The Biggest Account Planning Challenges & How You Can Fix Them (Part 1)

11 minute read

Like so many New Year resolutions, Account Planning is something most people embrace in January and then let drift during the year. So June might seem like an unusual month to revisit this popular topic.

But whether you are ahead of quota, and looking to maintain that momentum, or behind and looking to catch up, Account Planning should be your starting point.

Back in 2014 we surveyed thousands of salespeople, and discovered only 53% felt they were maximizing revenue in key accounts. This prompted us to delve a little further. So in preparation for our recent Account Planning webinar, we asked registrants to select what they felt were the specific challenges they faced in implementing an effective Account Planning process. The results were as follows:


When we analysed the results, what really stood out was the fact that account planning continues to be a major problem for many companies. In fact, more than 70% of those questioned highlighted 4 or more challenges which suggests there are systemic issues with account planning as a whole, not isolated to just one or two specific areas.

This is the first in a series of articles based on the results of our survey. The aim is to shed some light on why so many companies continue to find account planning so challenging and offer up some practical recommendations.

What is account planning and why does it matter?

Let’s remind ourselves briefly what Account Planning is and why it matters.  We use the term Account Planning to describe both account planning and account management; planning is well and good, but unless you continue to work the plan, (this is the account management part) then the plan has little value. I define the role of account planning as enabling you to:

“Build long-term business relationships in a complex marketplace that enable you to create, develop, pursue, and win business that delivers mutual value.”

By its nature this is strategic, so Strategic Account Management, or Strategic Account Planning is a good name. However, as we all know, strategy without execution is hallucination, so it is important that however you go about setting the strategy, it is equally important that you have a living executable plan.

When thinking about Account Planning you should think of your Account as a marketplace that you want to lead. If there are enough discrete target areas in the Account, then you must take that approach. Thinking of it this way gives you reason to pause and think strategically about where in the marketplace you should focus. Are there market segments that are more attractive than others? Are there some that you should avoid? How do you know?

By taking this approach, account planning can help you to maximize the return you get from a key existing or a new strategic account, or similarly a group of named accounts in your territory.


Numerous studies have shown that it costs 6-7 times more to acquire a new customer than retain an existing one. But many businesses still focus on growing new business rather than seek out selling opportunities within their current accounts.

Protecting your key customer accounts is a priority, but in order to maximize your revenue, you need to have a defined process for actively managing and growing strategic accounts. Without a strategic account development methodology, including metrics to measure success, it’s almost impossible to gauge how effectively you’re leveraging the opportunities and relationships within these accounts.

Proper account planning offers mutual benefits to you and your customer. Your ability to identify growth areas for your customer is key to creating the environment in which you can maximize revenue.

Win rates

When you think about how you want to apply your resources, your win rate is a key metric. Your chances of winning new deals in key accounts is significantly higher than when trying to sell into new customers. In fact, according to Marketing Metrics, the chance of success when selling to an existing customer is 60-70% compared with 5-20% for new customers.

#1 Challenge: Understanding customer’s strategy

According to our survey, the biggest current challenge in Account Planning is being able to fully grasp the customer’s strategy and how they define and measure success. This is a very hot topic at the moment and a lot has been written about its impact on account planning.

At its simplest, the most effective account managers and teams discover how their customers define value and engage and execute accordingly. I have heard the creation of mutual value being referred to as co-creation or the “co-creation of customer-specific value.” When customers and suppliers share the objective to co-create, both parties must be willing to identify value gaps together, then work collaboratively to exploit.

As a sales person there are really only two things you can do – find the right people to talk to, and then say the right things. As part of understanding the customer’s strategy you also need to understand the customers political structure – who owns the Goals, pressures, initiatives etc but more on that later.

A number of companies have told us that growing strong relationships with their customers, and the consistent creation of customer value, is what sets them apart in their market. The key message is that suppliers must listen to their customers before pitching their products, and this means investing the time and effort upfront to understand the customer’s business and how they define and measure success.

It’s gotta be all about the customer  

Too often salespeople burst into canned product or solution pitches without having enough insight into the customer goals and pressures.

If you are trying to understand the customers strategy, what are the things that customers care about? Customers care about:

  • Goals – the end result they are trying to achieve.

  • Pressures – the things that really cause them concern. The internal and/or external pressures that significantly impact their lives.

  • Initiatives – the projects they undertake to address these pressures, so that they can achieve their goals.

  • Obstacles – the barriers or problems that get in the way of achieving their goals.

