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Podcast: Keeping key customers close through uncertain times

By Dr. Sue Holt

Ask the expert podcast series

In this ever changing landscape, how do we navigate customer relationships to ensure we both end up stronger when things settle back into the new normal? Using research from the past recession and insights on our new reality, Sue Holt is invited to share her thoughts on keeping key customers close through uncertain times.

Listen now: 16 mins 


About the Expert

Dr Sue Holt is involved in lecturing, research and consultancy in a number of key areas of marketing. Her main interests lie in the fields of global and key account management, customer relationship marketing and business-to-business marketing and she has worked with many different organisations in these areas. Prior to working with Cranfield, Sue pursued a wide ranging management career in both the public and private sectors, including working for the Prime Minister at 10 Downing Street and for the Speaker in the House of Commons. Sue has published academic and practitioner articles on key account management and creating customer value and is currently the Director of Cranfield's flagship Open Programme on Key Account Management. 


Podcast transcript

VY -Today on Ask the Expert we'll be speaking with Dr. Sue Holt, visiting fellow and Programme Director for Key Account Management Best Practice Programme at Cranfield School of Management. My name is Vanessa Young, executive development advisor at the School of Management. Sue, thank you for being with us today. How are you? And where are you?  

SH - Hi, Vanessa. I'm fine, yes I'm here at home in my little village called Bronston, which is right by the canal in the middle of Northamptonshire, and I'm here in my dining room, recording this, but I'm fit and well, so that's the main thing. 

VY - I'm happy to hear that Sue. So as you know, we're here today to talk about what to do in these uncertain times with our key customers. 

SH - Yes, so well, the interesting thing Vanessa is when so when we did some research, following the crash in 2008, we found that with KAM in particular what you needed to do was all that you would normally do, but bigger and better. However, this crisis is presenting more diverse and different challenges. Because we could find ourselves in a number of situations, for example, the customer stopped working, we have stopped working, the customer doesn't need what we normally supply at the moment because of the situation that they're in. And also, of course, we are automatically very remote from our customer, in terms of the fact that we can't meet face to face which many key account managers you know meetings with customers are face to face at this level. So dealing with this kind of situation represents far more challenges in many ways than in 2008. 

VY - Right? Those are a lot of challenges key account managers could be facing, and in terms of keeping customers close to you and keeping them up to date. What are some examples that you've seen? Or worked in the past that you could perhaps speak to? 

SH - Oh, okay, Vanessa. So the title of this is keeping key customers close through uncertain times. So what I thought I'd do is the, the capital letters of each of those words are K.K.C.C.T.U.T.  So I thought I would take each of those, and, and deal with those in in turn. So the first one that I'd like to sort of mention is about the first K. And this is about Knowledge about the customer. So it's even more important than normally, that we keep up to date with understanding what the challenges and opportunities are, that are facing your key account in their environment. You know, good key account managers always are scanning the environment, they're looking at the Pestel Factors impacting the customer. And we need to do that even more diligently during this situation. So how is the situation impacting them? How are they actually responding? What are they doing?  How can we help them with some of these challenges? And even possibly opportunities depending on the situation that they're in? And maybe not just commercially. Often we're thinking about the commercial relationships we have with the customer. But are there any other ways we can facilitate helping them dealing with these challenges? 

VY - Yes, you're right. We've had a lot of requests come through which revolve around keeping our customers close. People feel a bit displaced at the moment and they're not certain how to handle these new challenges. So I completely agree. It's about being there and taking the time to know a little bit more about the current situation and what challenges they could be facing now, not just what historically they would have had to have dealt with. 

SH - So the next K I'd like to raise is as well as understanding the customer's situation. We also really need to know exactly what's happening with our organisation as well. And so make sure that we are on top of our challenges and opportunities, and that we might have in this current situation, and how might what we're going through going to impact the customer, and where might impact the customer in the future, because sometimes, you know, it's it might not be impacting them now, but actually, if the situation continues, it could impact at some point. So what is the best way to manage the customers’ expectations? How do we do that in a sensitive, sensitive way as well? So, you know, we might be in a situation where we can't we suddenly find ourselves unable to deliver what we were delivering to the customer because of the impact it's having on us. So this is where it's very different in a way to 2008. So that's, we need to make sure that we're on top of as well everything that's impacting us. 

