What is Account Planning? Definitive Guide
Account planning is the process of mapping out key aspects of a potential customer or key account.
Any given account plan can include important information about the prospect or customer, including decision makers, competition, internal influence, unique challenges, the complex political structures hiding within the organization, the potential whitespace within accounts and beyond.
In addition to identifying challenges, key account planning helps establish sales leaders as trusted advisors to their customers. It does this by enabling the entire revenue team to collaborate on a winning strategy together. This strategy is aimed not only at “closing” a deal and moving on to the next one, but at strengthening the relationship with the customer. Achieving this “trusted advisor” status opens the door to future, recurring revenue.
In this definitive guide, we’ve compiled everything you need in order to understand the importance of account planning, what it is, and why a complete mindset shift is critical to success for any sales organization looking to grow and retain revenue in their key accounts in 2023 and beyond.
Who is account planning for?
Account planning has never been so necessary – or so challenging – to get right. When used effectively, account planning benefits businesses by delivering more revenue, happier customers, and more effective sales teams.
Virtually any enterprise – especially those already using CRMs like Salesforce – with a complex, B2B sales process can benefit from effective account planning strategies. This is especially true due to the prevalence of multiple decision makers being involved in a purchase. These buying groups have grown in recent years, making rigorous account planning more necessary.
The more competitive the industry, the more effective account planning can be. But as account planning seeks to change the entire mindset of the organization to make it act and think differently, leadership must be excited about this opportunity to change and grow.
Is account planning still effective in a digital age?
Account planning is more critical today for anyone involved in complex B2B sales cycles. If anything, the digital age demands a more human touch. With prospects being easier to reach than ever (via email, ads, and even text), it’s that much more important to lend a personal touch to stand out in the crowd. This is especially true for high value, complex sales.
According to a study done by McKinsey, 76% of respondents said meeting in person was a personal touch that indicated how much a supplier valued them. Even more tellingly, 59% of customers say they would buy from a supplier on the condition that they’d met in person before.
76% of respondents said meeting in person was a personal touch that indicated how much a supplier valued them.
Advancements in AI and Robotics offer an uptick in efficiency but cut out the relationship (trust) building of human interaction. In today’s digital age, it’s essential to remember that people still buy from people. Moving away from the legacy approach of pushing their own agenda, salespeople should move to a revenue optimized approach where ‘what does our customer need’ and how we can help them, is the value that every human conversation can add to a sales discussion.
Account planning in 2023 requires a change in mindset
It’s clear that a more humane, relationship-oriented approach to account planning is more important today than ever. But in order to do that, many enterprises that find themselves bogged down in “the old way of doing things” face a major hurdle in adjusting mindset.
When you think about sales, what’s the first image that comes into your mind? The answer to that question most likely depends on your own unique frame of reference. It could conjure up anything from a seedy used car salesman to a powerful innovator like Steve Jobs.
After all, effective selling is necessary for both phenotypes.
Account planning is a team sport
Realistically, account planning in 2023 is neither of these things.
For starters, account planning and account-based selling challenges revenue teams to see selling as a team sport. That means each salesperson plays a unique and important role in the sales journey. With this mindset, salespeople are no longer “lone wolves”. On the contrary, they are members of a pack with a clear understanding of how their contributions impact the whole.
More than just closing the next big deal, this approach helps sellers to identify the key problems real people are seeing. They use account planning strategies not as some sort of “cloak and dagger” technique to subvert an account, but instead to get to the real core of what problems their prospects and customers are facing. Doing this enables them to show potential buyers why they need the solution on offer.
In order to succeed, sellers need to put relationships at the center of everything they do. This is what account planning is all about.
Strategic account planning positions you as a “trusted advisor”
What do we mean by “a trusted advisor”? Basically, it means gaining an understanding of the people you are selling to, and their unique problems, in order to work with them every step of the way to finding a solution. This is part of the mindset shift required to become effective at account planning. It means becoming so much more in the eyes of your customers and prospects than that of just another vendor.
Earning a place as a trusted advisor means engaging everyone in the organization with whom you can deliver value. It means building out a robust understanding of roles in the decision-making process, how (and to what extent) they exert influence and what priorities are top-of-their-mind. In mapping a rich understanding of how key players relate to one another, reps can start to uncover how things happen in the organization. Often, these insights are not visible to the untrained eye.
Relationship mapping in key accounts– questions to ask
It takes time, however, to map the political structure hidden behind the organizational chart, but it’s time well spent. Top sellers uncover influence in all kinds of ways, including looking for people or groups who have worked together at past jobs or those who have similar backgrounds. Most importantly, they source information from supporters who can offer information they won’t find in their CRM.
