Beating Six Barriers to KAM – Chicken or Egg: Data, Protectionism, Starting point, Simplicity, Time and Training

18 delegates from law, accountancy and property firms joined me at the June PM Forum workshop on Key Account Management (KAM) and Account Based Marketing (ABM). The focus was on supporting fee-earners with client relationship management in KAM and ABM programmes at a firm-wide or client level. I’ve summarised Six Barriers to KAM – Chicken or Egg: Data, Protectionism, Starting point, Simplicity, Time and Training. There are also poll results from the session and highlights from some recent articles on KAM and ABM as additional learning resources for the delegates.

1. Inadequate data and systems

Most firms felt that they had inadequate data and systems to support fee-earners in their KAM/ABM programmes. Some reported that many (including IT people) were unaware of the differences between a CRM system and a KAM system.

There is a chicken and egg situation. Fee-earners need to be adopting the necessary relationship behaviours to know what data is required. Yet without the relevant data it was hard to plan activities.

Some firms reported that they had “secret squirrels” operating their own spreadsheets for KAM. Sometimes it was helpful to allow people to develop their own systems while they got to grips with the required behaviours. Then M&BD and tech could look at how best to accommodate the different needs and best practice amongst fee-earner teams when it came to designing central systems.

Some of the larger firms benefited from sophisticated systems such as Intapp  – which includes features to scrape information from emails and generate relationship heat maps automatically to guide KAM activities. OnePlace  is now a part of Intapp and does relationship mapping. Others mentioned Introhive  which measures relationship strength on emails and meetings. Others commented on InterAction IQ  which updates the CRM through Outlook and other add-ons that rank relationships.

Tracking referrals from key clients and key referrals was also a challenge.

2. Entrenched Protectionism

Several delegates mentioned that protectionism remains a key barrier to implementing good KAM/ABM practice. This is where senior fee-earners restrict access to “their” clients. We discussed cultural and systemic protectionism (e.g. where reward systems focus on fees generated by “owned” clients) which typically requires changes to recognition and reward systems and cultural change programmes.

We also discussed individual reasons for protectionism. For example, senior fee-earners nearing the end of their careers who did not want to risk relationship problems with clients generating significant revenue and profits. A short term focus. Sometimes fee-earners lack confidence in their key client relationships and fear intrusion by other fee-earners or M&BD. Individual reasons had to be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. We also recognised the loss aversion bias – people fear losing what they already have far more than valuing what they might gain in the future.

3. Starting point: Top-down or bottom-up approach?

Typically, we start a KAM or ABM programme at a central level – agreeing firm-wide aims and developing strategies and processes to roll out. The top-down approach. But this is fraught with issues – like engagement, buy-in and motivation.

So an alternative approach is to start with one or two champions who “get it”. Support a motivated team to develop an approach and the right behaviours to start them on their journey to KAM or ABM with a particular client. And then share their successes and help others replicate or adapt their approaches. The bottom-up approach. Or KAM by stealth.

4. KISS – Keep it simple stupid

Another key insight from the delegates was that KAM and ABM rarely offer a “one size fits all”. Whilst we in M&BD crave standardisation to help us manage the complexity of firm-wide KAM and ABM programmes, each fee-earner and each client may require a personalised approach. After all, KAM and ABM are designed to promote a more client-centric approach – how can we do that if we are trying to shoehorn everyone into the same processes?

A related point was KISS – Keep It Simple Stupid. We know what sophisticated KAM and ABM systems look like but many of our firms are starting out and simply not in a position to make the leap. So start with simple ideas and simple processes and simple behaviours. Gain traction with those and embed them before trying to add further layers of complexity and sophistication. Let the fee-earners take the lead whilst M&BD facilitates and supports.

A few times we mentioned the book The Power of Personal – How to connect, convince and create exceptional client relationships” by Liz Whitaker.  The Propella methodology (Prepare, Plot, Prioritise, Plan, Personalise, Perfect and Prepare) in the book provides simple templates and processes (such as the royalty/loyalty matrix) to assist with the KAM process.

5. Lack of time

Everyone recognised that time was a huge barrier. Fee-earners are already stretched to breaking point serving clients, recruiting and training new fee-earners to support growth and addressing the ever-growing range of compliance and administration that they must attend to. Marketing and Business Development is low on their list – and KAM and ABM possibly lower. Especially as it can take months or years of effort before the results – which are often for the wider firm than themselves or their own team – start to appear.

There are obviously cultural and reward issues here. But there is also the need for laser-like focus. Select just a few key clients to start the programme. Be really specific as to what action is required and when and by whom. By providing manageable bite-sized pieces of activity the KAM process can be absorbed more easily into busy schedules and embedded into day-to-day practice. Back to KISS.

