Your Guide to Account Planning in B2B Sales

How to Use Account Planning to Improve Your Sales Strategy

What Is Account Planning?

There are a lot of terms out there that you may have heard of when it comes to account planning, such as “account-based selling” and “key account management”. They all essentially mean the same thing: creating a coordinated, holistic plan of attack focused on one major account.

Strategic Account Process Planning

HubSpot defines account planning as the “process of nurturing and growing your existing customer relationships” that helps you “understand your customer’s business by identifying their key initiatives, problems, and challenges.”

Gartner says that account planning “is the process of mapping out important details about a new prospect or existing customer, including information about their decision-making process, the companies you’re competing with to close against, and the overall strategy to win them, retain, and grow them.”

Other sources say similar things, which leads to a definition with a few common elements:

• The target is to grow one account…
• With one cohesive strategy…
• Based on a deep understanding of the customer

The last point is particularly important. Today, winning new business is more about understanding a customer’s unique characteristics — and ultimately becoming a trusted advisor.

Planning is the strategy that ties everything together. It provides a roadmap for B2B sales teams to follow.

Account Planning Is Designed to Help Sellers
Overcome These 4 Challenges

B2B sales is always difficult, but there are a lot of reasons why it’s even more challenging today – even in the hyper-connected world in which we live.

Here’s a brief rundown of the most daunting obstacles sales people have to overcome if they want to drive revenue growth.

1. Buyers Know More and Are More Proactive

For starters, buyers today are more sophisticated than buyers of yesterday. They are not only more proactive in conducting research on possible solutions to their pressing needs – the B2B sales process is nearly 70% complete before sales ever makes contact with a prospect – but more connectivity has given buyers more options.

Sales people can reach more prospects, but the Internet, it seems, is a double-edged sword.

2. Buyers Expect Better Customer Service

Buyers also expect even greater levels of support from the sales people. According to Accenture, a third of B2B buyers say their expectations are higher than ever before – leading Accenture to say “Customer service is the new sales.”

When viewed in context of the increased access and knowledge buyers have, this makes sense; when B2B customers play such an active role in their solution-seeking process, they naturally gravitate more to teams who can accommodate them.

For example, personalization is in demand. According to one study, 76% of buyers in the market expect solutions that are tailored to their specific needs.

For sales teams using a “one-size-fits-all” sales process, meeting this high level of personalization is almost impossible.

3. Increased Competition Places More Demand on Sales Teams

Few sales leaders would say they are facing less competition this year than the last.

Most would say the exact opposite – and as a result, many B2B sales people are being stretched thin.

It’s not possible, in many cases, to just throw more resources at the problem. Plus, more competition requires higher levels of coordination, not just within the sales department, but between sales, marketing, and even the business’s leadership.

4. A Lack of Inside Intelligence and Connections

Breaking into a larger, major account can be daunting because of the innate obstacles present with more complex deals (and their organizations).

The typical B2B deal takes approval from 5.4 people on average within an account, according to a CEB study. For each decision-maker, a sales rep can contact multiple people – supporters and champions – to get to them. That creates a heavy burden to not only know who to reach but how to get to them.

And these internal hierarchies are always changing. People come and go. Promotions happen. Departments are created and folded into other departments. Service and product lines drop off. Mergers and acquisitions happen.

What’s more is that each business unit within an account – indeed, even each team within a BU – often has differing needs and priorities.

A lack of insider-like knowledge of these circumstances is one of the most massive challenges a B2B team will face every day.

Why Should Sales Team Do
Account Planning in Salesforce?

The best method for addressing the challenges described above is through key account management: developing loyal relationships with decision-makers and influencers; personalizing solutions; offering more responsive services; and focusing resources on the most lucrative accounts.

Since everyone loves stats, we’ll start with two that best highlight today’s environment:

Stat #1: By 2026, companies that use a planned, orchestrated, and customer-aligned strategy will outperform their competition by 50% higher revenue growth, according to Gartner.

Stat #2: 87% of marketers say account-based marketing outperforms other marketing activities, according to HubSpot.

If for no other reason, account planning is important to keep up with the competition. But beyond holding serve, account-based selling leads to:

• Increased customer retention
• More consistency in year-to-year gross margin
• Higher customer lifetime value
• Faster sales cycle
• Increase revenue per deal
• More repeat business in the form of cross-selling and up-selling
• Finding non-competitive deals before they become competitive
• Higher retention of important relationships

Each of these benefits, by themselves, is reason to employ an account-based selling strategy, but when put together, it’s clear why ABS is becoming the paradigm for high-level sales people today.

Of course, knowing the benefits is one thing. Installing and executing an account plan is another thing altogether.

The Key Elements of Account Planning

The first element in creating an effective key account management plan is to figure out where you want account planning to take your team.

What are your most critical objectives? Stating them is the foundation for what you’re aiming to accomplish. For example:

• I want to gain better account intelligence and win larger deals more often.
• I want to become a trusted advisor to drive more engagement with my prospects and customers.
• I want more internal cross-functional collaboration around winning, retaining, and expanding accounts.
• I want to boost sales performance and overall transactional velocity.