In order to make this shift in mindset, revenue teams have to ask themselves a few questions. These include:
- Who matters?
- How do they think?
- What is the current relationship?
- What is the relationship gap?
- How can that gap be bridged?
- What goals, pressures, initiatives, and obstacles are top of mind for key players?
- How do our solutions solve the key challenges facing the account?
Armed with this information, revenue teams can begin their arduous but integral journey to becoming strategic partners to those who they want to do business with.
Leadership must be bought in
But before you can become a trusted advisor to others, you have to get your own house in order. Although there are different approaches to achieving this, one thing that is clear: leadership must be bought in.
Making the shift to an effective account planning approach doesn’t happen overnight. Leadership will need to equip their entire revenue teams with the tools, education and coaching they need in order to succeed. For this reason, change management is an essential part of the process.
Many enterprises approach this in different ways, with some starting from the top down, running a proof of concept, and then rolling out the program across the entire organization. Others, meanwhile, prefer to start from the ground up, equipping salespeople in the field and building excitement before tackling bigger accounts.
No matter which way your organization does it, one thing is still critical – ensuring leadership is in agreement on the importance of strategic account planning. By getting your leadership fully onboard, you are less likely to see your efforts fail down the road.
Keeping frontline managers engaged in the digital age
While it’s up to leadership to model excellence in account planning, frontline managers are the backbone to an effective account planning program. In a digital world, however, it can be a challenge to change their mindsets, processes, and even to keep them engaged.
In a virtual setting, behaviors and habits are different. It’s not enough to simply hope that things go back to being how they once were. Businesses and organizations require a deliberate strategy to make sure frontline sales managers are engaged often.
After all, they are the quarterbacks of the sales team – they’re the ones making the playbooks and running them. Equipping them with the support and tools they need to collaborate on not only key accounts but every account is fundamental to your revenue team’s success.
Establishing an “adoption plan” or “success charter” can help keep these sales managers engaged. Once created, this “charter” is integral in identifying key KPIs, behavior, change, expectations, and can act as the catalyst in cascading that point of view throughout the entire organization.
Benefits of Account Planning
Account planning is not a one and done solution. It requires constant iteration, and a good deal of investment in time, training and collaboration. But the benefits of establishing an effective account planning process are more than worth it. These include:
Better relationships: relationships are at the heart of account planning. Through seeking to deeply understand accounts – and the people, problems and potential in them – sellers can land new deals, grow revenue, and even deliver novel solutions to problems customers didn’t know they had.
Happier customers: of course, landing new deals aren’t the only incentive to excel at account planning. Good account planning also leads to happier customers. Through effective account management strategies, sellers can improve relationships with customers, turning them into loyal customers, and retaining and growing revenue in those accounts.
Revenue growth: ultimately, account planning leads to growth. According to McKinsey, The five-year growth rate of total returns to shareholders for digital leaders is almost double that of all other firms when they undertake a digitally focused account planning strategy. A higher growth rate should pique large enterprise’s interest in putting together an effective account planning strategy.
Account growth strategy for key accounts and beyond
Now that you understand the core principles and mindset shifts that are necessary to achieving success in account planning, we’re going to talk about something that is often overlooked in the actual planning process.
Although making sure key accounts have what they need to succeed – the right sales team, resources, and attention – is important, it’s not enough to focus on key accounts alone. In fact, in any given organization, most accounts will fall outside the “key account” status. This presents several opportunities from both a revenue perspective, and a coaching perspective. But first, a little bit more about key accounts.
What makes an account a “key” account?
Many enterprises will have different and varying names for what constitutes a “key” account. At the end of the day, however, they’re all talking about the same thing: big spenders. In fact, “key accounts” are an organization’s biggest revenue generators. For this reason, they get plenty of attention from the executive team, and are usually surrounded by the best sellers. Additionally, executive sponsorship programs often have several revenue team members supporting these kinds of accounts. Account planning for these accounts typically requires much broader and more intricate relationship maps.
Next down on the account hierarchy list are enterprise accounts. Very similar to key accounts, the very top level of your enterprise accounts gets plenty of attention from sellers. That can’t be said, however, for the rest of your enterprise accounts, or for the next level down – mid-market accounts. In fact, mid-market accounts often don’t get the love they deserve. And that’s a big mistake. After all, this segment has the highest growth opportunities.
Potential upsides in enterprise and mid-market accounts
While not the biggest spenders, enterprise and mid-market accounts offer unique opportunities to your revenue team that can be effectively leveraged with the right approach. These opportunities include:
- There is more potential for growth in these enterprise and mid-market accounts.
