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Over the years many clients have told us the same thing: we struggle to move away from a transactional relationship with our key accounts. We end up bidding for projects, competing on price, struggling to differentiate.

We would love to be seen as true partners, trusted and consulted as part of a deeper relationship. This is how we can be more certain of retaining and growing those critical accounts and doing the same with others that are currently not as significant as they might be.

The challenge is this: our people aren’t well equipped to build these more strategic relationships. Either it’s because they are technical experts who are uncomfortable in a discussion broader than their area of expertise (such as a professional expert or a technology leader) or because they are driven by short term numbers and behave like salespeople. Or both.

Everyone wants to do the same: be more focused on the business outcomes of the client. But the reality is these behaviours can be a huge barrier.

The two key dimensions to trust

Hitting the numbers is critical. Technical expertise is vital. Front line support helps, and big firms have advanced and sophisticated sales methodologies and systems that provide the very best there is (the take-up isn’t always what it is meant to be but that’s another story).

So what’s standing in the way of this deeper, trusted relationship? We believe the key to this is to look at the two key dimensions of professional trust: capability and character (Stephen Covey set this out in his book ‘the Speed of Trust’).

Most firms and most bids focus on the former – the competence, skills and capabilities on offer, matched to the needs of the client.

However, lots of research shows it’s the latter that makes the difference in appointing a company and deepening the relationship. Particularly in markets where the actual service is not highly differentiated, it’s the dimension of character that makes the difference.

Put another way, it’s the ‘why’ and ‘how’ as well as the ‘what’. It’s the culture and approach, the way the team works together, as well as the specifics of the solution.

If properly articulated and well defined, this is the Strategic Narrative of the way the firm approaches key accounts, and the way this manifests itself is the actual behaviour of the key account leaders.

No to selling, yes to being highly commercial

This behaviour is driven by the belief systems of the key account teams. At the centre of this belief system is the intent with which they approach client accounts. A winning intent leads to a changed relationship because the focus is genuinely on the needs of the client. It also results in grown up conversations about budget, resources and the real costs of getting it right.

Sounds simple. Kevin (one of the authors) spent 5 years developing, leading and delivering a programme that addressed this belief system in one of the world’s biggest professional service firms. It put tens of millions on the bottom line in terms of additional revenue and margin, but also changed the way those working directly with clients viewed their task and the way they went about it.

It made clients happier and account leaders much more satisfied.

Stuart (one of the authors) has worked with firms and their clients to co-create narratives of the future – a joint vision and purpose – that means it’s clear that firms are there to engage with clients in a much more open, adult-to-adult way with much clearer commercial conversations.

No-one really wants to sell, but everyone needs to be commercial. How do you bridge that gap?

We have now developed a programme that does exactly that. We call it Transformational Account Leadership, and it combines Kevin’s long experience in commercial leadership development with Stuart’s in transforming the positioning narrative of individuals and their organisations.

It begins with a diagnostic workshop that identifies the challenges firms face and a specific financial benefit if they were addressed. If it makes financial and strategic sense, this can be followed by a training and coaching programme directly with those who deal daily with clients.

This changes their intent and therefore their behaviours by challenging their assumptions. It gives them a much stronger story to believe and to tell. Therefore, it changes the nature of engagement with critical clients. That enables bigger conversations to take place, and a real sense that your firm is on their side.

If this seems to address an issue you face, then let us know. In almost every B2B firm we know, the 80/20 rule applies when it comes to profitability and sometimes revenues. In many cases the balance is even worse – relatively few major accounts are responsible for the vast bulk of a firm’s profits. There are two challenges here: strengthening the 20% and deepening relationships within the best of the 80% to change this ratio.

We believe we have the secret sauce to help make this happen. Talk to us to find out more.