You should specify these objectives with key performance indicators (KPIs) that are realistic and relevant.

Another key element is targeting. You need to determine which accounts are your most important, and the ones for which a dedicated plan is necessary. This also includes understanding who the key stakeholders are that you need both marketing and sales to engage, and the messaging that needs to be communicated. How do you grow loyal relationships with these people?

These accounts don’t always represent your highest current revenue (although they certainly can). What’s probably more effective for most teams is to focus on accounts you think have the highest potential revenue that you can farm.

Organization size plays a role, but bigger isn’t always better. Product and service fit is more important; the more units within an account that can make use of what you sell, the better. Understanding which industries you win the most in, company-sizes, technographic traits and other firmographic and demographic factors should be accounted for as you build your account plans out. Which titles of decision-makers and influencers are typically involved in deals you win?

Within each account, it’s important to visualize stakeholder hierarchies and influence to understand who will help inform, develop, and close deals.

Influence doesn’t always flow the same way formal responsibility does. Decision-making may not follow those strict hierarchical lines, either. Instead of looking at an org chart, what account planning tries to accomplish (through a technique called relationship mapping is to bring that org chart to life and give it depth and nuance.

Label the contacts by:

• Their level of influence within the organization in general (and this deal in specific); and
• Whether they are a blocker, supporter, champion, or decision-maker

Another key element of account planning is mapping the white space. White space is what your company currently isn’t delivering to the prospect, broken up by product/service lines. From there, reps can dig deeper to see which product/service lines are most appropriate and necessary. It also gives you a firm foundation to find cross-selling and up-selling opportunities down the road – one of the major benefits account planning delivers.

Any major account plan can also benefit by adding budget, purchasing timelines, upcoming events you know about (such as planned mergers, new hires, new product releases, etc), and any other information that can inform the strategy.

Since you’re marshaling all of your resources for your major accounts, you need to have a plan to align marketing with sales. Sales reps need content; marketing pros need input and guidance. It’s a symbiotic relationship that should be positive, structured, and weaponized for smooth sales cycles. This boils down to creating a content management process that answers questions like:

• What evergreen pieces of sales content do we always need?
• Which pieces would best support this deal?
• Do we have customized collateral for each key stakeholder?
• What are some concerns, questions, and other bits of info we’ve gotten from our prospects that can better inform the creative process?
• What is the typical turnaround time we need to hit in order to be responsive?

It’s also important to map out a clear path to close. This is the standard process any deal follows to reach the finish line (that can also be tailored to a specific deal). This path lays out who we should involve; what the numbers need to look like; the purchasing timeline; how delivery of product/service will work; and any other logistical concerns.

Finally, an essential element of account planning is knowing who will be responsible for what. You need clearly-defined roles and responsibilities. This is a team effort. An account plan should be a game plan that sellers can follow to drive the deal from first contact to last signature.

The best place to create and house an account plan is within your customer relationship management (CRM) platform, like Salesforce or your CRM of choice. It’s difficult to pull together all these missing pieces without some central command center that lets you coordinate effort and collect and analyze data.

(Prolifiq offers a key account management and opportunity management platform called CRUSH that is native within Salesforce and gives sellers a way to implement account plans. You can find more information about CRUSH here.)

Conclusion

Account planning has become the dominant paradigm for sales teams in the B2B space.

It is a flexible, yet powerful system for putting some method to the sales madness in any industry or vertical, no matter how large or complicated the target account might be.

While there is a learning curve compared to ad hoc sales, it’s actually easier to implement because of the structure it provides for sellers who have previously depended on solo efforts and seat-of-your-pants selling each quarter.

Famed author Antoine de Saint-Exupéry once wrote, “A goal without a plan is just a wish.” Account planning offers a way to accomplish sales goals with focused effort – not wishful thinking.

Take our account planning masterclass and kick off your account planning strategy today.

