Developing key accounts for new and existing customers


Earlier this year, Mike Cameron outlined how key account planning could assist businesses to achieve new products and/or service solutions sales. He now turns his attention to how businesses can develop and fine tune those Key Account Plans based on the attributes of the buyers they are approaching. 

The previous articlei laid the foundation for understanding the importance of a good sales strategynamely, to set yourself up in the right position, to be in the right place, with the right people, at the right time, with the right solution so that you can make the right tactical presentation to achieve your sales objective. However, to ensure a mutually beneficial transaction where both buyer and seller achieve gains, salespeople must create a framework through Key Account Plans that fosters a win-win situation and manages every sales objective as a joint venture. 

A Key Account Plan (KAP) is required for those prospects that are most likely to buy from you and those who provide you and your organisation with the highest value return on your effort. These are your High Value Prospects (HVPs). A KAP has six important components (Table 1). 

Table 1. The six core elements of a Key Account Plan.

Effective key account management is based upon establishing and maintaining a synergistic relationship with your customers. Dr Stephen R Covey in his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective Peopleii defined synergy” as the principle of creative co-operationand he stated that the development of an effective partnering relationship is dependent upon: 

  • Mutual respect.
  • Trust.
  • Openness.
  • Integrity.
  • Comparable cultures and values.
  • Communication  

The selection of sales professionals to develop effective KAPs is critical with the following diagram possibly assisting you to identify the key effectiveness issues facing your client relationship management planning. 

Table 2. A sales relationship diagram.

The process of creating and managing a KAP has seven steps which can be clearly identified in the following diagram: –

Figure 1. The seven steps in the Key Account Planning process.

The seven key steps are (as outlined in Figure 1) are 

 Step 1 Decide what you are selling. 

  • Understand your sales objective. 

Step 2 Test your position and identify buyers. 

  • Understand your customer base. 
  • Understand your customer’s organisational chart. 
  • Identify buyers.  

Step 3 Rate and evaluate your buyers. 

  • Buyers’ roles. 
  • Buyers’ influence. 
  • Interest in your sales objective. 

 Step 4 Identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats 

  • Review alternative positions. 

 Step 5 Create an Action Plan 

  • Draft and implement SMART action steps. 

 Step 6 Close the deal. 

  • Ensure that paperwork and your process is “painless”. 

Step 7 Monitor and seek feedback. 

  • Monitor delivery. 
  • Check that delivery meets (or exceeds) the promise. 
  • Seek feedback from your customer’s buyers. 
  • Review future business opportunities (eg in a Business Review and Development Meeting – or BRAD meeting). 
  • Nurture the relationship. 


Positioning is a key to success in sales. Determining where you are currently, deciding where you want to be and then planning on how to get there is a strategic evaluation process that you must learn to master if you wish to stay ahead of the game in today’s fast-paced and high demand business environment.  

Understanding how to create, manage and maintain an effective KAP, for each of your target customers and future prospects, is the first stage in assisting you to establish a rewarding, more effective sales process.  

You first need to review your list of existing customers and current prospects and then create a database with an individual sales objective for each of your target accounts.  

Once you have drafted a sales objective statement for one of your target accounts, it is important that you check how you, others within the sales team and key stakeholders within your business, feel about this specific sales goal, prior to it being placed into this particular customer’s KAP. However, regardless of whether you have considered a number of alternative options, it is important to also appreciate that your initial sales objective statement really only represents your company’s preferred option which has yet to be tested during upcoming meetings and discussions with your customer’s buyers. 


Spending the time you have available with the right customers (ie those who will give you the greatest return on your time and investment) obviously makes a lot of sense. This requires a combination of territory design and account prioritisation.  

Territory design is used here in a broader sense than just the geographic one. It is very closely aligned with the concept of client segmentation but the approach you adopt from a sales point of view will frequently depend upon whatever you perceive to be the most significant differences between your customers, eg: 

  • If customers are generally localitybased, within specific regions, then establishing geographically-based territories may be the most appropriate sales management structure –  depending upon the required call frequency. This is also the case when prospecting or lead generation requires a strong local networking presence.  
  • Where there are significant differences between the needs of customers within different industries, and the salespeople are expected to have skills and/or experience matched to those industries, it frequently makes sense to use vertical market-based territories.  
  • If your customers require personalised support or service different to that expected in the above models and depending upon the size of their account, then the best approach may be to allocate territories based on account size (or the complexity of the sale proposal).  

