What is it ?
Account planning simply is a process of continuously identifying, analyzing and documenting how you as a solution provider can add value to your client, and balancing that with a sustainable business for your own firm. It is a strategic initiative that serves as a north star for the account over time.
Why bother having an account plan ?
- Retaining a client is always a better strategy than finding a new one – less CAC, faster deal cycles, better customer sat etc
- Clients prefer working with people who understand their strategy and problems. Higher NPS drives even more business
- It helps position “what is on the truck” in the client context
- It helps bring new team members up to speed on the account
- Helps up-line sales managers plan investment, coverage, revenue etc better for their patch…etc
Macro to Micro
No company exists in a vacuum. You need to understand the environment in which it operates. This is trickier than we might think when we look at companies buying each other across industries (say a Telco company buying a media company), or a Bank operating like a consumer tech company etc. Needless to say, COVID proved to be one of those instances where the macro environment changed quickly for most companies and all micro levels had to be reset.
Equally important is the time dimension. If what you want is a long term relationship, then you need an account plan that spans a longer horizon than your current fiscal year. But when account teams are not stable, or when short term goals are all that sales management worries about – it is hard to look farther into the horizon. Good account planning depends on how well you are scanning the environment along the way. For my fellow cricket enthusiasts – a good batsman knows where each fielder is when a bowler delivers a ball.
It is a jungle out there
And you are not the only hunter ! A good account plan needs an understanding of your competition. The ideal way to look at competition during account planning is with healthy respect. When you are trying to win a deal, it is quite ok to take a confident stance like “Only we can do this” . But in account planning stage – we need a more balanced approach to understand what they are good and how to mitigate the challenge.
Business is done between people and not between companies
For sustained profitable growth, it is not enough that we have “product market fit” with the client. We also need trusted relationships. That is why relationship maps are critical . We need to be honest about what relationships are strong. “She will take a meeting” is not enough to mark it as “strong”. The long term aspect of relationship building is equally key. A good account plan not only analyzes who are the key decision makers, it also identifies who are the up and comers and how you plan to build relationships with them.
Level of detail
An account plan serves as a north star – not as a turn by turn road map. The reason is quite simple – account plan is a strategy document based on what you know at a point in time. As you pursue each aspect of the plan, you will need to evolve the details and mitigate risks. Remember – if there is no risk, it was not strategic to begin with. Do not get trapped into the thinking that an account plan is a collection of pursuit plans. Each pursuit needs to be qualified, planned ,executed and evolved based on learnings on its own merits.
Balancing Outside-In vs Inside-out
The easiest way to add value to a client is by matching a client problem (which could be anywhere from a burning platform to a wish list) to what you have in the truck. It obviously needs you to understand the plans the client already has in place, which in turn needs a lot of homework and a good ability to listen and assimilate.
Similarly, it is also true that the client often does not know what options exist for their plans to be realized. In some cases they don’t know they have a problem till you show it to them in their context. So what you have in the truck will often have some interest from the client – but only if you can put it in the context of their business. For example – “We can help you in your digital transformation journey” means very little to a client , where as “Can I show you a few options on how digital onboarding can cut your acquisition cost by 80%?” will usually lead to a good meeting. Goes without seeing – this needs you to know what you have in the truck in some detail 🙂
Plan the solution for the client, not just your part
Clients need solutions. What you can help with might only be a part of that solution. In that case, you need to widen your thinking and take an ecosystem based approach to the solution. In the technology world it might often mean building a coalition that might include your competitors. For example – If what you bring to the table is integration expertise , perhaps you can also help with figuring out software selection , release planning and post production maintenance . It might not translate immediately to commercial success – but it does help add value to the client and over time it always pays in spades.
Involve the client throughout
There is very little point in creating a plan without talking the client and taking their input along the way. My preferred way is to create a straw-man internally with my team, and then take it to the client to validate. Often it results in rewriting the plan from scratch. Then along the way, I like to do “listen only” sessions with clients to understand their goals and objectives – where I pitch nothing from my side, other than follow ups in case I think I can help with something after the meeting.
Operationalizing the plan
Now that you have a north star – it needs to translate into execution. I use a straightforward method for this
- Make sure there is buy in from client and my team and address those concerns
- Map the account plan to leads in the lead tracking system and assign timeline, sales stage, potential value etc. Then it becomes part of your regular execution cadence, and saves you from additional meetings and processes
- Map the account plan to sales/revenue/cash flow etc to make sure you have headlights into the future in tangible terms
- Adjust the plan every quarter with input from all stakeholders in a business review meeting. A plan is always a work in progress
- Reset the plan mid year to incorporate whatever you have learned . If you do not incorporate learnings along the way, the plan is useless