11 ways to screw up key account relationships


A key part of the Glass Halo approach to B2B marketing is the development of long term relationships with individuals and organisations who make the gradual transformation from prospects, to customers, clients and then ambassadors.

Most B2B organisations will have a limited number of clients at the upper end of this continuum, sometimes representing as much as 80% of their business. It takes a great deal of hard work to nurture relationships to this level, yet it can be depressingly easy to harm them irreparably.

So if you fancy the adrenaline rush of seeing business going down the toilet, here are 11 ways to screw up your best business relationships.

  1. Breaking trust – All relationships are based on trust and once that is compromised it becomes very difficult to sustain the same level of relationship in the future. And a breach of trust does not have to be immense in order to have an impact. Promising a document for Tuesday and delivering it on Friday may or may not be disastrous, but do it enough times…
  2. Changing key account manager – People like to deal with people they like. If you change a contact’s key account manager at a crucial time you will be taking a risk. If the client’s loyalty is to the individual rather than your company, they may take this as an opportunity to reduce their commitment to you.
  3. Not changing key account manager – Equally an unskilled, poorly matched or undiplomatic key account manager will cause great damage to your reputation. Address any concerns immediately.
  4. Poor communications – Even with a well-liked key account manager in place, communications breakdowns can happen. A delayed delivery may be forgivable. A delayed delivery that comes as a surprise is not.
  5. A drop in quality – Over time, it is possible that quality standards will slip. Perhaps the promised monthly reports only happen once every two months or the materials are no longer spellchecked before they are sent across. This kind of thing is all to easy to miss at the supplier end but will have an impact on the client’s perception.
  6. Complacency – Similar to the above, but also a distinct factor in itself, taking the relationship for granted is a formula for a spectacular fall out, as many divorcees will already know. It’s easy to do in a long-term relationship, so look for ways to refresh those vows.
  7. Culture clashes – Organisational cultures (and key account manager’s interpretation of them) are influential on the healthiness of a relationship. Organisations with wildly different cultures are unlikely to thrive in partnership. And a change in leadership can create changes in culture.
  8. New objectives or financial difficulties – Some things will be beyond your control and if a client chooses to purse new objectives or finds itself in embarrassing financial straights the most realistic response might be to put the relationship on hiatus. However, it is much more powerful to be able to anticipate to such circumstances and consider whether your proposition can be adapted to accommodate it.
  9. Over-reliance on one key contact – It’s all very well having a great relationship with the HR Director, but too many firms rely on that relationship alone. So when that individual moves on, the relationship with the organisation is lost. Smarter firms build relationships with a number of people, securing the long term relationship and offering the additional benefit that as each person moves on they offer the potential of an introduction into a new organisation.

Organisations that do this really well tend to organise one-on-one matching so that the CEOs meet with each other, IT Directors are paired up and so on.

How strong is your relationship?

Building on a checklist first developed by Malcolm McDonald (the marketer rather than the football player) here’s a quick checklist to consider for each of your key relationships:

  1. If we ended the relationship the consequences for both organisations would be painful
  2. We work together on long term plans for the partnership and the client’s business
  3. We share information and access that is not shared with most partners
  4. Communication is positive, fluid and happens at all levels
  5. Individuals like and respect each other – and may even meet socially
  6. Both sides experience cost savings or efficiency improvements from the relationship
  7. Price is not a big issue for this client
  8. The client is willing to provide testimonials, case studies and referrals.







As an aside, isn’t it time we came up with better language in marketing. Talking about “Accounts” when we mean clients, or “Above the Line” and “Below the Line” is the language of accountants and suggests a discipline that sees clients as profit centres rather than partners. We have to change this way of thinking. The only reason I include it here is for any potential SEO benefit.