- These accounts often are ripe for seeing massive upsides from implementing the solution you’re selling.
- Once deployed, these stories can be more easily and effectively turned into stellar success stories and customer references.
- The step down from your key accounts is where most of your sales organization sits, therefore, these opportunities are ideal for training and grooming the next generation of sales leaders within your organization.
- Ideal opportunities for sellers to target “whitespace” .
Mid-market to enterprise accounts are great for grooming salespeople
As part of the shifting mindset away from the lone wolf approach to sales, effective sales and revenue teams leveraging account planning will see the bigger picture when tackling their sales initiatives. This means thinking not only about the customer at the center, but also about your salespeople involved in the sales process.
Lastly, due to these massive potential upsides, there is also often plenty of whitespace within these accounts – something that can be uniquely planned for using these less experienced salespersons.
Growing revenue in existing customer accounts
Opportunity within an existing account is one key aspect of account planning that is too often overlooked. While it is certainly important to allocate appropriate levels of resources to all accounts, sales teams must also think about the additional potential existing within those accounts. Account planning allows organizations to tap into this too often overlooked revenue source.
Whitespace is untapped potential
Surprisingly tricky to measure, whitespace is the existing opportunity within customer accounts to cross-sell and up-sell. Once your team has done the hard work of cultivating a relationship, instilling themselves as a trusted advisor, and landing a deal, without a strategy to effectively target whitespace they are not reaping 100% of the fruit of their labor.
One of the key benefits of selling to existing customers is that they are more likely to close. According to recent studies, companies have a 60-70% chance of selling to an existing customer vs. a 5-20% chance of selling to a new customer. This could in part account for the fact that 65% of a company’s business comes from existing customers.
Focus on customer problems to unlock potential
With the majority of revenue coming from existing customers, we can safely say it: there is no sale more valuable to a business than the one made to an existing customer.
Yet, like not focusing enough on all accounts, focusing on whitespace remains a blind spot for many revenue teams.
What are your customers’ priority problems, and are you the solution?
This is the single most important question you must ask in order to know if you are equipped to properly sell to your customers. It must be answered honestly. Of course, a customer’s solution needs to be something the sales team is uniquely equipped to help with, but it won’t always be that way. If it’s clear that an account isn’t positioned to grow now, sales leaders need to take that information to heart and reallocate their resources elsewhere. If the answer, on the other hand, is yes – it’s full speed ahead.
Account planning best practices: 12 step process
In addition to sales teams being too entrenched in “their own ways of doing things”, another major hurdle in planning for an account with plenty of whitespace is the common misconception that account planning is, at the end of the day, a secondary activity that takes key salespeople away from doing what they do best – selling.
This couldn’t be any farther from the truth. In fact, the best sales leaders will tell you time and time again that account planning activities, like relationship mapping, insight mapping, or collaborative account reviews, for example, are the foundations upon which their success has been built.
Businesses can look to build for long term revenue by following these best practices.
1. Do your research
If you want to maximize revenue from your key accounts, it starts with research. This means slowing down your natural inclination to focus solely on pursuing deals now. Doing your homework on the account and applying your experience from working with other customers will help you share insights with your customer.
If you don’t do the research, you won’t have the knowledge. Which means you can’t share insights – those aha moments – and that is a missed opportunity.
2. Choose your target
You should select and focus on the account divisions or business units which are in your ‘sweet spot’ – those areas where you can uniquely and competitively deliver true value. But targeting your ‘sweet spot’ isn’t enough. It’s critical to uncover areas that benefit both you and your customer for mutual value. After that, make hard choices about which opportunities to target and focus on in your account plan. Forgo opportunities that don’t deliver mutual value.
Before closing that coveted deal, or growing revenue within an existing account, the opportunity must be closely and effectively calibrated to ensure success. You need the right-sized account plan, the right plan type, and the correct functionality and activities for your revenue team. After all, account planning isn’t just about increasing sales. It’s about bringing insight to the customer to present solutions that benefit them, thereby increasing sales.
4. Focus on the customer
The impact of a poor buying decision on the customer could be career-limiting or damaging to the business. That’s why you absolutely must align your account planning efforts with the customer’s goals, pressures, initiatives, and obstacles for mutual value and benefit. How? The first step is fact-finding to gain a deep understanding of your customer’s goals and values.
5. Integrate data, knowledge, and information
A single account is a subset of an overall market. You ought to understand your customer’s market and market dynamics that could affect your customer. A lot of that information and data already exists in your CRM. Naturally, you’ll want to integrate your account plan and customer information with your CRM. A CRM facilitates collaboration and sharing knowledge with everyone on the account team, which can speed up your planning process.
