We’ve all heard of key account management and client care… it’s a bit like cross selling… one of those holy grails of legal marketing and business development that firms agonise over and try to perfect (often at huge expense). But what’s it all about? Over the next few articles we’re going to be taking a look at the discipline – answering questions, debunking the myths and putting a whole lot of theory into plain English. By the end of the process, whether part of a large firm or small, you should be brimming over with ideas on how you can get it right.

What exactly is key account management?

A wise man once said that lawyers don’t sell the law, they sell relationships. It’s true. By virtue of the fact that your firm has a sparkly office in various locations and a decent size team of people with letters after their names, most clients assume that you know the law. Rightly or wrongly. But when they’re deciding whether to bring you their work or not it doesn’t come down to expertise so much as whether they like your approach, relate to your brand culture and want to work with your people. You’re not selling the law – you’re selling relationships. And that’s where key account management (or KAM) comes in. It’s about developing relationships with existing clients – making sure that your most important relationships are looked after, nurtured and expanded. This can mean extending the range of services you provide to that client, adding value in different ways, working with them on referral programmes or even reviewing your profitability.

But you’ve been doing this for years, right? Why does it need a fancy title? 

KAM isn’t about putting a fancy title onto it or, for that matter, presenting an excuse to invest in a whole team of professionals to deliver it (although you may need them eventually, if you’re to do it right). KAM is about recognising that your existing client base is your most valuable marketing and business development tool. In most cases, if you do nothing more than working on your KAM then you’ll still achieve greater revenue growth than you’re currently managing year on year, through new business prospecting. KAM is all about putting a logical, practical structure onto this relationship building process. It’s about having clear objectives and plans to follow. Once you have the structure it makes it easier to know what you’re doing, what’s working (and not), get a good return on your time investment and ensure success.

I’m sure you’re thinking that you’re actually doing ok at it? 

We were talking to a very experienced consultant on KAM and client care the other day and we asked him the question “When should you do KAM rather than new business prospecting”? His response really made us sit up and think. He said: “In my opinion, only if you can answer ‘yes’ to the following questions should you even consider doing new business prospecting before KAM… 1) Is your current client relationship so strong you’re guaranteed recurring work, 2) Is your communication to current clients so strong and wide that you know you will automatically be included in cross-selling conversations, 3) Have you already identified all opportunities with that client and set out a clear plan to follow, 4) Have you proactively examined every possible area in which you could sell products or services to that client”. Not many firms can, in honesty, say yes to them all… for all clients… and yet you’re probably spending loads of money on marketing to new prospects and very little time on a methodical structure for nurturing existing relationships.

Ok, so where do you start?

Like taking on a new legal client, the best place to start often lies in doing an audit or health check of your firm’s current client base and practices. You need to understand what you’re currently doing, how you’re doing it, what’s working, what you want to achieve… but you also need to learn about any disconnects between how you view yourselves and how your clients view you, what equates to ‘value’ for them (versus what you’re offering), how effectively you’re communicating and the structure you have for all of this, as well as methods for reporting and effecting change.

How do you select the key clients for this?

In short it comes down to setting out clear criteria that work for you. These may well be around their capacity for income volume, their size and complexity as well as how many areas of your firm they do (and could) use. However, it also comes down to your commercial and strategic objectives. How do they relate to the direction you have agreed to go in, as a firm? We’ll go into this in detail in the next article so keep on following.

And once you have all this information, then what? 

Once you understand your starting place and have selected (methodically and dispassionately) your key client accounts, then it’s time to build a clear structure for developing those relationships. This will be our subject for article three. The golden rule is keep it simple. You don’t need whizzy database systems to get things right. Work out a plan. What can you realistically manage? What needs to be tackled internally first? How are you going to communicate? What are your objectives? And the supporting action points? Who will do what? By when? How will you measure progress?

What about the internal nay-sayers?

We never said it was going to be easy. First, some lawyers can be a little bit territorial about the concept of anyone other than them talking to clients. Second, successful KAM requires you to have firm-wide shared vision, goals as well as objectives… and that’s before we talk about the ways the team needs to be structured. We’ll talk about this later in this series.

Watch out for our second article in this series, talking about selecting key clients.