 Of course, in many companies, there may be a need for a multi-dimensional approach (Figure 2) to territory design, as shown below:  

Figure 2. The multi-dimensional approach to territory design.

Prior to the allocation of a particular type of sales territory to any given salesperson, the choice should satisfy several criteria:   

  • The territory should match the knowledge, skills and personality type of the salesperson involved 
  • It should provide a fair level of potential business so that each salesperson is able to make a living as well as to ensure that no territories go under-served 
  • It should be designed with reasonable travel demands or acceptable ease of access.  
  • Taken together, it is obvious that whichever territory structure(s) you select you will need to cover your whole target market, or you may even need to reappraise your overall resourcing levels and review profitability.  

 Even with a perfect territory design, however, each salesperson will still need to prioritise their activities by account. The old 80/20 rule (Figure 3) often applies – 80 per cent of your revenue will come from 20 per cent of your clients. So, it is critical that salespeople don’t waste their time on deals that won’t deliver. 

Figure 3. The 80/20 effect.


The management of a KAP requires you to determine who the people are within your customer’s company, who will influence the buying decision and/or have an ability to impact (either positively or negatively) upon the outcome of your sale objective 

There is usually more than one person who has to give a recommendation, technical input, user evaluation or their approval before the sale can proceed.  

An inability to identify the people involved in a customer’s decision-making process, the role they will/do play, and their personal and/or professional motivation is one of the major reasons why salespeople lose deals. It is critical that you, as a salesperson, identify all the players, understand their roles and the influence that they have on the buying decision. We will call these people buyers. 

The Organigram (Figure 4) outlines four types of buyer: 

  1. Economic decision-maker (with a large dollar value and/or complex sales there may be an additional buyer in the equation, The Ultimate Decision-maker, eg a board of directors). 
  2. End users. 
  3. Technical decision-makers. 
  4. Advocates. 
Figure 4. A customer organigram outlines the types of buyers.

The economic decision-maker is the person who actually signs off on the deal. This person often doesn’t get involved in the detailed evaluation process but invariably they will want to know whether your product, service or solution will be good for the company’s bottom line. Even if everyone else is keen on the deal, this person has the final veto and can say “Yes” or “No”. There may be an ultimate decision-maker, especially when very large dollars are involved, or the impact of the purchasing decision is complex or high risk.  

The end user is the person (or people) who will actually use (or benefit from) the product, service or solution that you are selling. There are frequently multiples of this character and, while they don’t sign off on the deal, they each will have an opinion about your offering. Whether they will use or supervise the use of your product or service, each end user will make judgements about the potential impact on their job or work-related performance. This means that their personal success is directly tied to the success of your solution. 

There can also be multiples of the technical decision-maker. This person (or persons) is used as the “filter” and frequently will attempt to test out the quality, perceived value and/or validity of your solution or simply to screen out salespeople on technicalities. Their focus is on the product, service or solution and determining how well it meets specifications and to check that it meets with industry and/or company standards. While this person (or persons) cannot give a final “Yes”, they can certainly recommend a final “No” 

An advocate is the person who can or does lead you to other buyers who you cannot reach without their guidance or support. In fact, you may not even be aware of these additional buyers’ existence. An advocate can and/or will provide you with information that would be difficult to obtain, such as advising on the evaluation process that was used in the past for similar projects that received approval. They can identify difficult and/or challenging individuals and advise on the importance or relevance of the project to their company’s bottom line or strategic direction. They understand who will be impacted by your solution, what the current or potential business issues are that need to be addressed, what language you need to avoid and what not to say. An advocate is the person who wants you to make the sale and therefore will guide you to the best of their ability and role placement.  

There are some key points and learning experiences:  

  • It is critical that you identify and qualify all the people involved in influencing the buying decision and appreciate how they fit into one of the four buyer roles. An inability to recognise this important aspect of managing a Key Account, and implement appropriate actions, is the most frequent cause for losing a sale. In any event, it is likely to slow down the sales process or impact upon the determination of the overall viability of this particular business opportunity.  
  • It is critical that you have to meet with all the buyers when the dollar value of the sale is large, the project is complex, or your customer perceives a high risk associated with “failure” due to the purchasing decision. The bigger the cost of the transaction, the deeper the relationship you must have with the buyers in order to position yourself and/or your company for the win. The “you” refers to yourself, as the key account manager, one of your teammates or a senior member of the management team; obviously, this becomes more critical when the sale’s value is high, and the solution is complex.  
  • It is important to match people from within your management team with those in your customer’s business in relation to their management seniority and/or authority level. Obviously, the larger the transactional value, complexity or risk, the more senior you should map your management team with theirs.  


