Marketing to key accounts: It's all about the relationships

I was interviewing a Key Account Manager for a large tech firm the other day, and was struck by her comment that she wanted the firm's marketing people to be much closer to her customer.

This is a large global account we're talking about, with a big account team and numerous multi-million dollar deals worldwide.

Sales people tend to be extremely protective of their accounts. They "own" the relationships; the stakes are huge, and they rarely want anyone else in the neighborhood (except when it comes to delivery, of course).

But here's the thing: This key account manager understood that marketing could potentially play a huge role in sustaining and strengthening the business with her account -- and she was frustrated that it wasn't happening.

Most important, the content and events that she saw from marketing were simply too generic. She still used some of it, but mostly she had to rely on her own team's efforts or colleagues managing other big accounts to get the specific information, contacts, and ideas that were most valuable to her account.

On the marketing side, meanwhile, I know that supporting the key account teams is at least rhetorically a priority.

As with many B2B firms, a relatively small number of key accounts generate a big percentage of revenue for this company, not to mention critical market insight, references, and the impetus for product and solution innovation. The marketing folks certainly understand this. Nevertheless, they are not able to provide the kind of focused support that the account teams need.

I wrote recently about four keys to success with account-based marketing. Looking back at that post, however, I realize I neglected an even more basic point: Marketing people need direct relationships with the key accounts.

Only by having direct relationships can you get a real feel for the client's business environment, operations, needs, wants, language, and so on. It's an obvious point, but how often do we produce marketing content, organize events, and build sales tools without being grounded in those direct relationships? It's no wonder sales people ignore so much of our carefully crafted work.

So, what do we do about it?

The simple answer is go out and build those relationships.

OK, sure, but how do we do that?

Certainly you can't go around the account manager. That's a no-no. But you can put in the time with the account manager to work out a relationship-building program.

Sitting in on client review sessions is one easy step; working with the account teams to organize executive briefings is another (if your executives aren't willing to do these briefings for your most important accounts, you've got larger problems to worry about!). And, of course, organizing more substantial account-based marketing programs is an even better way to go.

It all takes time, and it all takes some serious relationship building with the account manager and team, too.

But the benefits can be enormous: Deeper insight into what your key accounts need, clearer direction for marketing programs and sales support, and tighter alignment with key account teams that are driving a great deal of the company's success.

How close is your marketing team to your key accounts? What's working in your relationships with key account managers? I'd love to hear in the comments.

Photo credit: Rob Young

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