VY - Yes, agree. And it's very much about them, about the honesty in the situation, isn't it? Let them know that everybody's going through challenging times at the moment. It's our customers. It's ourselves, and as long as we're honest with that situation and let them know, we're trying to help as much as we can, it goes a long way. 

SH - Absolutely, definitely. I totally agree. Totally agree. So, the, the next C, so that then we move on to the C. So done KK, first C is for communication. I mean, this goes without saying, obviously, you know, this is absolute pure common sense. But what is the best way to communicate with the customer? Perhaps it's easy for us to schedule in some regular meetings, if they're also working from home and they're, you know, we can we can access them, you know, using any of the meeting platforms that are available, obviously, if we can get a sort of face to face using some of the systems like Zoom, and, but equally, you know, phone and email is equally as valid. And important thing is to really try to identify what would your customer prefer, so, accept as well, that they might not want to be contacted in person at this time, time, you know, maybe they've got lots of things going on. But they might be open and say, Yeah, I just love to have emails that are keeping me in the loop. And I'm checking those from time to time. So we do it that way. So what's best for your customer? The other thing we've got to think about is how best to communicate internally. So we know that a lot of the success around managing our key customers relies on how good our internal interfaces are, particularly those people were reliant on as a key account manager for delivering for the customer. So the important thing is, as well as how do we keep our KAM team together, when again, we're not located in the same place like maybe we were before. And we're all kind of having to deal remotely as well. So how do we make sure that as a leader of that key account team that we're really reliant on with the customer? How do we keep them together as well and motivated? 

VY - Yeah, it's at the end of the day, the customer is very much looking for somebody to help them to help lead in this uncertain time. So internally, it's sort of getting your ducks in a row first, making sure that you've got all the communication in the right order in the right way before you go to your customers so that you don't add complexity to an already complex situation for them. So I absolutely agree with that. And also making sure that I think it was quite key where you'd mentioned that you understand the best way to communicate with them. Because while a lot of people are using Zoom and these sorts of things, it's great to see a face, it's sometimes it might interfere in a time when they're not ready for that Zoom call, or they might feel a bit uncomfortable using technology. It's meeting them in their space. 

SH - Absolutely. So that that really leads nicely onto the next one, which is C is for considerate. So it's about being considerate and sensitive to the customer's personal situation as well. And this could be really, really difficult, because we don't always know what that is, of course, you know, we could contact them. And they were in the middle of some kind of crisis, it could be something, you know, and that we just don't know what they're trying to deal with. And particularly being sensitive to the fact that non response to emails and requests for meetings may be a sign that they are struggling personally, they might have something going on in the family, they might have sick parents, they might just don't know. So we have to be very sensitive to that. And really try to avoid the temptation to over communicate, is that the sort of reaction when you don't get the response to send yet another email? And it might just be that actually that's the worst thing to do, so try to avoid over communicating because equally could cause stress on the customer. And some customers will be going through probably some significant business turmoil. For instance, some of them might be saying, well, am I actually going to survive this? Over the next few months? And also, obviously, personal turmoil? So just being sensitive, sometimes we forget that customers are also human beings. And it's just good to put ourselves in their shoes a think, Oh, gosh, you know, maybe they're trying to deal with all kinds of things that I'm not aware of. And I need to be sensitive to that situation.  

VY - yes absolutely. That's a good point. It should go without saying, but often times, as salespeople, we might think to ourselves, is there anything? Is there something bigger going on? If I didn't receive an email response immediately, we may feel concerned about that or anxious. But as you mentioned, there might not be anything going on but rather, customers might be in situations that are quite difficult at the time. And you're right. It's for us to be very considerate of this and inclusive in that consideration, making sure that we're open to slightly longer lead times and response than perhaps would normally be expected. 

SH - Yes, I think that's a really, really good point, Vanessa, that last point is really good that we need to remember that perhaps we need to leave a little bit of a longer time, because everything that people are dealing with. So then I said T is for talking, or for not talking actually about business, but talking about how we can work together through the current challenges, you know, so looking at how can we perhaps support each other, maybe try to share our difficulties, you know, look to the future if we can try to talk about when we get out of this and what how can we support each other through this, and looking for ways that we can help them that maybe isn't about business issues, but maybe it's a bit of training we can maybe do over the internet with their people, anything like that, that can just keep us together. It's also helpful it’s keeping their team together as well. So perhaps then suggest a joint gets together via WebEx with people from the customer team, because usually there are a team there, particularly with our most importantly accounts, people from our team. Okay, where focus on how can we work together through this, rather than really commercial discussions? You know? Yes, at points, we'll have to have commercial discussions, but also, how can we, you know, really help each other. 

