The Importance of Change Management in Account Planning

19 minute read

Sales leaders often find that commitment to change is the single most important ingredient in a successful account planning practice. Although change can be scary, difficult and potentially costly if not managed correctly, it is ultimately the key to achieving higher win rates, championing large buying groups, and growing revenue.

The current world of sales is not for the faint of heart, and certainly not one for those who don’t like change. Change is upon us, whether we want it to be or not. However, that doesn’t mean that there shouldn’t be a firm strategy in place to help guide sales leaders and teams towards a fruitful change that lasts.

When it comes to account planning, change is inevitable. And yet, commitment to that long term change is perhaps the single most important ingredient (above all others) to help foster growth, bolster team engagement, and ultimately achieve and exceed sales goals.

Revenue growth isn’t easy, but it can be simplified when sales organizations balance complex processes with a simplified approach. A key piece to accomplishing that simplified approach is an effective change management plan, and consistent ongoing execution.

How important is this commitment to ongoing, lasting change? 

We recently interviewed real sellers from some of the most successful sales teams in the world on how it is that they use account planning software, methodology and best practices to stay ahead in a constantly changing world as part of our book, Not Just Another Vendor.

No one says it better than Eric Chapman Vice President of Sales Operations and Enablement, Hexagon Asset Lifecycle Intelligence.

“I knew that account planning could help sellers have better interactions with customers and, more importantly, not stumble into avoidable missteps that might lose them deals” he said when we asked him what his initial thoughts about account planning were.

“Some aspects of selling are intangible or are beholden to variables we can’t control,” he says. “But I knew that if I could elevate their game with coaching and systems that allowed them to reach a point at which the customer trusted them and felt heard, I’d know that I’d helped them achieve something they wouldn’t have on their own.”

As he sought to establish account planning in his organization, what Eric found was that those who gave account planning a serious effort never looked back. “People who have picked it up haven’t stopped using it,” he says. “We don’t even have to keep reinforcing it after a little while.” As adoption took hold, the conversations Eric had with sellers began to change. During the first year, he’d been fielding questions like, “Why am I doing a plan?” Midway through the second year, however, reps began to see that the up-front work they’d done mapping their plans hadn’t gone to waste. “It’s a living document from one year to the next,” says Eric. “And they started to look back and see how much they’d accomplished, as well as how the insights and new relationships they’d developed were now making a big difference.”

From those interviews we had with sellers on the leading edge of the business, every single one of them highlighted to one degree or another the importance of change management in an effective account planning practice.

What is Change Management? 

As you might have guessed, change management is all about making change work. Its core principles rest on the successful facilitation of change for the people and processes at work within an organization. It is the fundamental aspect necessary for a successful new initiative, program, or software implementation, and requires a clear plan with tangible, actionable steps for each step of the process. 

Without it, initiatives fail, employees become disengaged, and new and unprecedented success remains out of reach. 

Importantly, change management can’t be something that happens at just any one point of the initiative. It’s not something that you wind up at the start, then abandon once things get going. Instead, it is there from the very inception of change, through the actual implementation of change, up through the analysis of the success of the change, and ongoing to ensure success beyond. 

What types of change requires management? 

Change management can be helpful to organizations going through various different transitions. Most commonly, change management is best for the following: 

  • Technology innovations: this could be far reaching software adoption, or more recently and notably the swift acceptance of AI into our everyday work lives.  
  • Crises: when a company is in crises, to avoid foundering and workers spinning their wheels or to minimize damage, organizations may adopt change management to ensure a successful chartering of choppy business waters. 
  • Market shifts: Markets change, competition evolves, and all of that can be scary for organizations to cope with. Change management makes keeping up with these sorts of evolutions more predictable, reliable and successful.  
  • Corporate restructuring: It seems like all companies are restructuring these days. While this may be as common as budgets changing and the workplace, evolving, it doesn’t make it any less difficult to make a successful restructuring. Organizations that have processes in place to minimize the impact of corporate restructuring on employees will have a competitive advantage over their competition  

Change management is a structured approach to guiding an organization through transitions or transformations. It helps individuals, teams, and the entire organization adapt to new ways of working, new technologies, new processes, or even new goals and strategies. 

Change Management is all about the impact on people 

What the best sales teams understand is that people are any company’s greatest asset. All of the stories that we highlight in our book start and end with people, whether that’s the relationships between sellers and team leaders, or between selling teams and buying groups. It’s all about people. 

