For most growing commercial companies, there comes a time when your network is depleted and a reactive attitude towards sales seizes to be sufficient to support your growth. Assuming you want to keep growing and make loads of money, this means you’ll have to professionalize a bit and become a proactive sales superstar.
In sales, we usually keep track of our contacts, leads, opportunities, and contracts in a Customer Relationship Management system. This works very well for recording client data, reporting on your sales funnel and keeping track of your sales department’s activity. It might come across a useless administrative burden (I hate that too) but it helps you to organize your efforts; especially when working with others.
There are accounts, however, that require a more qualitative approach than others. Accounts that are very large or you’ve already had several contracts there, or there’s literally a plethora of chances for cross- selling. For these accounts, you want to get more insight into the organization, find out where the opportunities are, who the decision unit makers are, and how you are going to approach them strategically.
Hence, the account plan. This includes:
1. Goal setting with priorities & timelines
Please, be realistic. It’s terribly demotivating to put a lot of effort into a plan that looks great on paper but fails completely because the goals are way out of your league. A recognizable analogy is a company bonus that is dependent on making the budget that’s set by overly ambitious management.
The first step in your goal setting should be high-level as to serve as a guideline in the development of your account plan. So, take your time to develop your goals because it’s ok to adapt your goals when new information comes to mind or even change goals completely if you need to.
2. Info gathering
Get a lot of information on your prospect. Don’t get creepy but at least you should have a proper understanding of your target:
What kind of business is it?
What’s their business model?
What market are they in?
What can you find about them in the news?
How many colleagues do they have?
Who are their preferred clients?
What are they known for?
What can you say about their finances?
Where are they located (HQ or affiliate)?
What does the internal organization look like?
Who are the decision makers in the buying process?
You can answer most of these questions easily by visiting a company’s website but also schedule some time to talk to your network (preferably, people who work there). Websites get outdated sometimes and let’s be honest, people always have gory details to share.
Fun experiment: If you want to take a gamble and ignore the fact that we ‘the business people’ don’t usually go around telling them ‘the other business people’ there is on ongoing investigating going on in your company regarding their business: share your findings with them! If you take a minute and think about it, this account will eventually be a document describing how you two could create a win-win situation.
3. Estimating client goals (SWOT)
Much like yourself, your prospects also have plans meaning they might be open to external input to reach goals of their own. Read: this is your chance to complement their needs. Out of all the information that you’ve gathered, you should be able to get a sense of what your prospects are looking for.
Let’s say you read in the news that a biotech is setting up a lab, then you can bet your ass that they’ll be looking for some assistance in the design, setting up a quality system, and getting some Good Laboratory Practices support to be compliant with legislation, for instance.
It’s usually not this easy, of course, but as long as you try to connect with your prospects, you can think with them instead of thinking about your own gain solely. Actually, delivering some added value this way will turn your relation from a vendor on the list and contractor in to something far more sustainable for your business; a real partnership if you will.
There’s a lot of models out there to use to visualize this process, but let’s be honest; they all look like a SWOT. You’ll find a version in the account plan template you can download for free. If you have troubles filling it out, try this page. If that fails, feel free to send me a message. But, rest assured, it’s fairly straight-forward.
4. Team alignment
If you are a one-man team (and don’t suffer from multiple personality disorder) you might want to skip this bit.
In all other cases, it’s important to have a generally accepted approach to working on account plans. These plans should be consistent as to have value and especially when several people are working on the same account plan, you need some ground rules. If you want to get the most out of it, that is.
So, try to get everyone onboard when creating a plan, make sure everyone benefits from it and realizes this too.
In my opinion, the account plan also includes the materials that you can use in its execution. Materials meaning everything from leaving a pen on all the desks you’ll be visiting but also the drafting of new marketing materials like a specific brochure, case studies, or a PPT that reflects the same needs as the account you’re targeting.
I get that you’re anxious to get to work but be sure to get all this done before you start calling around for appointments. Imagine unexpectedly getting an appointment with the CEO and you blow your chance because you can’t back up your story with some compelling materials.
Once you feel you have a solid plan together, it’s time to start kicking. Start making appointments with stakeholders in your account that you consider decision makers. Be proactive about all this because it’s not going to happen by itself.
Try to ask open questions and keep in mind that you don’t want to be the one talking all the time. Your number one goal might be selling your service or product but you’ll need to listen before that’s going to happen. An efficient way to go about these conversations is structuring your sales talks.
Make sure that during the execution phase, you never lose track of what’s important to your prospects and what they believe. Your main aim should be inspiring or challenging them and enter into a meaningful discussion with you. If you make it out alive, you’ll have set the first step towards a partnership in which you become the go-to guy for your area of expertise. That’s a lot cooler than just winning a quote, isn’t it?
Leaving all hippie talk behind us for a minute though. This also means getting out of your comfort zone and:
Making lots of visits
Approaching your network for warm introductions
Sending emails to people you don’t know yet
Spying on people’s LinkedIn profiles
And, I can’t believe I’m promoting this…
7. Review, adapt and proceed
We all fuck up sometimes, some of us more than others, but in the end, we all do.
If you’re new to working with account plans the odds may not be in your favor. Maybe you’ve set unrealistic goals (even though I just told you not to), maybe some in people in the company just don’t like you, or maybe you’re too late and a competitor just took all the projects. Don’t give up just yet.
It’s ok to put an account plan on hold, alter its goals, or start over with a new account altogether because as companies evolve, so should your account plan. It’s hard to define when exactly you should be letting go or maybe double the effort but you should be reviewing the content of your plan periodically and act accordingly. It also goes without saying, that this also means that if a certain account plan seems to pay off: define why and apply this to other accounts!
8. A steady heartbeat
Most companies use account plans and the information and templates you need to start this activity in your own company are abundant on the web. Still, this isn’t a done deal in most cases. I’ve seen account plans fail quite recently simply because all the intentions and means are present at the start but are deprioritized over time.
To prevent this from happening, you should set up regular moments with the involved people to assess the status of accounts. It’s not guaranteed that every meeting will be a significant breakthrough but you’re assured that the process is continued and an account is managed according to the goals and timelines you’ve set. Cancelling of these meetings devalues the plan, while a quick walkthrough puts them right on top of everyone’s mind.
Tip: Ignoring for a moment the differences in sales skills, intelligence, creativity, and charisma, the clue to successful account management might simply be to actually get out there and talk to people. To ensure this happens, think about including activity metrics like emails sent, phone calls made, and contact moments. Not everyone will like this but it sure as hell works.