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An introductory guide to sales account planning

By: Nicholas Mistretta:

As a sales manager, your primary function is to meet or exceed sales goals. It’s how you build a reputation. It’s also how you construct a successful sales career. And at the heart of this success story lies a little something called sales account planning.

According to research, the average lifespan of a sales leader with one company is between 18 and 24 months. This high turnover rate indicates a great inability of many sales managers to hit their target numbers, let alone soar past them. Of those that failed, how many do you think understood or used account planning as part of their sales strategy?

In this introductory guide to sales account planning, we’re going to touch on all aspects without getting too detailed in any one. You can expect to learn:

  • What is account planning in sales?
  • Why is it important to create a sales account plan?
  • How to put together a sales account plan
  • Some best practices for doing so

By the end of this guide, we hope to help you see the light, otherwise known as the importance of sales account planning. The result of which should help you succeed where others fail and create a sales stud reputation and some career longevity along the way.


Sales Account Planning | MindManager Blog


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What is sales account planning?

If sales is about relationships, think of sales account planning as couples’ counseling; the purpose of which is to help you nurture your relationship and help it grow. And it all begins with your mindset.

Think of your customers and prospects (aka future customers) as partners. When they succeed, you succeed. When they fail… so much for surpassing the average sales management tenure. Your job is to solve problems, not sell products.

As a partner, you’re invested in your customers’ success, challenges, and goals because this relationship is built on a mountain of mutual benefits. Or it lies smoldering in a crater of mutually shared destruction.

As a sales leader, no one needs to tell you how important it is to execute a good sales strategy. But if that strategy isn’t focused on account planning and management, you’re already lagging behind the competition, with little chance of gaining ground.

Why should you use sales account planning as part of your greater sales strategy? In one word, how would you answer this? Let’s come back to that.

How to create a sales account plan?

Account planning in sales management includes your customers’ decision-making processes, the companies you’re competing with, and strategies to win your prospects’ business. Or to keep your current customers’ business.

Sales account planning is vital, even if you’re still searching for the one-word answer to the question above. And yet, only 50 percent of sales professionals utilize account planning in sales.

However, as a loyal reader of the MindManager blog, we’re already tossing you into the top 50 percent, which means you understand the why and are ready for the how.

As with everything else in sales management, the steps below may vary a little. But at the very least, you want your sales account plan to include the following steps:

  1. Deciding which accounts need a sales account plan
  2. Deciding specifically what those accounts need
  3. Putting those needs into a document – the sales account plan
  4. Executing your sales account plan

This sounds simple enough, like making change for a $20 versus solving trigonometry equations. However, like most things in life, the Devil is in the detail… rather than overused cliches. So, let’s break down each step.

Step 1: Deciding which accounts need a sales account plan

Creating a sales account plan takes time and resources, so you want to factor in ROI when making this decision. You probably wouldn’t want or need to create a sales account plan for a small business client, but you would for an enterprise client. In other words, you don’t want to spend five bucks to make one back.

Regardless of ROI, your small business clients likely won’t need a sales account plan, so let’s let them off the hook. But what if the lines are blurry? What if you have a mid-size company or two? What if all your customers are about the same size?

In these grayer areas, you’ll want to establish some criteria, so start by dividing your clients into simple and strategic. The latter of which get a sales account plan. How do you do this?

Ask yourself questions like:

  • Are there other departments or locations I can sell to?
  • Do I see growth or expansion in their future?
  • Is the client high-profile, regardless of size?

Step 2: Deciding specifically what those accounts need

This is the data collection phase. It’s also likely to be the most time-consuming step in the sales account planning process. Data you’ll want to gather on clients include:

  • What are their business goals?
  • What is their biggest emphasis or need right now?
  • Who is making the decisions?
  • What is their current service or product you’re looking to replace?
  • How do they measure their ROI on your product or service?
  • How does your product or service stack up against the competition?

If you’re not sure where to look to get this data, here are a few suggestions:

  • Company website – start with About pages
  • Company press releases or news – Google News
  • LinkedIn
  • Google research
  • Competitive battlecards if you use them
  • Ask the customer

After you’ve gathered all your data, you’re ready for step three.

