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December 17, 2021

Account Planning

Account planning always seems to be a thorny issue for so many sales originations. Yet it is a fundamental business practice to protect and grow strategic business relationships, because the relationships you have with your customers are your primary business assets.


Account planning always seems to be a thorny issue for so many sales originations. Yet it is a fundamental business practice to protect and grow strategic business relationships, because the relationships you have with your customers are your primary business assets.

 In fact, research conducted in the 1990’s by Huthwaite’s Neil Rackham advises that the only way to protect a business relationship is to grow it. 

In this post I wanted to cover some key reasons why ALL sales organisations should employ a robust account planning process.

What is account planning?

It is the process of developing a medium-long-term strategy to advance a business relationship, usually for mutually rewarding commercial benefit.

In this definition are a number of keywords we should define a little further:

  • Process – it is a business process that is monitored, reviewed and maintained to ensure consistency, continuity and its integrity.
  • Medium- long-term – usually 12 -24 months, dependent on buying cycles of the customer.
  • Strategy – leverages strengths to mitigate vulnerabilities to protect and grow.
  • Advance – move forward, standing still is not protecting the relationship.
  • Mutually rewarding – the strategy should focus on win-win outcomes.

Why do businesses need a robust account planning process?

To ground us a little further, the diagram above shows three levels of inter-connected customer engagement; the account plan can generate multiple sales opportunities (growth), which sellers pursue. 

Those opportunities require numerous meetings with the buyers to qualify and hopefully win. 

Account planning has multiple beneficial purposes and should aim to achieve the following:

  1. Monitor, target and advance the perceptions of key personnel in the account.
  2. Head off some of the challenges experienced at the opportunity and meeting level such as:
  1. Identify opportunities earlier to influence the buying criteria/process
  2. Build advocacy with key decision- makers
  3. Elevate the customer’s overall perception of the importance of the relationship
  4. Differentiate at the account level to help with differentiation at the opportunity level
  5. Provide accessibility to key decision-makers

Develop deep understanding of the client finding ways to help specifically with their:

  1. Opportunities
  2. Challenges
  3. Customers
  4. Competitors
  5. Market trends
  6. Growth drivers
  7. Ability to differentiate

The objective of the account planning process can be defined simply in one clear phrase:

To continually advance the perceptions of key players within the account to protect and grow the relationship.

Why is account planning such a difficult proposition for so many businesses?

Many organisations struggle with implementing an effective account planning process. From experience, research and observation here are the reasons why:

  1. Salespeople often struggle with longer-term more strategic initiatives because much of what they have learned and how they behave is more short-term and tactical.
  2. Human beings naturally struggle with planning longer-term – just look at how many people have deficient retirement funding.
  3. The lack of immediate gratification means some sellers may not see the benefit of this, particularly if they have a short-term view of their own tenure.
  4. The fear of transparency and being judged for issues that emerge during the process.
  5. Cultural pushback: the intended process shift is rejected because it is change.
  6. Previous account planning initiatives failed often because of the above.

The importance and value of account planning is too important for a business to allow these issues to get in the way of implementing an account planning process. There are immeasurable long-term benefits to getting this right.

What makes for successful account planning?

Firstly, those that get this right see the following significant long-term benefits (the list is not exhaustive):

  1. Deeper client relationships
  2. Increased advocacy
  3. Increased accessibility 
  4. Reduced impact of competition 
  5. Pricing sensitivity lessened
  6. Mitigation of many challenges experienced at the opportunity and meeting level
  7. Increased growth in account-based revenue
  8. Decreased losses of opportunities and accounts
  9. Increased revenue predictability
  10. Less salesperson attrition

There are many things that go into implementing a successful account planning process, here are a few:

  1. It's not just data collection, it's using the data to develop strategic relationship plans. 
  2. Expect cultural push back and cut through this noise.
  3. Leadership should be visible in the process and directly sponsor the initiative.
  4. Communicate the why and the how repetitively – be Pavlovian.
  5. Run accounts like a business with a P&L
  6. Take the long-term view
  7. Don’t short the work – do the work – remember ’rubbish in rubbish out’
  8. Use established methodologies

Final comments

Sales and business leaders are responsible for implementation and sustainment of these processes. Sustaining the process is where the long-term value is realised by the business. This is why business and sales leaders have to lead sales as opposed to leading salespeople. All new process implementation is awkward and challenging, however persistence and a focus on the key benefits to the business is key to successful implementation. Before long the noise will quieten, and the new process becomes the way.

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