Top 10 Account Planning Mistakes to Avoid

By Masami Middleton on Aug 31, 2018

In B2B sales, driving revenue from existing accounts is far easier than landing net new customers. With so much opportunity available, why do mature sales organizations still “wing it” with their Account Planning process?

According to CEB/Gartner research, only 28% of sales leaders believe their account management channels meet their cross-selling and account growth targets. Thoughtful, intentional account plans provide real strategic insight and actionable game plans for account teams to meet growth targets. For sales managers, account plans provide an excellent foundation for consistent coaching conversations, insight into forecasts, and an overall way of staying engaged with customer activity.

Account Planning is the process of determining the best way to grow and add value to existing accounts. While many organizations engage in both Account Planning and Territory Planning (systematically determining how to optimize impact over a portfolio of accounts), the purpose of this post is to explore the deep dive Account Planning process to dissect one account at a time.

If your team is currently digging into Account Planning (or about to), here are 10 common mistakes to avoid.

  1. Treating Account Planning as an obligatory, administrative process. How do we know this issue is real? When the administrative assistants or interns are filling out Account Plan templates.  Annual Account Planning should be a strategic and consistent set of conversations between account owners and others who support the account, rather than a mere “check-the-box” task. Account Planning is a prime opportunity for those who impact your most valuable clients to step back and think about each account and its potential. This includes conversations about key client needs, relationships, goals, and what the seller expects from their organization to achieve account goals. The plan itself is merely the documentation of those critical conversations sales leaders should look critically at these outputs, asking the hard coaching questions and probing for insights that influence business planning efforts.  Done correctly, account planning can inform financial planning and sales target setting cycles so that sellers know how their account plans fit into their broader sales goals.
  2. Poor account prioritization. Be clear about the criteria that identify which accounts deserve an account plan and which do not. Your best accounts deserve the rigorous attention that Account Planning provides. Don’t dilute this effort with mediocre accounts. Cap the number of account plans per rep (e.g., at four or five) to reduce the administrative burden and encourage quality planning. At the same time, don’t miss the mid-sized, yet high growth accounts that represent your ideal customer profile. By prioritizing and putting your Account Planning microscope on those accounts that are and could potentially be the most significant to your business, you can steer your sales team toward winning more accounts with the same profile.
  3. Insufficient customer knowledge. For better or worse, Account Planning reveals just how well your sales team knows (or doesn’t know) their customers. Well-developed account plans require a solid understanding of the client’s strategic priorities, markets, industry trends, financial performance, competition, market position, and key stakeholders. As a sales manager, use the Account Planning process as a valuable opportunity to help your reps step back and see the information gaps they need to fill in their day-to-day client interactions. If your sales team needs to hone their customer discovery skills, see this practical article: The 60-Day Sales Discovery Challenge.
  4. Taking an inside-out versus outside-in approach. Since Account Plans establish your company’s goals for account growth, it is easy to fall into a self-serving, internally-focused approach rather than a customer-centric mindset. Your Account Plan must first demonstrate a deep understanding of client pains, key priorities/initiatives, and compelling events. Only with this understanding will you be able to position your organization’s overall value to your client. Be wary of internal agendas that get in the way of effectively matching priorities with real client pain. This is likely a contributor to the 72% of sales leaders in the aforementioned Gartner/CEB research who don't believe account managers are meeting cross-selling and account growth targets.
  5. Overlooking whitespace opportunities. To ensure that your team doesn’t miss key cross-sell and up-sell opportunities within accounts, make Whitespace Analysis a formal component of your Account Plans. For complex accounts, create a clean, yet detailed grid with client business units listed down the left side (rows) and your company’s products/services across the top (columns). Then, fill in -- or better yet, color code -- which boxes are ‘Saturated’, ‘Underway’, ‘Not a Fit’, or ‘Whitespace’. Your grid offers a quick, visual method to highlight the whitespace. Other elements in the Account Plan should articulate how your team will capitalize on that white space.
  6. Poor relationship assessments and engagement planning. Many Account Plans fail to honestly and comprehensively assess existing relationships (strong/neutral/weak) across decision makers and key influencers. Be specific about how you plan to strengthen those relationships by creating a client engagement plan, i.e., an action plan against the client stakeholders who carry a high level of decision influence. Your engagement plan should include internal owners that map to those contacts, expected actions, and due dates for completion.  Note: sales managers should not confuse Account Planning with performance reviews – sellers need to be brutally honest with themselves and others about the true nature of relationships at an account.  If Account Plan reviews become punitive, managers will lose the opportunity to collaborate with the seller on how to best improve positioning within the account.
  7. Skimping on goal definition. When setting goals in Account Plans, we like to categorize them in three areas client pain, white space, and relationships. In other words, your goals should address specific pain points you know the client has, include cross-sell and up-sell opportunities, and establish which relationships you intend to grow. Goals should be aggressive yet realistic, be categorized between the short and long term, and where applicable, align with financial goals. When documenting goals, we encourage our clients to use the S.M.A.R.T. litmus test (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, and Timely). If your organization holds sellers accountable for the goals in their Account Plan, then be sure to also have them define stretch goals outside of the account plan so that they are always working beyond what they are ready to commit is immediately possible.
  8. Insufficient action planning with internal resources. A great Account Plan has dedicated areas for actions, owners, due dates, and space to track status over the course of the year. These actions should include internal roles, i.e., specific names and what is expected of these individuals to achieve account goals. Be clear from top to bottom on what you need from the senior executive versus the analyst and share your plan with them. Consider conducting a cross-functional strategy session with representatives from sales, marketing, product, R&D or other teams to create your account strategy and action plan. Leaders should encourage sellers to involve others and not try to “go it alone” – reward sellers for bringing the best of your organization to their customers!
  9. “Setting, then forgetting” Account Plans. After all of the exertion to create Account Plans, don’t file them away, only to gather dust until next year! Well-developed Account Plans should serve as living documents that sellers update throughout the year as they gather new insights on their clients. If the Account Plan is the documentation of a strategic conversation, then the conversation should continue until the account goals are reached! The real value of Account Plans comes with charting everything you plan to accomplish with an account, then review your progress monthly – or quarterly at the very least (e.g., as part of a QBR) – with the sales manager and account team.
  10. Not leveraging sales technology. Your CRM is your repository for account data and an integral part of your team’s workflow. By integrating your Account Plans into your CRM (and even leveraging an add-on tool such as Revegy), you can store and update those plans and make them easily accessible to leadership and account team members. Avoid the “set and forget” pitfall in #9 above by uploading and sharing access to your Account Plans rather than hiding them on your hard drive.

Account Planning is an essential part of a high-performing sales organization. Great sales leaders hold their reps accountable for developing and executing against their account plans. When done well, account plans keep sellers and supporting resources strategically focused the accounts and actions that move the needle for the company as a whole.

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Masami Middleton

Written by Masami Middleton

As a Principal Consultant with Symmetrics Group, Masami Middleton combines the market focus and execution of a Marketing VP with the critical, data-driven orientation of a seasoned strategist. Masami is passionate about sales and marketing integration and helping organizations take a disciplined approach to defining sales and marketing process and enabling technologies. Over the last 25 years, Masami has served as a strategy consultant and marketing leader from Fortune 500 to start-up environments.

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