6. Map people and influence
Companies don’t buy; people buy. The same is true in business. It is vital to understand and map out all the relationships in the organization. Especially inter-relationships – business, professional, and personal – along with lines of power and influence.
7. Build trust
Trust is the foundation on which you create, develop, pursue, and win business that delivers mutual value for you and your customer. You can only build trust by understanding customer business problems, one truth at a time, and by delivering a solution that solves them.
8. Identify “whitespace”
Once you understand the people and the problems and have developed a trusted relationship with your customer, you can identify new areas of opportunity – the whitespace in the account – where your solutions can add value to the customer.
9. Be collaborative and social
At its core, sales is a team sport where you can collaborate with the account team and the customer. Integrating a real-time collaboration tool with your CRM enables the team working on the account plan to easily communicate and keep up to speed on changes as they occur. It also ensures that all information is available to everyone at the same time so that there is no loss of productivity.
10. Review the account plan regularly
Like any activity worth doing well, account planning is all about consistency. Schedule time to test and improve your portfolio, account plan, and review opportunities. Publish your operational rhythm so that everyone is on the same page.
11. Communicate and mentor
We’ve talked about how account planning requires a shift away from being “lone wolves” to being a team sport. What better way to model this behavior than by starting with leadership? Effective coaching processes are essential to ensuring success in account planning. Successes, failures, joys and sorrows all need to be celebrated together in order to ensure the success of your team. Turning those stories of whitespace into revenue will be a crucial driver of success both for the seller and the account.
12. Measure progress
As with any system, if you don’t know how to measure success, there is no way to achieve it. Start by defining a few critical KPIs, such as the number of deals, average deal size, win rate, and sales cycle. Tracking additional metrics as whitespace turned into revenue will turn non-believers of account planning into advocates.
Collaboration: the difference between a good account plan and a great one
Whether you belong to a sophisticated B2B sales organization that’s been doing account planning for years, or if you are just starting out, it can be a significant challenge to clearly report on KPIs around whitespace. Some of this stems from the simple fact that collaboration is a real challenge. This is especially true for organizations post pandemic. Before they might have been used to working shoulder to shoulder in an office setting. Today, however, sales teams must be able to collaborate effectively on account planning virtually – via video calls and collaboration tools.
The good news is that the insights needed to succeed do exist. They’re knowable. The challenge is just capturing those insights in a way that can help the business succeed.
That’s why dedicating time and resources (not to mention investing in the right account planning technology) is essential. The most effective revenue teams, therefore, are those that circle around the insights they’ve gathered and map them against the account.
How account planning software can help you collaborate
While strategy, methodology and collaboration may be an instrumental aspect of account planning, winning teams need the right technology in place in order to achieve success. This is why the best account planning software creates the conditions in which account planning practices can thrive by enabling:
- Relationship mapping: Mapping the intricacies behind the political structure, relationships, influence, and potential challenges within an organization is a massively complex process. Relationship mapping software robust enough to enable sales teams to visually map these intricacies and collaborate on them together is vital to an effective approach to account planning.
- Insight mapping: Insight mapping is all about listening to your customers, understanding their goals and problems, and building trust. Account planning software that enables you to map out your customers’ goals, pressures, initiatives, and obstacles helps you propose a solution that actually fits their needs and solves their problems.
- Uncovering whitespace: Account planning software can show where your solutions have been deployed and which accounts are the prime targets for your suite of products or services.
- Reference management: Mid-market accounts may make for fantastic references thanks to their limited red tape, but those references won’t do you any good if they aren’t easily accessible. Account planning software can automate reference management, helping your salespeople spend more time strategizing and selling and less time searching for the right reference.
Account planning template for success
Lastly, account planning is an ongoing, iterative process. As such, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to account planning. It shouldn’t be done simply from a template. As seen above, however, the right software can help guide sellers to better deals, and enhance their processes while enabling collaboration.
By focusing on the key components of a great account plan – calibration, cadence, coaching, and KPIs – sellers can ensure maximum impact in every interaction with their buyers.
After reading this guide, you should be an expert on the mindset shift required to succeed in sales account planning. While the plan is hugely valuable, what really matters is identifying the objectives, strategies, and actions that define what daily tactics you need to execute. Planning is significant, but it is the day-to-day execution of tasks and actions that determine your progress
Effective account planning requires more than a tool or software or even an easy change – it’s a cultural shift. It means taking a new look at how you think about account planning, committing to proven sales methodology best practices, relationship mapping, collaboration, and coaching. With the right mindset, coaching, change management, and software, businesses can begin winning more business through a strategic approach to account planning.