VY - Yeah. And I agree, it's often that personal side that will build those bonds that may help in the future. It's very much about listening and it's talking, it's listening. It's making sure that we're understanding the person's situation, and trying to step away from the uncertainty that's happening. Sometimes I think that people do need that. And if, if their home life is having a bit of a moment where things are a little bit hectic, if they're having to deal with teaching kids at home, if they have little ones or any of those sorts of things, having an adult conversation with your key account manager that you've dealt with previously. Sometimes you just need that escape from the stress of home, and it's just lovely to speak to someone on that human level. 

SH - Yeah definitely. So that leads again, nicely onto U is unresponsive, and basically, you know, obviously most key account managers will always avoid this at all costs, because we might be going through something, that means we don't quite get on to things straight away, that if we can try and avoid it, we can try and be really responsive and make sure that whatever promises we're making, to the customer actions and followed through. Now, this might be quite challenging, because also our organisation, you know, might be having issues. And so we might have some of our key people in the team are off work, either self-isolating, or not very well. And we might not have, we might be working from home so we don't have the same access to all our information systems, and systems that we might need to look at to get information for the customer. So you know, we might have a lot of challenges as well. So it's not that we necessarily are going to be unresponsive, but we need to be responsive in the way of keeping the customer fully informed. Hold their hands up saying you know, at the moment, that's great. Very difficult to get this information and, and just try to make sure that any negative issues that you know that we are open, honest and just tell them, you know, this is a situation, because the one thing we want to maintain through all of this because generally with our most important key accounts, if we've had them for some time, there's a massive amount of trust there. And we must keep that trust going because that's what that's what makes the relationship what it is. 

VY - Yes, that's so important. 

SH - And finally, we've got T is for time. So the final T and so, the time will come hopefully when some sort of normality starts to emerge. So, just utilise all the means you have to maintain the relationship through the current situation, particularly if the circumstances are such that situation has made business between you difficult or in some cases, possibly non-existent. And all you can do if you've got some of these really, really challenging situations is just try to maintain the relationship, obviously as sensitively and supportively as you can. Because we will come out of this, at some point, we've got to come out of this. And we want to make sure that when we do, even if the relationship has had to suffer, hardship from, from maybe no business at all, during, this particular situation, hopefully, you know, there's still be a Key Accounts. And we'll start to, to work together again, you know, as we did in the past, so maybe just maybe, as well, put a date in the diary, you know, for a get together, you know, in the future, when a situation allows you. And even if you have to keep moving it, at least you've got some kind of focus in the future where you can absolutely get together. 

VY - I love that it keeps us hopeful. It keeps us moving forward. 

SH - So finally, really what I want to say is, you know, this is this is just some ideas. It's not rocket science, a lot of its just applied common sense. Sometimes it's just is helpful to have a reminder of some of the things we might do. And obviously, this isn't exhaustive. And also, we haven't had time to go and ask actual organisations, how are they doing this? Which, as researchers, we would normally we'd normally do. But hopefully, there's some sort of reminders and pointers as to how we can, you know, as we say, keep our key customers close through uncertain times. So all I would say is, you know, K.K.C.C.T.U.T.  

VY - That's really great. I think this is the information that is so important to know now. And when we return, this is the kind of knowledge that will be the key to ensure that businesses get back on their feet as quickly as possible. 

SH - Yeah. So in trying times, actually, you do more to keep your customers close to you than in normal times. We know that from the research in 2008. And I think even more so with this, the situation we find ourselves in now it's going to be even more important that we focus on our key customers.  

VY - Thank you. For that Sue, the key message is so important. Keep your customers close in uncertain times. Thank you for your insights. I think it's clear that we'll be able to apply these time and time again when we find ourselves in challenging circumstances. Thank you so much Sue for your time, and we'll speak with you soon.  

SH - Thank you Vanessa it's been a pleasure. 

Tags: SME Businesses, executive development, key account management, KAM, coronavirus, covid-19, Communication and Personal Presence, Podcast, new reality