Of bow ties and diamonds

Sue Wright

Over the years I have had the opportunity to work with a number of consultancy organisations including CHPD, FCS, Insight and others, in researching, coaching and mentoring Key Account Managers from all backgrounds and types of organisation. During this time I have come to know a number of KAMs who are interested in honing their skills and improving their understanding of Account Management in order to become as successful as they can be. One of the main issues identified by them and one that I believe is very interesting, is the fact that there is considerable information available about the processes of KAM, but very little on the skills and techniques necessary to succeed. The information on skills and technique that is available is held, but rarely shared, by the best KAMs themselves.

One example is the competing philosophies of the Bow Tie and the Diamond. This is an area where the theory and best practice are in complete alignment. However, some senior managers high up in the organisational hierarchy have sought to modify these by disassociating relationship type from approach and suggesting that the Diamond is in fact applicable to all.

“…there is considerable information available about the processes of KAM, but very little on the skills and techniques necessary to succeed.”

When considering the theory of Key Account Management we are faced with the incontrovertible fact that we have different types of relationship with different Key Accounts. Over the years there have been various attempts to describe these, one of the best being set out by Professor Malcolm McDonald of Cranfield Business School. This simply involves thinking of these types of relationships as follows: –

Figure 1: Different types of relationships with Key Accounts – Professor Malcolm McDonald of Cranfield Business School1

In parallel with these definitions, we are asked to accept that each account relationship type should be managed via a specifically designed account management methodology, two via Bow Ties and two via the Diamond and, inconveniently, one that in my view defies description. Basic and Exploratory relationships are best represented by Bow Ties (see Figure 2)with Integrated and Interdependent relationships best represented by variations on the Diamond (see Figure 3).

Figure 2: The Bow Tie representation of Key Account Management1

It should be appreciated that the Bow Tie and the Diamond relate specifically to the account relationship type for which they were designed. When you hear an organisation talking about their Diamond method of Key Account Management, then they have co-operation through integrated relationships with all Accounts or else they don’t understand Key Account Management.

“Bow Ties and Diamonds are visual metaphors describing the two main methods of Key Account Management…”

Bow Ties and Diamonds are visual metaphors describing the two main methods of Key Account Management, varieties of which are applied to each of the five types of relationship. At a practical level, Key Account Managers prefer the Bow Tie to the Diamond for a whole raft of reasons, usually invisible to their organisational superiors. If we visualise the Bow Tie, where the two sides meet in the middle, this symbolises the dynamic relationship between the Key Account Manager and their Key Client Contacts. As we fan out to the left, this symbolises the relevant supplier functions such as Administration, Operations or Senior Management etc. that might be considered as supporting resources. As we fan out to the right, this symbolises similar functions, but those belonging to the client, suggesting shared interest between similar functions and opportunities for mutual advantage (the Win Win). The Diamond might, if somewhat facetiously, be described as a Bow Tie, but without the middle and back to front, where similar functions of supplier and client work together in a co-operative, interdependent or integrated state. This is much more about maintaining a client relationship rather than growing one. It also involves numerous senior people from various functions from both supplier and client, working together co-operatively, and from the KAM’s perspective not within their control. In this situation they all know that major decisions will be made above their pay grade, although they still get to retain responsibility, not least if things go wrong.

Figure 3: The Diamond representation of Key Account Management1

Thus a KAM can exercise much more control during the Bow Tie phases of the client development process, rather than being only one of many interactions required by the Diamond phases. Most importantly, however, the skills, methods, processes and techniques required for a Bow Tie are quite different from those of the Diamond.

So keep the Bow Ties and get rid of the Diamonds.


I would like to extend my thanks to Emma and Alison for their valuable contributions to this article. They are both currently operating as account managers in the Health Care industry and their contributions have allowed me to contrast some of their practical views, as well as the views of some of their piers, with related aspects of KAM theory.


1. Variation of figures from Key Account Management the Definitive Guide by Malcolm McDonald &amp, Diana Woodburn

About the author:

Sue holds an MBA from the London Business School, and has a B.Ed. Hons. from Cambridge. She worked with the Centre for High Performance Development (CHPD) for many years and is currently an independent management and leadership trainer &amp, is a member of the JEIG. To contact Sue please leave a comment on this article.

Do you favour the Bow Tie over the Diamond representation of KAM?