"No way", you say, "would my customer executive spend two hours presenting to my sales team." Au Contraire. Our experience shows that senior customer executives are more than willing to take the time to ensure that their key suppliers fully understand their business.
My associates and I facilitate literally hundreds of account planning sessions each year. Our methodology calls for a kickoff presentation by a senior customer executive. Its purpose is to ensure that the full extended account team has a common understanding of the customer's business. We routinely have CXOs present to these planning sessions, including those we facilitate for Fortune 100 customers of our clients.
So, why would the CXO of a Fortune 100 account spend an hour or so with your sales team? The answer is simple: because they know that the better you understand their business, the better job you can do of bringing solutions to them. Interestingly, the higher in the customer organization you engage this discussion the more readily the invitation is accepted. This presumes, of course, that you are a supplier of products and/or services that either are or have the potential to be key strategic resources to the customer. If you are a commodity supplier, you can still expect to obtain customer participation in your account planning activities, but you are likely to have to settle for a lower level individual. The key to getting the right customer executive to participate is your ability to present a value proposition that resonates at a high level.
MEMO TO SALES MANAGEMENT: You may need to utilize your executive sponsor or another senior executive to initiate the discussion with your senior customer executives. This is a call that is easily made and most often readily received. Your executive can speak to the investment you are making in account planning in order to best serve the customer. It is also a good idea to have your executive sponsor or your executive who issues the invitation attend the presentation by the customer executive.
The most frequent mistake I've observed is the sales team trying to rely on their lower level friends at the account to sell the concept of participating in the account planning to upper management. This almost never works. I'm convinced that the reason is fear on the part of the lower level customers that someone will disclose a secret for which they will be blamed. It is clearly much more expedient to start at the top. Even if you don't get the senior executive you've targeted, she is likely to delegate the task to a subordinate. You get the information you need and the opportunity to make a follow-up call on the target executive to report the results of the planning - an excellent opportunity to demonstrate your value to the customer.
What should we ask the customer executive to talk about? Here is the agenda I recommend:
Organization Overview - This should be a top-down discussion of the customers organization. You should ask questions to determine who the key decision-makers are for the business that you do with this customer. With good questioning, you should come away with a clear picture of the decision-making power base.
Decision-making Process - This is a discussion of how decisions for your products and services are made within this customer's organization. Again, good questioning here can really illuminate your understanding of the power base.
Short and Long-term Business Goals - This is a discussion of where the customer's business is going. If you are to add value to the customer's business, you must know his goals. Questioning here, without turning this presentation into a sales call, can identify key customer business initiatives in which you can participate and to which you can add value.
Forthcoming Projects - Here we're looking for those projects that are on the horizon in which it makes sense for you to participate. Customers are surprisingly forthcoming with this information, particularly if they feel that you have potential to add value.
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Business Relationship - From an account planning perspective, this is one of the most critical parts of the customer presentation. I strongly encourage you to probe the areas of the business relationship that may need improvement so that you don't expose yourself to unpleasant surprises during the next sales campaign.
Customer participation in your planning process takes a second form as well. When you have completed your account plan and gained support from your senior sales management, I strongly recommend that you present your plan to the customer executive who participated (and to any other customer executives who will listen). You will never find a better trial close opportunity than that offered by presenting your account plan to your customer. Many believe that the best thing that can happen is for your customer executive to modify your plan. That creates a degree of ownership on the part of the customer - a wonderful thing!