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Sales Leadership: How to Improve Account Planning

Author: David Brock, president, Partners in Excellence

Recently, I was asked to sit in on a number of account plan updates. It’s mid year, so it’s time to pull out the account plan, blow off the digital dust, and update it. (You might be getting an idea of what I think about most account planning processes.)

The structure of the account plans looked like 99% of the account plans I have seen (and, if I’m honest, some that I used to develop decades ago). The first few pages were about the customer. Some financial and business data was presented—revenues, profits, growth. Some of the strategies and priorities for the account were presented–usually taken from the chairman/CEO letter in the annual report. Perhaps a market overview is included.

The next sections focused on our performance. What we sold in the past year, perhaps a customer Net Promoter Score, key projects we participated in.

Then there are the goals for the coming year, our overall revenue goal , key projects and sales initiatives that we think will enable us to achieve that revenue goal.

How to Improve Account Planning

The account plan is always heavy with all the stuff we want to sell to the customer. It includes the programs and initiatives most important to our company. For example, we need to convert them to recurring revenue, we have to get them to buy this product line, or that solution, because these are important to our company’s strategic goals.

Then some nominal action plans; for example, set up meetings between our execs and the customer execs to make everyone feel important.

There usually is some pretty diagram trying to encapsulate the account performance and what we want to do to impact them in the coming year. (These stylized diagrams have become very fashionable, though they really don’t communicate a whole lot.)

Usually, at this point, I stifle a yawn and ask a question, “How do these projects impact the things that are most important to the customer?”

Usually, I get blank stares from the account team. The better teams say, “We expect these projects to help the customer save a lot of money …”

I nod in acknowledgement. Actually, the teams that are looking at saving the customer money or helping them grow are pretty much on the right track. But most teams aren’t thinking in this way.

“What are the three things that are most important to the customer this year? What are the initiatives that top management cares most about? What are we doing to contribute to their ability to achieve those goals?”

Sometimes, a smart sales person replies, “Well, they want to grow revenue and increase EBITDA; our projects will help with those …”

Connecting Account Planning to Customer Initiatives

That’s actually a pretty good start, but those metrics are the results of the successful execution of the key initiatives. We have to connect the dots to show how we contribute(d) to the key initiatives. We have to understand the things the customer(s) are focusing on to improve and produce those revenue and EBITDA goals.

This became painfully obvious to me and to one particular account team some years ago. We had been working for over a year on a very large deal worth roughly $50M. The team had done a great job working with the buyers to show how they could help them achieve their goals. Ultimately, they “won” the deal. While the business case was very good and the operating group they were working with was very enthusiastic, top management rejected the project.

Their feedback was, “We are investing in projects that enable us to achieve at least one of these three goals … As good as the business case is, your project doesn’t appear to contribute to the attainment of our strategic initiatives, so we will defer it for the time being.”

It was an important lesson. The team had been focused on cost reduction and improving a specific operation within the company. The “buyers” were also focused on this. But what everyone missed was, “How do these contribute to the attainment of the corporate strategic initiatives?”

The strategic initiatives are the focus areas that enable the organization to achieve their revenue, earnings and related goals. The initiatives may involve entering new markets, geographic expansion, new product introduction, diversification, improving customer satisfaction, or any number of other things. It’s the successful execution of those initiatives that produce the financial results they expect.

We are more effective in our account planning, if we directly tie our work with the customer to their strategic initiatives, connecting the dots between what we might do and their highest priorities. Even if we are working at a departmental or functional level, we need to identify how we can help contribute–because that’s what’s driving our direct customers and their ability to be successful within their organizations.

Every project has to have an ROI, that’s table stakes. But if the project doesn’t fit with the top priorities of the organization, it just won’t get done.

We are more impactful in our account planning if we tie everything we do to what the customer needs to do.

Afterword: With that account team that had the huge opportunity, we reworked the project to show how it addressed two of the company’s strategic goals. The project was immediately approved, once we showed how aligned it was with the goals of the organization.


David Brock is president at Partners in EXCELLENCE. Read more from David Brock here.

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