Many of the clients I’ve been working with over the past few months have been attempting to implement some form of account planning. Far fewer seem to be happy with the current outcomes.
The symptoms of an ineffective account planning process aren’t hard to identify. Sales people are expected to prepare account plans, but this often has the appearance of a one-off or annual exercise.
Once produced, the plan is rarely referred to and even less frequently updated. There often appears to be little causality or correlation between the plan and the sales person’s actual real-life activities.
In such circumstances, you’ve got to ask the question “why bother?” ...
To have any persistent value - and whatever format it is created in - an effective account plan must be a living document. It must guide the planning (and re-planning) process rather than be seen as a means to an end. It must stimulate the account owner to think. And above all it must drive effective action.
Thoughtlessly cutting-and-pasting an organisation’s profile from their website, LinkedIn or other sources or gathering data without any analysis or interpretation isn’t planning - it’s valueless activity masquerading as progress.
In fact, any information that is presented “as is” in order to fill in a previously blank field in the plan format without any attempt to assess the value of the information or how it might be acted upon is almost certainly a useless exercise.
The problem often starts with the format of the plan itself. If it is seen as a dumping ground for data, that’s what it will become. If evidence of analysis is not required, it almost certainly won’t happen. If the account plan gives every indication of being a comfort blanket or an excuse for not taking real action, it probably is.
I suggest that you adopt a different approach, and evaluate every element of whatever account plan framework you choose to adopt against the following tests:
- What do we really need to know about the account?
- How can we confirm the veracity of the information provided?
- How would knowing this information influence our actions?
- How should we review whether our actions have been effective?
Demographics are just the start
When profiling an account, basic demographic information (such as size, sector, location, etc.) usually has very little value other than to qualify or disqualify the organisation as being worth further evaluation.
Structural, behavioural and timing information are of much greater value, even if they sometimes require more effort to obtain.
Structural information might - depending on your circumstances - include how the company is organised, who their key executives are, what position they hold in their marketplace, who their current strategic suppliers are and what key systems they have in place.
Having the facts about their current suppliers and systems is often a critically important indicator of our potential to enter a new account or fully develop the potential of an existing one.
Behavioural information can include factors like their attitude to innovation (are they leaders, fast followers, in the mainstream or laggards?), their corporate culture, where the power lies within the organisation and the typical nature of their relationship with suppliers.
We also need to clearly understand the organisation’s key current initiatives and strategic priorities, and their perceived threats and opportunities (and what they are doing about them).
Demographic, structural and behavioural information can help us to assess our long-term potential within the account, but timing information is critical to determining where our short-term opportunities might lie.
For example, knowing their replacement cycle for key systems or types of equipment can give us clues as to when we ought to engage with the customer. The announcement of a new high-priority corporate initiative often results in a stream of related programmes and investments.
Major changes in the marketplace - for example key trends, new legislation or regulation, high-profile legal situations and changes in the organisation’s market and competitive landscape can also open up opportunity.
An honest and up-to-date assessment of our true current relationship with the organisation is also a key element of effective account planning. But it needs to be a two-way exercise: we need to honestly assess the current importance of the relationship as well as its future potential from the perspective of both parties:
Their importance to us
- level 4: we regard them as a critical, must-retain strategic account
- level 3: they are amongst a handful of our most important accounts
- level 2: we regard them as one of our more important customers
- level 1: we regard them simply as one of many similar customers
- level 0: we currently have no meaningful relationship with them
Our importance to them
- level 4: they see us as their long-term strategic partner in our space
- level 3: they see us as their primary or exclusive supplier in our space
- level 2: they see us as one of a few preferred suppliers in our space
- level 1: we are one of many suppliers or options available to them
- level 0: we currently have no meaningful relationship with them
Key player engagement
Another key element that an account plan needs to include is the level and nature of our relationship with the key players in the customer account. By “key players”, I don’t just mean the senior executives: I also mean the key influencers and change agents who will inevitably play a significant part in any of the decisions we are trying to facilitate.
In particular, we need understand:
- Who these key players are
- What role they are likely to play in any opportunity we may be involved in
- What influence they are likely to have over the decision-making process
- Their awareness of and attitude to us
We ought to have a clear sense of who the key players are in typical sales opportunities, and we need to find ways to proactively engage and educate them prior to a formal sales opportunity.
It’s obvious that any up-to-date account plan needs to include all currently qualified active sales opportunities, but I’m recommending that you go further, and anticipate likely future opportunities based on what you have discovered about the organisation’s situation and priorities.
There is an undeniable correlation between our chances of success and our ability to engage as early as possible in potential sales opportunities: Forrester found that the vendor that did the most to influence the customer’s vision of a solution stands a three-in-four chance of winning their business.
If we haven’t influenced it, by the time we receive an RFP we end up in the same the same low-chances-of-winning situation as all the other vendors they choose to invite to bid.
The dynamic nature of planning
It should be obvious that much of the above information is dynamic, and that the information contained in any one-off annual plan probably has a half-life measured in weeks or (at most) quarters.
It should also be obvious that in many cases much of the required information is likely to be incomplete, missing, or based on unverified guesswork. That’s why any effective account plan must be a dynamic process.
We need to recognise what we know and acknowledge what we don’t know, and systematically reach out to our account to fill in the blanks. We need to leverage what we’ve learned to influence the account’s thinking.
And we need to acknowledge (to paraphrase Eisenhower) that the plan is nothing, but planning (and implementing) is everything.
Needless to say, these experiences have helped me to come up with some simple, practical templates for developing effective account plans. Please drop me a line or book a call if you’d like to find out more.