Only when we understand these, can we think about how our solutions might apply. Winning account teams respond to these goals and pressures, initiatives and the obstacles and work collaboratively to discover or deliver:

  • Information to create alignment between their actions and the customer’s business objectives.

  • Insight to see where the new opportunities are within the account, and to track the actions taken to pursue those opportunities.

  • Demonstration of professionalism through deep understanding of the customer’s needs.

  • Justification to secure scarce resources from management.

  • Co-ordination among the team in a goal-oriented fashion.

  • AND an action plan.

You will see here that pressures or issues are attached to individuals. Why is this key to account planning? As you become master of your account plan, you’re also on your way to becoming a leader in your own marketplace. You understand the business goals and pressures, initiatives the customer might consider, and the obstacles they must overcome to be successful.

The way customers buy is changing

Everyone knows the infamous “57%” figure from the CEB research – that today’s B2B customers get on average 57 per cent of the way along the buying process before they engage with a salesperson. It’s common knowledge that customers are using the internet for researching purchases; browsing vendor content, asking peers for advice, and paying close attention to ratings and reviews.  They are self educating.

And every Sales VP knows their sales organization has to change to keep up. That change means moving from a traditional “go-to-market” model, in which reps are primed to sell product according to their own agenda, to what Forrester Research calls a “go-to-customer” model, in which sales teams are capable of understanding customers’ real needs – and providing valuable advice and insight to help them succeed.

Understanding the customer lifecycle is key

Yes, it all begins with the customer. We should start by thinking about the stages that the customer goes through – customers typically start as a prospect (stage 1), the prospect becomes a customer (stage 2) and, if we do our job well, serve the customer well, deliver on our promises, then that customer becomes a loyal customer (stage 3).

But there is a fourth stage…

I often ask people what they think this fourth stage is. Usually the response is “loyal customer” or “evangelist”. But, all too often, what happens is that once a customer is on board, promises made at the outset fail to materialize. Then, through a combination of factors, the relationship starts to break down and eventually the customer becomes a former customer.

In practice, account planning is about how we can accelerate the customer’s progression through stages 1, 2, and 3 and how we can slow down or prevent the relationship breakdown and exit. But this is only possible by establishing a deep trusted relationship with your customer, which is getting harder to do.

Without customer value creation and co-creation, today’s Account Planning programs and account plans may fail to offer a solid value perspective to their most important customers.

The main reasons why customers defect

Vendors think that price is the reason 48% of the time. When, in  fact the customers (who are the people making the decision – and therefore should know) believe that price is only a factor 25% of the time.

From the customer’s perspective, Customer Service is the #1 reason – and that happens when vendors are not close enough to their customers and don’t have a shared view of success and a shared plan to get there.  This is where account planning can help – and relates directly to the #1 challenge identified in our survey.

On the flip side it is interesting to note that, according to the CEB, “53% of customers see the purchase experience as the primary driver of customer loyalty” As sales people this is something we must all bear in mind as it is one area we can have a huge impact on.

What we are faced with today, as sellers working with buyers, is that executives don’t believe that sellers are adequately prepared to engage with them. The perception is that sellers know about their own offering, but don’t take sufficient account of the realities and the needs of executives. In fact, only 36% of executives believe that salespeople understand business problems.

Where is this misalignment occurring?

Take an objective look at your onboarding or product launch materials and ask yourself if you could easily articulate the business problem that drove the creation of the solution, or is it easier to see the features and benefits of the solution?  When we pump sales people full of product knowledge and don’t equip them with buyer or business context and insight, what can we expect them to sell?

They can only sell what they know. In lieu of a better alternative, that’s the path they’d go down. We all do. We sell what we know.

Too little of what we provide to our sales people in content or training has any foundation in the customer’s business. It is typically product, not customer focused, and does not help the sales person bring valuable insights to their customer.

We know that Sales & Marketing needs to be aligned – but to what end?

Collaboration across the Enterprise will close more deals, and faster. But only if everything is governed by how we can align with the customer. At the VP level, closer collaboration with the heads of other divisions can also transform performance – working with Marketing to agree a common definition of a sales- ready lead, for example, or with Customer Service to coach service operatives in identifying cross-sell and up-sell opportunities. However, when everyone and everything is aligned around the customer, efficiency is improved, sales increase, and revenues grow.

In business, there are really only two things that you control; who you call on, and what you say when you get there. The customer’s strategy and how they define success should inform the what. The more info you have on the who, the better able you are to prioritize the accounts to pursue. Which leads us neatly on to the topic of our next post in the series – “Why prioritizing accounts is essential for successful account planning.”


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