The economic decision-maker is the person who gives final approval to buy your product, service or solution. The role of this buyer is to release the funds to buy. This buyer is critical to the sale. The focus for them is not price but price performance. There is normally only one economic decision-maker per sale, apart from a few exceptions when an ultimate economic decision-makermay be the key player (this role may be played by a board, a selection committee or another body acting as a single entity. However, even in these bodies, there is someone who is more equal than the others).  

How to find the economic decision-maker 

  • When the dollar value of the sale is larger than “normal”, the further up the economic decision-maker will be within your customer’s organisation.  
  • Purchasing authority levels are tightened when the economic climate is tight, so the person usually making this decision will probably have to seek approval higher up the client’s organisation. 
  • Past operational experience with you and your company may allow the decision to be made at a lower level – especially when you already have a successful track record” 
  • Although the decision may be made at a lower level, there are two key points to keep in mind:  
  • The greater the risk and/or lack of past operational experience, the higher up the decision will be made 
  • The more experience that your customer has had with your product or service (even when it has been well received), the more they may feel obliged to ask some competitors to bid (in order to test out alternative solutions or to exert some pricing pressure on you).  


The end users make judgements about the impact of the product, service or solution on their jobs. On their jobs” is the key phrase – they are concerned about everyday operations.  

The end users will ask you about the reliability of the product, service or solution. They will often look for a demonstration, an inspection of a similar project or an opportunity to discuss concerns with a number of referees. They will frequently review ease of operation, maintenance and spares availability or similar inquiries. They will want to understand how it works or what changes your solution will make to their department and what impact it may have on safety, maintenance and staff morale.  

An office-bound manager or others within the department may play the role of end user. However, there will always be at least one person who will play this role and, since the end users will live with your solution, and their daily success is linked to it, they are a key to the success of your sales offering. 


The technical decision-makers are frequently detail-focused, questioning and sometimes they may appear difficult to deal with. However, they want to ensure that your solution meets the specifications and standards that the company requires. They are usually aware of the purchasing limits, budgeting constraints, technical compliance, technical specifications and, of course, legal or contractual terms or other metrics, measures and criteria of the project or buying decision.  

The technical decision-maker may come from purchasing, legal, finance, IT, production or other areas of the business, with the term “technical” referring to their professional or specialist expertise.  

People playing the role of the technical decision-maker are usually harder to identify than those in other buyer roles. One reason for this difficulty is that a customer or prospect may use a consultant or outside agency to act as their technical decision-maker. If this person or company doesn’t want you or your solution, they can easily use standards or specifications to frustrate your efforts or, in the worst case, to block your entire sale.  

An economic decision-maker may give the technical decision-maker semi-final authority by saying you decide how this will work and what we should do”, resulting in that person acting as though they are the person with the final buying authority when obviously they are not.  


Information and/or feedback from your advocate(s) is a key to any sale. You must develop at least one advocate (although it is usual to have a number of them, whenever possible) who can provide you with insight and guidance to the inner workings of your customer’s business, especially as that may relate to your sales objective 

An advocate can:  

  • Clarify and validate your sales objective.  
  • Identify and/or assist you to meet the people who are filling the other buyer roles. 
  • Assess the situation so that you are most effectively positioned with each of those people.  

What an advocate cannot do is guarantee you will get the order.  

You must be prepared to discuss and/or expand on your offering with all your buyers, as and when appropriate, not just selecting to sell only to the people you know or with whom you feel comfortable.  

The best advocates are:  

  • Those working for your client or prospect.  
  • Someone who is credible and knows the client organisation.  
  • In terms of credibility, if you can turn your economic decision-maker into your advocate, then you have the best solution.  
  • Someone who appreciates, or people who want, your solution.  

 Advocates also frequently exist within your own company or industry networks or other suppliers.  

The first three buyer roles exist whereas advocates needs to be developed.  


Write down the names of the people in each role – but small enough to allow you to add further information about each buyer as you gain clarity about their role and influence. The wrong way to do this is to simply list all the people you are calling on and fit them into the four boxes. Do not forcefit contacts into these roles, eg: 

Table 3. A buyers’ chart.

In a future article, we will review the next steps in the KAP process. This will include identifying the strengths and weaknesses of buyers, developing a SWOT analysis, and understanding the concept of “stop signs” in the evaluation process.  

Mike Cameron is an IQA member and the principal of Strategically Yours. Visit strategically.com.au 

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