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Better Key-Account Relationships

Four tips for key-account salespeople ...and one for their customers!

Tuesday 07 November 2017


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Executive education, focuses on numerous topics, the most prominent being: finance, marketing, strategy, innovation, the digital environment, leadership, etc.

However, whatever the strength and beauty of a given business model or strategy, all that is just an exercise in style if a company isn’t dealing seriously enough with the business activity that drives and fuels its whole value chain: sales to its customers. Every day, particularly within the custom programs offered at HEC, we put a great deal of emphasis on sales - after all, the ‘C’ in our name stands for ‘Commercial,’ and in French that also means salesperson! 

In my presentations to groups of key account salespeople, I've tried to outline some tips that might be useful to them in their approach, particularly in the current environment where changes (some might even say total disruptions) follow one another at a breakneck pace. Here is a summary of the top four:


The salesperson is often thought of as someone with an outgoing personality, who loves to talk and talks a lot. But the morphology of the word itself should encourage them to use their ears more than their mouths. Listening to a customer means nourishing his thinking, forming it, giving it a structure that will provide support for your offer and help you make that offer more accurately. When your customer talks, explains things, or even (especially!) complains - they're providing you with raw material, which you need to incorporate as smoothly as possible into your offer, whether it's for a service, product or solution. The actual sales arguments will come later, when we have to show that we've understood what our customer wants, and that our offer corresponds to it.


In the technology sector, or other areas, many Salespeople can gain an expert knowledge of customer strategies in regard to their particular fields of operation (IT, services, supply chain, etc.), but only few are able to decipher their clients' broader business strategy. In HEC Paris' customized programs, we focus on this issue because it is of core importance, particularly for the management of key account relationships. An offer that doesn't fit the strategy won't contribute to the client's business value chain and is unlikely to stand out; it will be lost in the tangled mass of similar offers, where price wars are waged.

As an example, in the past my team was awarded a tough project, offering a solution that fit with a client's international strategy, allowing it to engage with or withdraw from a given geographic market with a lot of flexibility. This very strategic criterion was far removed from the technical criteria for the commercially available solutions (a telecom network), and no price war was waged!


No two customers are alike, and even for one customer the current situation may be very different from the situation in 6 months' time. That's the rule today: environments are changing on an accelerated basis, so key-account salespeople need to continuously reinvent themselves. It's tough, because the ‘old’ selling methods don't work anymore; globalization, digitalization, and the new regulations have left their mark! So salespersons need to be constantly aware, alert, attentive, and capable of challenging themselves and adapting.

On this subject, I recommend that you read over the excellent article written by Dominique Rouziès, a professor at HEC: ( )


Here, in some ways, we are getting close to an understanding of strategy, but with a finer reach. Use, to use a term favored by Clayton Christensen of Harvard, is not limited to what the customer is going to do with the offer. Use includes the offer, but also has to be seen as embracing all the side issues related to it as well: how billing is conducted, what information accompanies the delivery process, what services the call centre will deliver, and with what degree of intimacy with the customer. These side issues are often not so visible, but they can be crucial and can really make a difference. It should be noted that the closer an offer is to being a ‘commodity,’ the more important these peripheral elements become.

What's really going to ‘make’ our offer is only one part of the whole solution, and the sales process needs to incorporate it and highlight its value.


All too often, the relationship between a customer and a salesperson ends up looking like a confrontation. There is certainly a tension that is established, often proportionate to what is at stake, or the personalities involved.

But the ‘customer’ side of the engagement should always keep in mind that the salesperson they are dealing with is their best advocate within the ‘supplier’ company. They're the ones who will make an effort to get them the best prices and the best service; they're the ones who will be working to ensure their clients' satisfaction, or who will set adjustments in motion to bring about that satisfaction. And the more strategic a product is for the company, the more important the role of the salesperson becomes.

Here's a quote from one of my former key clients: “The best way for me to get the best service is to be my supplier's best customer.” He wasn't talking about business volume, or about vulnerability in negotiations - he was talking about the trust established between his company and its strategic suppliers.

And I can assure you - he was my best customer as well!

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