presenting at board level.
- Broad: encompassing any business function that might impact on your business. A lot of account managers can be dismissive about this but let me give you a great example.
I was working with a provider of asset finance, spending a day coaching a line manager who in turn was working with one of his account managers. I should add that the account manager was totally dismissive of the concept of stakeholder management and firmly believed his job was to work with financial directors and financial managers.
In one customer we had finished a meeting with the financial director who quizzed me on my role and my background. I explained my position, but when I told him I began my career at Mars he insisted on introducing me to the marketing director who was also at Mars.
Once introduced the marketing director and I went through the normal polite ‘ex-Mars’ conversation, then as he was leaving he said to the DF:
‘Have you discussed the new product?’
This is a classic example of why stakeholder networks should be broad. It transpired the business was developing a new product range, that created a need for new manufacturing equipment which in turn created a need for finance.
That one comment meant we left the building with an opportunity to provide a significant new credit facility with a lot of knowledge and information that the competition did not have. We had a competitive edge and an account manager who changed his mind on stakeholder management
He in fact became a great advocate, but if it was not for that chance meeting my client would at best been in a competitive tender, when the FD decided to put the offer to market,
A key to move business forward
Whenever I am asked by a client for a view on a business opportunity that is not moving, the stakeholder network is always the first place I look. Too often it is the case that the client does not:
- Have strong relationships with enough stakeholders through which business decisions can be influenced
- Know enough about the needs, decision factors and personal motivations of stakeholders
Think about if, if you don’t know what is important to key stakeholders, how can you create a business proposition you will be confident they feel compelled to buy.
So how do you manage stakeholders?
Before dealing with this question, I should add that Stakeholder Management is one of the most enjoyable parts of an account management role. It is the opportunity to build relationships with people in an eclectic combination of roles, understand their challenges and through the acquisition of knowledge build your own personal currency.
So, if you are in an account management role here are five things you can do to develop and manage stakeholders:
- Identify the Stakeholders
A stakeholder is anyone in a customer, the industry or your own organisation:
- Who will be in some way affected by your strategy, immediately or at some time in the future
- Who is in a position to influence the decision making process.
Stakeholders will normally include:
- Senior Executives: business owners, C-level, senior executives, directors and senior managers
- Managers: your own line managers and other functional managers who will be affected by your proposal
- People: involved in the operational aspects
- Human Resources: who may want to control the contact you have with stakeholders
- Procurement: teams and individuals
- Technical Departments: responsible for creating back up or support
- Advisers: contacts, contractors and legislative bodies.
- Map the Customer
In each account take the time to identify all of the stakeholders you should build a relationship with. This is not quite as simple as it sounds the challenge is not to identify the people you do know, the challenge is discovering the stakeholders you don’t know, but you should know.
- Understand Stakeholder Roles
This is important as the role dictates how you should react with different stakeholders. To start keep it simple and divide stakeholders into three groups:
a) Economic: stakeholders who are interested in a project from a financial perspective. Economic stakeholders tend to be senior executives and often the budget holders, so their support is crucial
Developing a relationship with economic stakeholders is achieved by discussing the financial implications of sales opportunities, demonstrating an understanding of potential profit, challenges and broader financial benefit. Don’t make the mistake of not spending time with an economic stakeholder, this may be the person who at some point you have to convince to release budget. If you don’t have a relationship that can be very difficult!
b) Users: Stakeholders directly involved in managing and implementing a project. Naturally you have to develop these relationships with stakeholders who are users as their commitment is key. If users will not support you, it becomes virtually impossible to reach a successful conclusion.
c) Advisers: stakeholders who provide advice, coaching or a sounding board. Advisers provide expert opinion or specialist knowledge but are not directly involved a project. Advisers should not be underestimated. Superficially, advisers may lack involvement in a project, but often have the influence, reputation or power to veto a proposal.
Advisers may well be industry experts who are respected in your business sector. Developing a relationship with them can bring significant rewards if you can make them an advocate for your business.
- Manage Champions and Blockers
Let’s keep this simple:
- Champion: a stakeholder who is supportive of you and your business. Champions are stakeholders who will support you in public and private, act as a coach and influence other stakeholders in your favour. A champions will work with you to maintain momentum and encourages others to do the same. This is an individual who always delivers on promises and commitments.
- Blocker: stakeholders who are opposed to your business and may even personally dislike you. The objective here is to understand why a stakeholder behaves as a blocker, usually it is because:
- They are a ‘champion’ for another provider or business option
- Something has happened in the past which has made a stakeholder behave as a blocker.
The most important thing is to find out why, as that is the only way you can deal with a blocker.
Don’t make the mistake of ignoring blockers, the right course of action is to meet with them, understand them and try to change their views. Whatever the outcome a blocker will respect you far more if you try and resolve a situation rather than just ignore it.
- Understand the Mindsets
The mindset of each stakeholder influences the reaction to your business propositions. As an account manager your objective is to recognise the mindset and build a proposition that accommodates it. There are three mindsets to think about:
Stakeholders in an expansion mindset are open to new ideas and will listen to propositions from you, but also from your competitors.
This is a mindset in which stakeholders are likely to make decisions at their own pace and will focus strongly on how the benefits of your proposal meets business needs.
Stakeholders in recovery have immediate business challenges and problems they need a solution for. If you can provide a proposal that provides a solution, a profitable deal can often be closed quickly.
Care is needed here and your behaviour as a ‘Business Partner’ is critical. Stakeholders in recovery often rush into solutions, usually because of pressure on deadlines. Your task is to ensure any solution you provide will deliver the benefits is should. Get this right and you build your personal currency, get it wrong and it can leave a damaging legacy.
Stakeholders in stability are often the hardest to persuade that change is a good idea. These are neutral; they are not for you or against you, they simply see no need to change anything.
The best way to change the mindset of a stakeholder is usually through the influence of another stakeholder from your network who could influence in your favour.
So, five actions you can take to develop your approach to Stakeholder Management. This is not a finite list of activity, there are many more things that a Key Account Manager will integrate into stakeholder strategy. However, get these five things right and you are well on the way to developing what is the most important skill of account management.
Harness the transformative power of stakeholder management. As Key Account Managers in today’s ever-evolving business landscape, we understand the imperative of strategic relationship-building. Strengthen your network, navigate change effectively, and drive business growth. Act now, elevate your account management prowess, and solidify your place at the forefront of your industry. Get in contact today to discuss our offerings to equip yourself with the tools for success.