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 teams 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 teams 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 teams. 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 teams 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 Every Sales Team
Use Account Planning?
The best method for addressing the challenges described above is through key account management: developing 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
• Higher 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 teams 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.
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 the sales team 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 platform called CRUSH that is native within Salesforce and gives sales teams a way to implement account plans. You can find more information about CRUSH here.)
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 sales teams 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.