The Good Old Days
In the 90s, when I was selling instead of consulting, I did a lot of account planning. You know, that thing where you and your account team get in a room, usually in Q1, and talk about the sales opportunities you’ll pursue at specific customers during the next fiscal year.
I learned my craft at SAP, and to be sure, our process was disciplined – with the exception of one episode involving dry erase markers that smell like their colors (one finds amusement where one can at a German company).
Our account plans were things of beauty, right down to the color-coded Harvey balls we used to visually denote the health of our selling relationships with decision makers.
The first iteration (building a new plan from scratch) took an agonizingly long time, as much as a full week of running down information for a complex customer:
- What’s the customer’s corporate strategy?
- Have there been leadership changes?
- Did they acquire or divest?
- What are the trends in their industry or changes to their market dynamics?
- Who listened to the last analyst call; what did they say?
When we were done, we’d wrap our plan in pretty paper, tie it with a bow, and deliver it to our Sales VP in a formal presentation that solemnly conveyed the highly disciplined client strategy we intended to execute as a result of the entire process.
Then we went back to our day jobs.
It was an annual ritual as old as selling itself. We would check the box on planning, then thank our relative deities that no one would be uttering the “P” word for another 12 months. Time to get back to work; someone might buy something today.
Why didn't we ever make the connection between planning, client strategy development, execution, and winning?
What Planning Can Teach You About Your Sales Team
When I became a consultant, it took me all of 5 minutes to realize that it’s impossible to consult on an actual deal unless the client has an account plan.
Planning, therefore, has been one of our staple client activities for years. Also – and this is true – you learn a tremendous amount when you observe a sales team in a planning session.
- How your sales team thinks about client strategy (or doesn’t)
- How well you actually understand your own clients and what they care about (or don’t)
- Whether your team is able to formulate strategy (vs. getting mired in detail)
Except There’s a Conundrum
Everyone agrees planning is essential to good selling -- The bedrock foundation for setting disciplined client strategy… the difference between winning and losing… the one thing you absolutely cannot do without.
But they thoroughly loathe it.
It involves research, sitting for long stretches of time, actively listening and … thinking. It involves reading through 6 months of client notes to refresh your memory on past history, reckoning with your competitor’s true capabilities, and occasionally requires an uncomfortable review of lost deals.
Once that’s done, you still have to develop a client strategy and execute it, which almost certainly requires managing a team of subject matter experts that are matrixed, geographically dispersed, and open to better options for using their time.
Let’s be honest. It would be much easier to just hide your account plan in a recessed corner of your CRM system where it can lay undisturbed, collecting digital dust until the next fiscal year.
New Tools Can Largely Automate Planning
Such is our aversion to the whole miserable venture, that when I used to enter a room to facilitate a planning session, I occasionally felt like a lion-tamer stepping into a ring full of surly cats radiating disdain at being pulled from the field for an entire day.
But we’ve since found a winning combination for driving the benefits of account planning into the field, and they have to do with advances in technology:
- Mobile CRM and voice recognition tools now make it next to impossible for sellers to complain that they don’t have time to capture the customer intel that’s vital to good account planning. If sellers have a phone, they are CRM-enabled and typing isn’t necessary.
- CRM and even account planning technology are now so sophisticated that much of the data we used to gather by hand can be automatically generated into an account planning template. This removes the tedium that is the main barrier to account planning – the information gathering. Sellers can now focus on formulating strategy rather than hunting and gathering client intel. Suddenly planning seems like a far better use of their time.
- In carefully controlled environments, virtual planning sessions (using Skype for Business as an example) can work, alleviating the need for everyone to be in the same room. If budgets allow, I still prefer face-to-face planning sessions, but video conferencing works in small time segments (1 to 2 hours) when there is a detailed agenda and an excellent facilitator.
Tried and True Approach
Nothing, however, beats getting a sales team to experience winning by working the process: planning to strategy through execution. Outside of automation, what else can you do to ensure that your team's account plans are actionable?
- Develop an account planning structure. The exact structure will vary depending on your organization and team, but ensuring that your structure is time-based and that specific roles are assigned to action steps are critical components.
- Create linkage to management rhythm and performance management. For instance, establishing a review cadence through Quarterly Business Reviews, team meetings, and 1:1 reviews will ensure that everyone stays on track and is held accountable for their part in the process.
If you can combine the above with the ease of mobile CRM technology to drive one sales team to a win, they will advocate for the planning process with the rest of the field, starting a virtuous cycle. We’ve seen it and it works.
I may even get to retire my lion-tamer’s whip and chair.