Firms manage numerous inter-organizational relationships. Key account management (KAM) is a concept used to manage a specific subset of these relationships, i.e. a supplier firm's relationships with strategically important customers. Scholars have studied different elements of KAM such as actors, resources, or relationships. Surprisingly few studies discuss the link between KAM and competitive advantage. By adopting a capability perspective on KAM, we seek to develop a theoretical basis to better explain its performance-implications. The capability perspective is compatible with extant approaches and complements them with new arguments concerning the value that a KAM system has in competition. The purpose of our article is to develop a conceptual model of a supplier firm's KAM capability and to indicate avenues for future research.
Firms usually need to handle multiple inter-organizational relationships with value creation partners, such as suppliers, alliance partners, R & D partners, or customers (Morgan & Hunt, 1994; Ring & Van de Ven, 1994). Key account management (KAM) refers to the management of a specific subset of these inter-organizational relationships, i.e. relationships with those customers of the firm who have the highest level of strategic importance for the firm's long-term performance (Ivens & Pardo, 2007; Pardo, Ivens, & Wilson, 2014). While these relationships represent a small number of all the relationships of the firm's relationship portfolio, they typically contribute a substantial proportion to the firm's revenue and profit. KAM has been a topic of academic research for over thirty years (Guesalaga & Johnston, 2010; Ivens & Pardo, 2015). Conceptual discussions as well as empirical research have focused on a variety of aspects related to KAM. For example, prior work has examined various dimensions of KAM (Gounaris & Tzemeplikos, 2014; Guesalaga, 2014), actors such as the individual key account (KA) manager or KAM teams (Atasanova & Senn, 2011; Speakman & Ryals, 2012), and the organizational implementation of KAM in structural dimensions, in processes, or in a specific organizational culture (Guenzi & Storbacka, 2015; Leischnig, Ivens, Niersbach, & Pardo, 2017; Storbacka, 2012). Yet, extant studies differ in the degree to which they put an emphasis on strategic as opposed to operational aspects of KAM. Fundamentally, the KAM literature is strategically oriented per se, as each KAM concept has links to a firm's customer strategy. In this perspective, Gosselin and Gauwen (2006), p. 381 note that “[c]ustomersupplier interactions will move toward a strategic relationship for the supplier when rent generation is high”. Achieving superior rent generation is a core objective in KAM and often a central motive for its introduction, too. While extant research has improved the understanding of several components or building blocks of KAM, the strategic perspective that explains how KAM contributes to occupying marketplace positions of competitive advantage and, hence, achieving superior firm performance still requires stronger attention. As Gosselin and Gauwen (2006, p. 377) observe, the “literature on account management shows limited research from an organisational or strategic perspective”.