6. Need for assessments and training

As being a relationship manager requires such a broad range of aptitudes and soft skills (see my 2020 book on soft skills for lawyers) we discussed assessment and development tools. Some firms used personality assessments such as Colour Insights analysis. I mentioned my use of Emotional Intelligence assessments.

Providing fee-earners with a plan for KAM activity was insufficient. They need a wide range of training support from basic confidence and communications skills through commercial awareness and sophisticated selling skills.

We also recognised that training wasn’t just needed for the fee-earners. Other support functions such as Finance, Human Resources and Technology need to understand KAM goals, processes and practices so that they can align. KAM and ABM are firm-wide philosophies and need a multi-disciplined approach.

Delegate’s summaries

At the start of the session, delegates indicated their aims in attending the session were to:

  • Obtain an overview or “big picture” of KAM/ABM
  • Adopt a client manager role/Take a more focused client relationship management role
  • Design a new KAM/ABM programme
  • Review/relaunch/reposition a key account programme
  • Identify areas of improvement for a KAM programme
  • Refresh and obtain new ideas
  • Integrate KAM data and information needs into other M&BD systems
  • Manage the client feedback programme
  • Influence, motivate, guide and support fee-earners in KAM/ABM
  • Roll out the KAM/ABM programme to more clients
  • Learn best practice

At the end of the session, the delegates felt that their key takeaways and actions were:

  • Set clear goals and focus activity in specific areas
  • Step back and focus on the aims and structure of the KAM/ABM programme while considering what is working well and where simplification and/or improvements can be made
  • Engage fee-earners early in the process – ideally, involving them in designing the aims, strategy, processes and systems so that buy-in is built-in
  • Use workshops to tackle elements of the KAM process – internally to gather data and identify gaps, understand needs and brainstorm opportunities and externally to build a more collaborative relationship with clients and to add value
  • Change the culture – a slow and ongoing process requiring leadership support, education, constant internal communication (especially on successes), training and adjustments to the reward systems for motivation
  • Embed peer recognition into the culture as well as KAM KPIs in the performance appraisal process
  • Define the roles of the relationship partner and others involved in client teams
  • Assess the wide range of criteria that can be used to select clients (or prospects or referrers) for KAM or ABM programmes
  • Harness and capture existing knowledge of key clients from across the firm
  • Train fee-earners in a wide range of soft skills required for KAM (e.g. listening is a key skill – for marketing/BD professionals as well as fee-earners)
  • Align client listening with the KAM programme
  • Increase confidence to ask questions or to talk about the firm’s offering/value
  • Increase diversity in teams – include fee-earners from different teams and territories and include younger fee-earners at an early stage to help with training and development as well as succession
  • Design data systems and applications that are needed for CRM and KAM and ABM systems

Delegate Poll Results

We ran polls throughout the session, here are the main results:

KAM experience – Although there was a wide spread of self-assessments from 1 (absolute beginner) to 8 (quite experienced). The majority (29%) voted for 7.

Sales training – 76% of delegates had received no formal sales training.

Firm or client focus? – 76% were interested in both KAM/ABM for the firm overall as well as for individual key clients.

KAM roles for M&BD – Again, there was a spread of responses. 17% were part of a client team, 11% provided strategic input, 6% coached fee-earners and 6% focused on administration and information. The majority (61%) concentrated on process, systems and procedures.

KAM/ABM Goals – The most common goals were for cross-selling (94%) followed by revenue (76%), profit (65%) and satisfaction (59%). Some said that recommendations and referrals had objectives.

Fee-earner engagement – When asked to what extent delegates thought fee-earners had bought into the concept of KAM/ABM there was a range of answer. 28% rated both 4 out of 10 and also 6 out of 10. No-one rated their firms as 8, 9 or 10.

Time recording – 59% did not record fee-earner time spent on KAM/ABM. 24% recorded time generally for M&BD, 6% for Kam/ABM generally and 12% recorded time for specific key clients. 59% did not record M&BD time on KAM/ABM – 18% recorded M&BD time spent on KAM/ABM.

Key client criteria – 61% had agreed criteria for selecting key accounts compared to 39% who didn’t.

KAM/ABM focus – When asked where they felt their programme was focused the responses were:

  • 39% protecting and retaining clients
  • 39% medium and long term relationship, revenue and profits
  • 17% cross-selling
  • 6% collaboration and co-creation of services with clients

KAM information systems – Again, there was a range of responses with 11% rating their systems as 1 (poor) and 6% as good (8 out of 10). The most common responses – 44% – was a rather low 3.

Implementation support – There was strong adoption of a range of implementation techniques including:

  • Dedicated KAM/ABM meetings (83%)
  • M&BD as part of key client teams (78%)
  • Regular internal communications (67%)
  • KAM/ABM information systems and reporting (50%)
  • Fee-earner skills training (44%)
  • KAM/ABM as part of fee-earner assessment and reward (22%)

CRP/KAM leaders – 65% did not have job descriptions or terms of reference for fee-earners in Client Relationship Partner or Key Account Partner/Manager roles.