Of course, effective change management has to keep the people at the heart of everything that’s happening. Change management has to help foster lasting change. But what happens when sales teams forego change management and fail to impart change that lasts? We also have heard stories where change management fails, such as in the case of Travis Hill, VP of Customer Experience. Travis shares a story on a seminar he attended focused on a new training methodology that required a lot of upfront investment in time only to be utterly forgotten shortly. 

Account planning and change management – a real life story 

Change management is fundamental to account planning. In fact, it is a core principle of account planning, especially when we’re speaking of helping teams adapt to the massive impact it will have on their day-to-day lives and in achieving long-term plans.  

If you’re serious about introducing account planning in your organization, you certainly don’t want to end up in the crowd of executives insisting to one another: “It seemed like a good idea at the time.” The truth is, knowing that your organization will benefit from account planning is only the first step. An important first step, to be sure, but a first step all the same. 

It’s in bringing the practice to life that you’ll show your real skill as a sales leader. 

Paradoxically, one of the best ways to show how vital change management is to look at what a world without change management looks like.  

A world without effective change management 

Change is hard in the best of circumstances, and sales leaders face thornier challenges than most. Sales is fast-moving and personal. Everyone, from the most junior sales development rep to the most experienced director, harbors entrenched belief systems, relationships, and ways of working. Straying from the predefined path could spell lost deals and lost earnings, which makes any adjustment at once an opportunity and a risk. 

The very best salespeople are always learning, growing, and experimenting, but the rest generally prefer to stick with what they know. 

But we need everyone. Account planning is, at its core, a team sport. 

Bringing best practices to an entire organization is a tricky business, and charging forward without a plan can spell disaster. 

What is required for successful change? 

There are a handful of key requirements for success. Lose any one of these, and you’re bound to veer off course: 

  1. Simplicity 
  2. Belief and trust from your sellers 
  3. Effective and recurring enablement 
  4. Tools and methods that meet the needs of the full team. 

It was due to a failure in more than one of these that Travis Hill learned how to not make lasting change. 

Two years, hours of training, and one departing sales leader later, there was simply no denying it: the attempt to adopt a new sales methodology had failed. Travis Hill almost wished he was more surprised. But like many of his fellow sales reps, he’d seen this coming from a mile away. 

Lack of simplicity can lead to failed change 

The methodology in question had been mandated from on-high. The sales leader was a believer and knew that a successful organization needed its sellers to be on the same page. So for a full afternoon every week for nearly a year, Travis found himself herded into a classroom after lunch for four hours of instructor-led learning. The approach he and his fellow sellers were being trained on didn’t seem like the best fit for the product, but the sales leader loved the system, and that was that. 

To Travis, though, the practices he was learning seemed excessively complex for the kind of work the company did. 

“It wasn’t difficult to understand,” he explains. “But it was difficult to put into practice, particularly because it didn’t necessarily fit with the kind of style that some people on the team had.” 

He wasn’t the only one who felt unconvinced. When the clock struck five and they were dismissed, reps would get together to chat. Mostly, though, they just laughed. “I’m never going to use this,” they’d chortle, leafing through their stacks of handouts and notes. 

And for the most part, they were right. 

A failure in leadership led to lack of adoption 

As far as Travis could see, the extensive classroom course was the start and end of the methodology’s relevance to his life. No one in company leadership tracked adoption. No one told reps how they were expected to put what they’d learned into practice. 

“Behavior change expectations weren’t properly communicated,” says Travis. Nor did anyone make an effort to tie the methodology to success. “The idea of driving better win rates was what was discussed when we were learning,” says Travis. “But as far as I know, they were never able to measure whether there’d been any impact.” 

Without anyone reinforcing what sellers had been taught or proving that it would make them better at their jobs, most people went back to business as usual. “We very rarely stuck to the methodology unless there was a big deal that we knew was going to be under extra scrutiny from leadership.”

The result was what Travis dubs “circumstantial adoption.” When reps were asked to do something in adherence to the methodology, they did. Otherwise? “They probably wasted a lot of money on that trainer, because no one was doing anything unless they were asked to.” 

