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Account planning best practices to crush your sales goals

By: Nicholas Mistretta

If you already read our introductory guide to sales account planning, you’ll be happy to know that in this article, we’re going deeper into the account planning process. The account planning best practices you’ll learn today should help you achieve the one goal every sales manager has:

Crushing your sales goals.

But first, a question…

Let’s say you have a lot of customer accounts, and we’re sincerely hoping this is true. Do you:

A) Treat them all the same, the way you do your children? (Yes, this isn’t entirely true, even though we tell ourselves it is.)

B) Hand out treatment preferentially, the way pro sports teams treat star players versus the end of the bench guys?

In a perfect world where money grew on trees (I can hear my father now), the answer would be A. But we don’t live in a perfect world, which is why the first strategic account planning best practice is figuring out who your star players are, who has the potential to become a star player, and which players will always be glued to the end of the bench.


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Strategic account planning – who are your star players?

The first thing you’ll want to do is decide who your simple clients are and who your strategic clients are. Strategic clients are large enterprise companies, high profile startups, or those little engines that could… turn into an account that brings in a lot of future earnings.

Your strategic clients are also your current accounts that bring in a lot of revenue. For those of you are were fans of Mad Men, think Lucky Strike. Remember when Don Draper and friends lost the tobacco company as a client, along with half their billings? Who says TV can’t be educational?

Your simple clients have simple needs. They won’t require much, they don’t bring in much revenue, and while you’re glad to have them, you’re not spending a ton of resources on them.

What are sales account planning best practices?

Your account planning process steps may vary a little, but these account planning best practices deserve to be executed in an order that makes sense. And at the top of that list is:

1. Define what it means to be a strategic client

We touched on this briefly above, but let’s get into some specific criteria. After all, the world is much grayer than it is black and white. Hard decisions may be required, but just how do you make those decisions?

You want to be selective because time and money will be spent on creating a sales account plan for every key account. Also, this should be handled by senior management who may be better suited to aligning these decisions with the organization’s high-level strategic goals. Consider the following criteria:

  • Fit – product/service, cultural, geographical
  • Revenue potential
  • Growth potential
  • Strength of existing relationships
  • Potential channel partnerships
  • Solvency
  • Publicity

There’s a reason beyond revenue why ad agencies go after car manufacturers and airlines. There’s the prestige that comes with some clients and the kind of publicity you can’t buy. An ugly guy who’s dating a beautiful woman suddenly becomes more attractive to other beautiful women. This is called social proof in psychology circles and it can be very persuasive.

So, make a list, check it twice, and find out who’s… can’t take this Christmas pun any further, but you get the point. After you choose which clients are strategic, it’s time to choose a strategic sales manager to handle those key accounts.

2. Choose your strategic account manager (SAM)

This person will be separate from sales. It’s time to parse your thinking into two areas: sales management and account management. Each role requires a different mindset, different skillset, and different objectives.

Your strategic account manager is for key accounts only. This person must be both analytical and personable. Analytical enough to think strategically about creative solutions and partnership opportunities for all key accounts. And personable enough to build and maintain good relationships with their own team and with the key account’s decision-makers and stakeholders.

Your strategic account manager will also need to become an expert in the key account’s business and able to educate that client on how your company can help them succeed.

3. Make the transition from sales to account management

You may be tempted to think of this as simply taking a file out of one file cabinet and putting it into another. (Or from one file in the cloud to another.) This would be a mistake.

This step only applies to current customers. Any future customers will be accurately assessed and deemed key-account worthy from the beginning.

For the customer who’s going from simple client to strategic, a lot is changing, and people aren’t particularly fond of change. You should know this going in. They’re going from your sales team to your account management team, from a sales manager to an account manager. Even their sales rep – their most frequent point of contact – has changed.

First, explain to your customer that this is a good thing. They’ll receive more personalized service and more investment in time and resources all with the aim of helping them grow and succeed. Let them know who they can contact if they have any concerns or questions and what the new expectations are.

It’s a good idea to script this handoff. At first, it’ll feel a little improvised. Over time, you should be able to polish this handoff into a smooth and streamlined transition process.

