We’ve recently led Strategic Account Planning sessions with some of our best clients. It’s always an eye opening exercise that we learn from each time ourselves, and after going through our methodology with these clients, we came away with some key observations and best practices that we would like to share over the next two weeks. These practices can be applied to any business hoping to retain and grow their most important customers.
Strategic account planning is a common corporate activity. The sales team puts together their account plan projecting how much business they expect to land for the next year while companies look at the market and decide what their budget will be.
This is a good activity that we would, of course, recommend, but we also recommend that sales teams go farther. Account planning needs to be more strategic and less tactical. The old adage of not “seeing the forest for the trees” definitely holds true to Account Planning. If that’s your only perspective, it means you’re only seeing right in front of you. Instead, you need a bifocal perspective, meaning that you are able to see both short-term and farther out to get a long-term, big picture view of accounts.
Most sales people do really well when looking at what’s right in front of them. They can easily describe the deals they are working on now and what’s coming up in the next quarter or next year. However, they struggle when trying to make a long range plan. Having a long-term view of your strategic accounts can be a game changer.
The first best practice we want to share is that you must start with your customer, and not focus on you and the products you’re trying to sell. Your focus should be completely on the customer so you can better understand them and their strategies. Research the company, have conversations with your contacts inside the account, and read whatever you can to understand their strategy. Find out where they want to go in their markets, how they want to better serve their customers, and where they are making investments for the future. You don’t want just a 12 month view of the situation, but a 36 month view, minimum.
We like to think of a pyramid, with the client’s goals at the top, their initiatives in the middle, and their projects at the bottom. Their three big corporate goals may be to grow revenue, improve sustainability, and reduce costs. There will be several initiatives required to achieve these goals. For example, to grow revenue, they may plan to launch new projects, enter new markets and double their sales force. Within each initiative, there are projects that require solutions or products from vendors to be successful.
If you are only responding to the projects, you will be at a disadvantage. It’s common that the seller who wins in the end, is the seller that links to the client’s initiatives and has been involved in creating and defining the projects that actually happen for the client. For the sales team that is involved in all three parts of the pyramid, there is a much higher probability of winning the project at the end than if you’re only trying to find and win existing projects.
Often, your toughest competition is the status quo. Making a change is hard. It’s always easier for a company to do nothing and stay with their current vendor. If they do make a change, chances are they will choose the company that not only has a product that meets their requirements but also brought insight early in their decision process, helped influence their strategy, and helped them create the business justification to make the change. It is tough to do that if you’re just chasing known projects and short-term deals.
Companies will only do projects that connect back to their corporate strategy. Why is that so important to recognize? The client has a buying process, and we see that it is the vendor or seller that adds value throughout the customer’s buying process that will win projects. The ability to lead and connect all the way through is crucial, and you can only do that if you understand their strategy and have a strategy of your own for the account.
Another key aspect of Account Planning is having a strategy for creating relationships with key influencers inside your strategic accounts. We will talk more about this next week.