And they were hardly ever asked to. Travis’s manager seemed largely uninterested in how he was selling, as long as he was hitting his numbers. Nor did his manager seem motivated to offer meaningful guidance of any kind. “My manager never got into relationship strategy. He never asked what problem we were trying to solve for the customer or how we were planning to get it done,” remembers Travis. 

“All he asked was, ‘When is this gonna close? How quickly can you close and for how much?’ We never got into any real deal coaching.” 

Without being required to use the methodology, reps were more than happy to forget all about it. The times they did need to use it, the steps felt like chores rather than useful strategies. Instead of making their lives easier, the motions they’d been trained in seemed hopelessly cumbersome. “It felt like it was way too much,” says Travis. “It was hard to justify spending the amount of time that it required.” 

Two years later, when the sales leader left the company, the methodology—and the hundreds of hours’ worth of weekly afternoon training sessions—left with them. 

“It stopped entirely,” Travis says. “Nobody taught it. Nobody used it.” 

How to Implement lasting change 

In this example, it was thanks to lack of a systematic approach to a new discipline, sales teams simply wasted time. However, wasted time is not the only negative of a poor or non-existent change management. There are other even more deadly problems that can occur when organizations fail to implement a change management strategy plan that works.  

On the Individual level: 

  • Demotivation and resistance: Salespeople are often hesitant to change their successful sales approaches. Without clear understanding of the benefits and proper training, they may resist new methods, leading to demotivation and decreased performance. 
  • Skills gap and performance decline: New processes or tools require new skills. Without adequate training and support, salespeople may struggle to adapt, resulting in lower sales figures and missed targets. 
  • Increased stress and burnout: Change can be stressful, especially in sales roles with pressure to perform. Poor change management can amplify this stress, leading to burnout and potential turnover. 

Failure in change management at the team level: 

  • Uneven adoption and performance gaps: Lack of consistent coaching and support can lead to uneven adoption of new processes. This creates performance gaps within the team, hindering collaborative efforts and overall sales effectiveness. 
  • Communication breakdowns and conflict: Conflicting messages, unclear expectations, and lack of transparent communication can foster distrust and conflict within the team, impacting morale and collaboration. 
  • Loss of team identity and culture: Change can disrupt the existing team culture and dynamics. Without efforts to maintain a positive and supportive environment, team cohesion and sense of belonging can suffer. 

Organizational level:

  • Missed sales targets and revenue loss: Demotivation, resistance, and skill gaps can all contribute to falling short of sales targets and negatively impacting overall revenue. 
  • Customer dissatisfaction: Inconsistent sales practices and lack of product knowledge can lead to poor customer experiences and hinder customer retention. 
  • Erosion of company reputation: Negative customer experiences and internal turmoil within the sales team can damage the company’s reputation and market standing. 

Additional points: 

  • Change fatigue: If sales teams are bombarded with continuous changes without proper adjustments, they can become overwhelmed and resistant to future initiatives. 
  • Wasted resources: Poorly implemented change can lead to wasted time, money, and resources on training, materials, and ineffective strategies. 
  • Missed opportunities: Failure to adapt to evolving market trends or customer needs can result in missed opportunities and falling behind competitors. 

By investing in effective change management, sales organizations can mitigate these negative outcomes and leverage change to improve individual performance, team dynamics, and overall sales success. 

Change management done right 

So what does it look like when change management is a part of the sales team’s approach from the very beginning? Putting the people first – and getting buy-in at every level of the organization is critical to effective change management. Eric Chapman, VP of Sales Operations and Enablement, Hexagon Asset Lifecycle Intelligence, understood that. 

“Getting people on board required two things: the carrot and the ego” Eric said when we interviewed him for our book. He knew that introducing account planning was one thing, but getting it to stick was another. Senior leadership understood the need for change and were quickly convinced that thinking bigger via account planning was the best way to do it. Reps, too, were often willing, at least up to a point, to start tackling plans for a few of their larger accounts.  

“Most actually already had some level of a plan in their head,” says Eric. And though they may have thought it was enough, “in reality they were maybe 60%, 70% of the way there.” Rather than tell them they weren’t at 100%, Eric opted to show them. “As they started to document it with account planning in an actual technology platform, they quickly spotted gaps and were prompted to think through considerations that wouldn’t have occurred to them otherwise.”  

Getting the information down, they quickly realized, wasn’t just admin work: it was active thinking. Frontline sales managers were less convinced. As far as they could see, trying to keep a handle on their sellers’ myriad plans would be no small task. 