Step 3: Putting those needs into a document – the sales account plan

This is the step where you’ll be building your sales account plan, and we’ll divide it into three parts:

  1. Account analysis – analyze the data you collected in step two and decide who gets the A treatment and who gets the A+ treatment (a sales account plan).
  2. Short-term action items – for your A+ clients, what actions can you take in the next 90 days to help them reach their goals or solve a problem? Make sure to get your customers’ input.
  3. Long-term action items – for those same clients, what actions can you take over the next year to help them achieve their long-term goals? (As you know, goals should always be broken down into short-term and long-term.)

Step 4: Executing your sales account plan

That’s right boys and girls, it’s sales pitch time. For existing customers, you can wait before presenting your sales account plan – both short-term and long-term action items. A month before their renewal date works nicely.

Send them an email or hop on a phone call and mention that their renewal is coming up and you have some fresh ideas that might be of great benefit to them. If you’re pitching a potential customer, you can contact them immediately.

Set up a time for a call or a visit. Impress the stuffing out of them. Then sit back and try not to act too delighted by how impressed they get at all the thought and consideration that went into your account plan… tailored just for them.

After reading through these steps, do these sound like the actions of a sales rep or a partner in profit?

5 sales account planning best practices

There’s a little crossover, or maybe clarification, with the steps above. But as information is power and power can be wielded to accomplish some fine things, like crushing your sales goals, why not use every tool in the shed?

1. Defining a strategic client

Remember, your strategic clients will be getting sales account plans, so you’ll need a way to define those clients. There are the obvious criteria, like being enterprise clients and sexy startups. But also ask yourself, which current clients would you hate to lose (definitely those that are big money accounts)? Which prospective or current clients have the potential to grow into an enterprise client?

You don’t have to be Nostradamus, but it wouldn’t hurt. And don’t discount your business instincts.

2. Choosing a strategic account manager

There is a type of person that fits nicely into this role. Not too aggressive (see: Annoying). Not too timid. Someone who will always have the client’s best interest in mind, almost as if they worked for the client rather than with them. Remember, it’s a partnership mentality.

The characteristics of your sales account manager are important. You want someone who:

  • Is a great problem solver
  • Is sensitive to the clients’ needs
  • Is relationship-driven
  • Is willing to become an expert in each client’s business
  • Is able to educate the client on how your company can help them

You also want someone proficient at using internal resources and building a team environment where ideas flourish rather than die. Someone who’s a great listener, relatable to all, and great at making the important final decisions.

3. Building dependency with your strategic clients

You’ve heard of playing hard to get? What you want to avoid is playing hard to want. You want strategic clients to need you and depend on you. Just remember you’ll need to give them good reasons for feeling this way.

Your goal is to become interwoven into the fabric of their organization, both through dependency and relationship-building. If you make your company indispensable, cutting ties could hurt their business. If you have great relationships with your strategic clients, that could mean getting a second chance should one ever be necessary.

4. Creating value through insight

If you can help your strategic clients with new opportunities that are good for their business, you’ll become more indispensable. Continue to think of yourself as a partner rather than a sales rep and remember: helping clients make more money (or save money) is good for everyone.

There are three primary types of opportunities you can present to your clients:

  • Respond to opportunity – you get a request from the client; a problem that requires a solution.
  • Shape an opportunity – the client has identified a problem and is working on a solution, and you can help.
  • Create an opportunity – you bring fresh ideas to the client.

5. Validating your plan

How often are plans made but never followed through? This isn’t an option when it comes to executing a sales account plan. Remember, this is a costly exercise. If you’re not coming out ahead, there’s no point.

As the sales leader, it will be your job to hold everyone accountable, starting with the strategic account manager. And just as you would for your sales reps, you need to make sure everyone is setting and meeting goals, reviewing performance indicators, and looking for ways to improve.

These sales account planning best practices are just a taste of what’s to come. So, don’t worry if they felt a little thin. In the next article on account planning, we’ll deep dive into these strategies and maybe even a few others (that’s what we call a hook), so bring your scuba gear.

Why should you use sales account planning as part of your greater sales strategy? In a word, success. But we’ll also accept any word for $$$.

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