4. Create a key account profile

If you’re creating an account profile for a current customer, you may know a lot about them already. But it couldn’t hurt to learn more. Up to this point, you’ve been sporadically dating. Now you’re getting married, and you want to know everything.

Your goal is to learn about your key account’s wants and needs, their goals and pain points. Your objective in doing so is to make yourself more indispensable by finding opportunities where you can add value.

This part of the account planning process should be comprehensive. You want to get to know this customer backward and forward, inside and out. Gather as much research as possible in these areas:

  • Their market and their place in it
  • Their business, all aspects
  • Their stakeholders, gatekeepers, influencers, and key decision-makers
  • Their competition

Conducting research in 2020 and beyond can often be done with a few keystrokes on your keyboard. But if in doubt, or to clarify something, try asking the customer. How can I help you is never a bad question to ask.

Consider conducting a white space analysis. This should take you beyond what the strategic account’s current value is. You want to find out what products they currently use, what products they want or need, and what products they’ll never want or use. Then find opportunities for cross-selling and up-selling.

5. Assess your key account’s needs

During step four of the account planning process, you’ve hopefully become familiar with your strategic account’s pain points. But in this step, you’ll want to get as many details as possible and define those points more succinctly.

Are there any looming concerns on the horizon that has your client worried? (Most probably have a few.) Are there any opportunities for collaboration and partnership?

One thing that differentiates a simple account from a strategic account is the long-term investment you’re making in them. Your goal isn’t to make yourself more money or to make them more money. Your goal is to form a true partnership with your key accounts – to grow together and become more profitable together.

In the last article – An introductory guide to sales account planning – we defined three opportunity types: respond to an opportunity, shape an opportunity, and create an opportunity. A quick review of all three wouldn’t be a bad idea.

6. Create an account plan

You’ve learned a lot about your strategic client in the previous steps. It’s time to put it on paper.

Boil all your strategic opportunities down to the best of the bunch. Think long-term goals and both long-term and short-term action items and benchmarks for measuring success. Remember, you’re in this partnership for the long haul, so goals should be in the 1-3-year range.

Make sure your ideas are properly thought out and defined. You want to lay out strategies, steps, resources required, and the like, regardless if these ideas are potential partnerships or creative solutions to difficult problems. You want to create a roadmap for your client, not give them an address and hope they find their way.

7. Create a communication plan

Half of being professional is simply being a great communicator. Don’t make your strategic client have to guess about anything or wonder what’s going on.

Set up a plan for future communication. Consider scheduled meetings, how often these meetings occur, with whom they occur, and who your strategic client should contact if there’s an emergency. In-between scheduled meetings make it a point to follow up with your client periodically, but not so often that you annoy them. And always word it in a way that makes it seem like you’re reaching out to help.

The only way to stay up to date with your customers’ needs is to communicate with them regularly. Strong client relationships begin with clear communication, rather than making assumptions and hoping everything is going well. And don’t take these relationships for granted.

8. Monitor your performance

For each strategic client account, you’ll want to routinely measure, monitor, and analyze performance. What progress has been made? Where have you come up short? What is working better than expected? Are you reaching short-term goals? Are you on target to reach long-term goals?

You may find opportunities for improvement you wouldn’t have otherwise found. The same way a sales manager regularly analyzes individual and team performance, a strategic account manager should do the same.

If you’re about to drive across the country (before the days of GPS), you wouldn’t just look at your roadmap once at the beginning of the trip. Monitoring performance means staying informed and on track. It could mean the difference between seeing roadblocks coming or being caught off guard.

Tracking progress isn’t just about making sure your client is getting value. It’s also meant to ensure your organization is as well. Remember, this relationship is supposed to be a partnership. If your value is less than anticipated or moving in the wrong direction, that’s something you’ll want to identify and change.

Most of all, remember that achieving success using these strategic account planning best practices isn’t about doing one thing well one time. It’s about doing everything well consistently. Crushing your sales goals with your strategic accounts is accomplished by meticulously following these account planning process steps and perfecting each along the way.

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