"I have a quota to make", you say, "and I'm running at a hundred miles an hour! I can't afford to take two days out of the territory to plan." In the world of major accounts, I submit that you can't afford not to take time out of the day-to-day demands of the territory to plan.
In today's marketplace, many suppliers of goods and services are focusing the efforts of their very large account sales teams on a few, and often only one, key account. Such a coverage model absolutely requires the sales team to penetrate the account, vertically and horizontally. It also contemplates optimizing the use of resources, both internal to the supplier and external (channels, partners, etc.). Getting all these resources focused on the same objectives and executing a common strategy demands the investment in account planning.
In my fifteen or so years of facilitating account plans with my clients' largest customers, I have observed a few things that I now consider truisms. First, almost everyone believes in planning, at least at the conceptual level. Unfortunately, the results produced are often marginal, suffering from:
No convenient time to plan
Planning ruled by a dominant leader and his agenda
The development of Objectives but no Action Plans
No implementation responsibility assigned
No formal review process
I've also come to know that planning cannot be done to or for a sales team; the responsible parties must do it. An individual's commitment to executing the plan is self-generated - it is a result of involvement in the planning process. The corollary, of course, is that we cannot expect the parties involved in our selling to major accounts to do what needs to be done if they haven't had the opportunity to participate in the planning.
Who Should Participate? The account planning session should include all parties who have any level of role to play in the success of your relationship with the customer. Obviously this includes the entire sales team. By entire team, I mean all sales and technical reps that call on the customer at all locations. If we are to identify and mount major strategic initiatives with very large customers, we need the entire sales team on board with the plan. It is also imperative that first line sales and support management participates. Other parties such as field service, marketing, perhaps product development, should also participate.
MEMO TO SALES MANAGEMENT: I have a policy that I will not conduct planning sessions in the absence of first line sales management. The first-level sales manager's job is to keep the sales team honest regarding the opportunity pipeline, the selling environment and the barriers to success. Perhaps more importantly, she should constantly be probing for new opportunities, particularly those that represent strategic initiatives in support of the customer's business goals. Second-level sales management may wish to attend the customer presentation, but should then leave and allow the sales team to develop their plan for future review and acceptance by senior sales management.
Customer Participation? Absolutely! Your customers understand, particularly at the CXO level, why the investment of a couple of hours with a key supplier's sales team is a good one. At the VP level, they know that the better your entire team understands their business, the better job you are able to do of providing solutions to them. The only time we get into trouble with customer participation in the planning process is when we try to use our low-level buddies to sell the concept up the customer's organization. This almost never works, in large part I'm convinced because the low-level folks are afraid that someone will disclose a secret along the way. So, invite the most senior customer representative you can find to address your planning session.
After you have completed your plan and obtained your senior management's acceptance, arrange to present your account plan to the customer sponsor. You'll never find a better trial close opportunity than presenting your account plan to a customer decision-maker!
What's the Payoff? The investment in account planning generates a massive payoff for the sales team:
-All the various resources and parties to the account coverage are focused on the same strategy and committed to a common plan.
-Greatly improves your probability of winning the large opportunities
-Creates justification for the sales team to acquire needed resources to build the account
-Lots of examples of revenue and sales productivity growth
-Customers Love It!
The payoff for sales management comes in part from improvement in the team's selling behavior. In addition, the plan becomes an excellent management tool. It provides a basis for solidifying the relationship with both the customer and your selling partners - both these parties assign great value to account planning.
And for the customer the payoff is more focused, higher-level, strategic selling by your team. Customers also recognize the value of the resources the sales team can garner with a well-developed account plan.