“Getting managers on board required two things,” says Eric. “The carrot and the ego.” 

The carrot was to be found in the organizational hierarchy. “Leadership made it clear to frontline managers that account planning was not a suggestion—it was an expectation,” says Eric. 

The ego was a more delicate matter, one that required an element of psychology. He considered what might encourage supervisors to adopt the new approach. Did they need to be named and shamed? No, that wasn’t right. 

Then, a lightbulb went off: “Sales managers love to be winners.” 

If he could turn early adopters into mini-celebrities, people might perk up and listen. 

So he went looking for managers who had embraced account planning and, subsequently (though not surprisingly) had begun to see success. Then, he invited them on stage. 

At sales kickoffs and in audiences with the leadership team, the chosen few were ushered into the spotlight.  

“They told the story themselves,” says Eric. “And having them show off how they were using the account planning processes to lift their teams’ performance was so much more effective than anything else we could have done.” 

There, in front of their peers and superiors, early adopters got their time to shine. And laggards saw what they were letting slip through their fingers.

Practical steps to implementing Effective Change Management in Sales 

You’ve seen change management gone wrong. You’ve seen the worst-case scenarios when change management is not proactively and strategically handled. And you’ve seen the insights into how one sales leader approached change management in his organization, focused on the individuals and egos at play. 

Now how do you implement change management in your organization? It starts with a few steps.  

Planning and preparation starts by developing a clear vision and strategy  

Before attempting an effective transition or change, sales leaders need a clear vision and strategy for what they are trying to achieve. This involves setting clear, measurable outcomes, and the steps to take to get there. This could be (in the case of account planning) measuring the adoption of account planning for the entire sales organization, or even go so far as to ensuring growth through account planning, and comparing that side-by-side with traditionally managed accounts. This sort of tracking and measuring can be an effective tool to bring senior leadership onboard with a further investment in the new software solution and change.  

Engage sellers at every step of the change 

Eric is a fantastic example of engaging sellers. While he made his sellers mini celebrities in order to motivate them to dive deeper into account planning change and growth, what other ways can you ensure your team is engaged and growing through the change?  

Many effective sales leaders focus on creating a safe space for their sellers. In an incredibly competitive, often even cut-throat world of sales, fostering a place of collaboration and trust is hard, but essential for change management.  

  • Questions to ask: how engaged are my sellers? 
  • How comfortable do my sellers feel with sharing the real details of their deals? 
  • Do my sellers feel like lone wolves or part of a greater sales team? 

Provide tailored training and support 

Whatever the change might be, sellers will need training and support as they make their way through it. If it’s with a new methodology or software solution, for example, an ongoing, effective training program will outperform a few seminars that are not reinforced. 

Similarly, immersion in the change can help bring the change into a deeper level in the hearts and minds of the people and sellers within the organization. There are many ways to do this, including introducing new rewards and incentives centered on the change, and realigning metrics around the change. 

Recognize and reward individual and team achievements to reinforce positive change behaviors

When making any change, it’s fundamental that sellers feel part of the team. This is especially important when making the change to account planning. After all, the revenue team is essential to account planning.  

Sellers must learn that, in a world that’s growing more complex, the lone wolf seller approach to sales will be less effective than a cohesive team approach. 

But how do you ensure this team collaboration? 

Part of it is as simple as acknowledging successes and failures, and celebrating milestones. The road to change is a long winding one with many ups and downs. Your sellers will be more successful if they stop along the way to smell the roses, so to speak. 

What are the benefits of change management done right? 

Like anything worth doing well, change management has to have positives that make the investment made into it worthwhile. And it certainly does. In the case of account planning, effective change management does more than just ensures that your team will use the new account planning tool – it means reaching a new and better way of seeing the team, the accounts, and the sales process.  

Through effective change management, sales teams looking to instill account planning can reap the benefits of better relationships, happier customers, and more revenue. Want proof? Read the stories of real sellers who used account planning to outgrow accounts managed in traditional ways before. 

And if that’s not enough for you, sales teams that effectively leverage change management for any initiative – be it account planning or something else – gain these benefits: 

  • Increased sales performance 
  • Enhanced team morale and engagement  
  • Improved customer satisfaction 
  • Resilience in a dynamic market

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