Frequently Asked Questions

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Account planning is an umbrella term used to describe a set strategy typically designed to close or upsell business within the sales team’s target accounts. Account planning in Salesforce involves micro and macro objectives where different team members on your side will have specific sets of responsibilities. It also covers the companies you’re competing with for the deal, details about their decision-making process, and other notes that will shape your strategy. Your account planning methodology should be a process that moves all the way down the funnel; from BDR’s prospecting and setting meetings, AE’s providing valuable advice, and pushing the deal along, marketers providing sellers the optimal content (as well as paid social to surround key stakeholders), to customer success responsible for making an upsell ask at the right time). As you can see, an effective account planning process usually will require both buy-in and collaboration from the entire team. Once you’ve discovered an effective process, though, then it’s off to the races. We usually see customers who take an account-based approach identify a strategic account or group of accounts and leverage account planning to penetrate and win that business.
Account planning in theory should simplify the sales process of your selling org. Though it seems complicated, effective account plans keep both your reps, leaders, and anyone involved in the sales cycle in lockstep throughout the deal. A sales pitch becomes simpler as the steps and roles of everyone involved are documented inside of your CRM. Teams that use an account planning process often-times store the data in slide decks or spreadsheets and never use it again. We believe that where your account plans are stored and can be accessed by your team plays a tantamount role in the success of your account planning initiative. Critical account information such as key stakeholders, business objectives, and their challenges and more make good plans advantageous for the selling team. Account planning software keeps all of your data inside your CRM, as well as leveraging tasks and existing CRM data, helping drive your business strategy.
The account planning process starts once your top accounts are identified. Marketing strategy, BDR and sales outreach, and talking points/value propositions should all be understood (to a useful degree) by your entire team. When your team moves together in motion into an account, your business looks coordinated, strategic, and for lack of a better term, like you actually care about your prospect. It’s important to trust your selling process as much as you trust the product you’re selling. Strategic Account planning ensures both of your bases are covered in this instance. We also recommend building account plans for your most important customers. Think about what separates your top 5-10% of customers from the rest, and build a plan to map key stakeholders, identify where you can have opportunities for expansion, and document their challenges, goals and objectives.
Key Account plans can be as simple or complicated as your team wants to make them, as we understand that each industry is different and priorities shift from vertical to vertical. At Prolifiq, we leverage strategic account planning to understand and provide customer metrics like employee size, annual revenue, tech stack, pain points around Salesforce use, and the key stakeholders we should be targeting. Components of an effective account plan that span across almost all businesses include (as mentioned); a map of stakeholders sellers should be connecting with, identified verticals (if the account is large enough) within the account, and which ones could best use your product, competitors to said account, and what their timeline of purchasing products in your industry (for us, it’s technology). Account planning in Salesforce gives your team the ability to collaborate on these pillars within your CRM. As a side note - setting revenue targets for the account are good too if they're an existing customer, highlighting the potential of the account.
Before beginning to key account plan for an account, it is important to ensure that you and your sales team are aligned on the goals you’d like to accomplish with your account planning initiative. What will be the pillars of your account planning methodology? Is it tied to pipeline creation, closed revenue goals, or account expansion? Once you’ve established success metrics, it’s time to understand the role and responsibilities of each team member. Where will data be stored and updated throughout the execution of your plan? Is there a projected timeline you’re trying to hit? Combining these pre-planning elements with a customer-centric approach and the list of metrics included in the question above will give your team a fantastic starting point to begin your account planning journey. An account planning tool never hurts either.
Strategic Account planning is a process that brings customer-facing teams together in order to achieve a common goal, which is to accelerate revenue growth and hit revenue targets. B2B companies who sell into larger, enterprise accounts need to have a deeper understanding of the different teams and needs, which leads us to the importance of account plans for two reasons. Your current customers will always be the easiest path to quick wins and additional revenue, and aligning customer support, marketing, and sales around how to capture that additional revenue is a critical part of building your strategy. Another need for account planning or account planning tool is to have a comprehensive approach to winning larger deals. Most B2B sales cycles involve multiple stakeholders, business units, and conflicting priorities. A process for existing customers or target accounts where you document who needs to be engaged, what they’re measured on, and how you will help them hit their goals is important to consistent success. This strategic plan helps reduce customer churn, helps identify potential opportunities for expansion, and will give you the upper hand in a competitive landscape and help your sales team increase revenue each quarter so that you surpass your sales targets.
Yes, this is always a good idea to build key account plans for customers. However, if you are just beginning to implement a more strategic account management approach, here are a few ideas to help build the plan for your customer. Ensure you have accurate Salesforce data for the account and the main contacts involved. Make sure you have relationship maps for existing accounts that identify the budget-holder, who signed the contract, who initiated the deal and other key members. A core sales skill is being able to outline what the customer initiatives are, and how they will measure success. What kind of ROI are they looking for? What specific challenges are you solving? Make sure it's clear how you are taking them from their current state to their desired state. This accountability helps keep the internal team aligned on driving results and reducing churn as well. An effective account plan for your customer accounts will take everything above into consideration.
Account plans that don't drive strategy and results typically miss the mark in a few areas. The initial sales pitch may not uncover critical parts of a good strategy, such as a lack of understanding the challenges of your large accounts, their current state, and how they measure success with anyone working on the account. Strategic account management and a good hand-off from sales professionals to Customer Success will always have this. We also see a lot of account teams that only map out stakeholders from one business unit for an existing customer, versus beginning to get wider with stakeholders with purchase decision power in other parts of the account. Without getting wider, it becomes difficult to get a deeper understanding of the business and the best way to engage them. Your account planning methodology should reflect how your team sells.
Bringing account planning into Salesforce typically involves changing your process and bringing key account plans from Google Slides, spreadsheets, whiteboards, and other places. Designating account teams and the specific roles in Salesforce is a good starting point. A lot of B2B sales professionals do their planning for target or existing accounts in slide decks, spreadsheets, whiteboards, and more. This leads to account planning being a once a year effort or once-per-quarter effort instead of an ongoing part of their sales strategy. Taking the documented plans for large accounts and bringing them into Salesforce can be done through account planning tools, which enable you to build stakeholder maps and full plans inside of your CRM. These strategic account plans typically get used in the account object, but can also be modified or cloned to serve a similar purpose in the opportunity object as well. Sales targets become easier to hit when there is a clear path to winning the deal. Strategic account planning in salesforce is a key change in your process.