Biggest challenge for KAM/ABM – The responses to this poll were interesting:

  • Fee-earner time/resource 59%
  • Fee-earner motivation 18%
  • Aims, strategy and plans 12%
  • Lack of information/research 6%
  • Leadership support 6%

KAM in Professional Marketing magazine articles

I thought it might be helpful to highlight the key points in KAM articles in previous issues of Professional Marketing magazine.  All delegates have access to the article bank in view of their firm’s membership of the PM Forum.

“Why client account management (CAM)?” by Laura Dawson

Implementing CAM:

  • 88% of professional services respondents to a recent BoardEx survey listed relationship capital management as critical to their organisations – whilst 85% said relationship capital provided a competitive advantage
  • You need CAM knowledge, processes and culture to align. The author offers a checklist to assess your firm’s position:
    1. No recognition
    2. Recognition
    3. Approval
    4. Adoption
    5. Champion
  • Culture and leadership help or hinder CAM so you need:
    • Senior level buy-in – preferably with one-to-one conversations
    • Communicate frequently and across multiple channels to generate a client-centric culture (share early success stories, invite clients to share views with Client Partners, use the intranet and secondments, film the CEO introducing Cam toolkits, invite feedback etc)
  • Challenges include: silo mentalities, global client demands for local resources, different rates, lack of accountability

Professional Marketing magazine March 2021. I also covered this topic “Why invest in KAM?” back in April 2016

“Making account management work” by Francesca Ayers

Top tips for account management success:

  1. Set up for success – know client’s agenda, account manager expectations, measure, use two or three simple tools (communications strategy, leadership and data)
  1. Client communication – agree expectations with the client, provide clarity at the start of the year, understand the sales road map, focus on key questions, have an onboarding pack for new clients, demonstrate understanding when introducing new services (listen)
  1. Tools and templates – use action lists for accountability, monthly planner and targets, incentives for cross selling, governance for the account, identify points in the cycle, measure, share best practice and map the client journey (succinct overviews and plans and clear priorities, relationship strengths and an action plan)
  1. Measures – revenue generated, referrals, surveys, propensity to recommend and willingness of client to be involved in firm’s events

Professional Marketing magazine April 2020 

“KAM culture – ten years on” by Elizabeth Corcoran (Eversheds Sutherland case study)

  • Early 2000s they had an established CRM programme (using InterAction) with Client Service Teams and OSFO (One Size Fits All) development plans for clients
  • Established key accounts with Industry Sector Groups rather than Practice Groups – and started with two as a pilot which has now expanded to around 60 across five industry sectors. The sector group leaders oversee the KAM programme
  • Make exclusive inclusive – ensure the small number of key accounts are deeply embedded into each Practice Group and Region on a global basis. Each partner and team’s reward and remuneration incorporates KAM objectives
  • Internal communications through a variety of channels – with fresh thinking
  • Two core criteria for selecting key clients
    • a) current shape of the client relationship vs our competitors to identify growth opportunity and
    • b) clients who are business critical to the firm to retain and protect
  • Roles include: Client Partner, Deputy Client Partner, Senior Relationship Partner and (non-legal) Key Account Manager
  • There are now 18 Key Account Managers working with the sector teams.
  • Each key account has a tailored client listening plan
  • We plot the trajectory on a three year plus basis
  • Key accounts are given first refusal on the firm’s flagship initiatives such as D&I and CSR and some are consulted on strategic planning for lateral hires
  • Two original key clients remain among the firm’s top five clients and their revenue has increased almost three-fold

Professional Marketing magazine April 2019 

“Working together for better KAM” by Chris Founds

Harnessing the power of collaboration (“a working practice whereby individuals and/or organisations work together to a common purpose to achieve personal and business benefits”) to achieve successful KAM:

  • Cut through internal discipline silos with a client management programme
  • Forbes magazine article on “Habits of Highly Collaborative Organisations”
    • Lead by example, individual benefit vs corporate benefit, strategy before technology, learn to get out of the way, create a supportive environment, measure what matters and persistence
  • The Institute of Collaborative Working (ICW) defined the key principles of collaboration:
    • Common vision and leadership
    • Right behaviours and culture
    • Collaborative processes and tools
    • And identified eight objectives for British Standard 11000:
      • Phase 1 – strategic
        • Awareness
        • Knowledge
        • Internal assessment
      • Phase 2 – engagement
        • Partner selection
        • Working together
        • Value creation
      • Phase 3 – management
        • Staying together
        • Exit strategy
      • Principles of sound KAM
        • Executive sponsorship
        • Capturing hearts and minds
        • Systems and processes
        • Invest in creating a KAM culture
        • Measurement
        • Meetings and momentum

Professional Marketing magazine April 2016