Four Reasons You Need Account Planning for Sales Success

By Mark Donnolo

Mike Barnes, executive vice president with Andrews Distributing – one of the largest beer distributors in the United States – knows the value of account planning.

In April 2013, the company began following a structured account planning process. They collected large amounts of data about their customers’ buying habits and, based on what they learned, changed their sales coverage model. “The minute that we did that, we had the first year of consecutive months of share growth,” says Barnes. “We’re now in our third year and, as we have improved in account planning, we’ve seen our market share grow. We’re in our 34th consecutive month of share growth – and that’s virtually unheard of in our industry.”

Account planning provides a structure to determine what’s important and what’s not when pursuing customers. Below are four reasons account planning can make a difference in your sales organization now.

Four Reasons You Need Account Planning

#1: Competition is out there. You have to know more about your customer, better understand their needs, have a differentiated value proposition, and have an actionable plan to beat the competition. Account plans provide data that pinpoint the market share, level of competition, and the strengths and weaknesses not only of your position but of your competitors – all of which contribute to the predictability of whether or not you can hit your goals.

#2: Account plans coordinate teams. Most individual sales reps are great at the tactical level. But accounts typically require larger coordination – either between accounts or within the same account – depending on its size. Account plans also reveal how well you work together as an organization within the account. How does the sales team work with the technical organization?

#3: Your account is one piece of a larger puzzle. Every company has financial goals, and financial leaders have to demonstrate they have a plan to achieve those goals. But the sales organization – and typically only the sales organization – knows what’s going on at eye level. Account plans help communicate that bottom-up view. The sales organization has an opportunity to discuss what their customers are doing, for better or worse, and offer valuable information about how sales will achieve its goals.

#4: Account plans create accountability. The sales team needs a way to measure its success beyond whether each individual achieves her quota or not. The team needs metrics, goals, and milestones to work toward. Account plans create a record of what an individual is supposed to do – both the actions and the goals – that can be used in performance metrics.

Account Planning Challenges

So how do companies end up starting and stopping account planning so often? We’ve seen the following major challenges to achieving a well-oiled account planning process:

The organization isn’t committed. When a process takes hold at a grassroots level and spreads throughout the organization, it creates a powerful result. Unfortunately, for most companies that see a grassroots account planning movement, it doesn’t gain commitment from everyone and, at some point, leaves a pattern of ad hoc practices that benefit a few teams but has little overall effect on results. Whether the account planning process starts at the top or the bottom, the organization has to have strong commitment from leadership. That commitment has to follow through to sales leadership, sales management, and to each salesperson who has a role in the account planning process.

There isn’t strong ownership of the account strategy. When I work with sales organizations on sales process and sales roles, one of the questions I ask is, “Who owns the account strategy and the account plan?” I expect to hear a decisive and consistent answer across the organization and the accounts it covers. Unclear ownership indicates a lack of accountability and a gap in leadership that can result in sales opportunities falling through the cracks. Designate ownership of the overall account planning process and the plans for each account.

Account planning becomes all about the document. Account planning isn’t about the document. It’s about the client needs, the innovative ideas to meet those needs, a committed plan to address those needs, and the discipline of ownership and execution from the team. Elevate the position of account planning beyond the document. The document merely contains all the hard work, and it will continue to evolve as the work and results progress.

Salespeople would rather sell than plan. Let’s face it: most salespeople love the pursuit. They don’t love planning. The irony is that the most successful sales teams I’ve worked with understand the criticality of account planning and they embrace it. If a salesperson isn’t a planner and thinks incrementally and transactionally, she is likely to get incremental and transactional results. If she thinks big and is intentional about operating according to a big plan, she will make different, longer-term decisions and get bigger results.

Contrary to instinct, the work of account planning will get you further along – and multiples more successful – than trying to pull it off yourself. Investing the time to do a good account plan increases the value exponentially.

Mark Donnolo is managing partner of SalesGlobe, which helps companies connect sales strategies to the bottom line. He is the author of What Your CEO Needs to Know About Sales Compensation, The Innovative Sale, and Essential Account Planning: 5 Keys for Helping Your Sales Team Drive Revenue.