Getting into the Account Planning Habit

4 critical practices your sales team needs for long-term account planning success.

Several years ago, I worked with a technology company—filled with engineers—on its account planning strategy. It went better than expected. Here’s why.

This company had tried account planning with its sales teams before. Many times, actually. It had always failed because everyone involved—sales leaders, sales operations, account leaders—had tried to perfect the process. The account plan templates became overly complicated and detailed, rivaling the dissertations so many of these people authored. But those details dragged the process down and made it too lengthy and burdensome. So it was dropped.

When I arrived, we simplified the documents and the process, and we made it uniform. All of the account teams could settle their minds because they had a simple process to follow, and an emphasis was placed on consistency in the plans across teams. The simpler account planning process allowed management to get a better view of the past, present, and future of each account. They could compare strategies between accounts and make better critiques and recommendations to the teams—because they actually could understand the plans. The organization knew the process was working after about 12 months when it realized it had been using the process and updating the plans during the year and then actually jumping into the annual cycle again without the typical rethinking and redesigning that hindered the process every year before.

Account plans can, and should, be customized to fit your sales organization, whether a Fortune 500 company or a small start-up team. The following four practices are critical to making account planning a long-term success in your sales organization.

1. Think first. Teams want to dive into the template, open up their customer relationship management (CRM) system and look at potential deals. But you have to know where you want to go with the account before planning how to get there. It’s easy to get caught up in the tools and technology, but those are really just support. The real account planning is the thinking that happens when a team sits down together to discuss how to grow the account and how to solve problems for the customer. First and foremost, you’re trying to accomplish a goal. “How can we grow 20 percent (or 500 percent if we’re aspirational) in this account? How do we retain our revenue? How do we expand in certain product groups?”

Account planning is not about filling in the boxes, it’s about problem solving for the account. The thinking the account plan facilitates is what helps the plan grow. If you’re jumping into your account planning tools and templates and haven’t gone through the steps of asking the right questions about the account with your team, you’re getting ahead of yourself.

2. Motivate and reward. One of the biggest reasons companies fail at account planning is that sales teams don’t want to do it. They don’t see the benefits. In order for account planning to become a habit, there have to be motivating factors and rewards.

In my experience, the biggest motivators for salespeople are incentive pay, recognition in the organization (for example, President’s Club), and simply the heady rush of winning the deal. To make account planning a habit, sales leaders have to tie account planning to one or more of these motivating factors.

3. Establish the cycle. So what’s the right schedule of events, to keep the plan alive beyond that first meeting? Below are steps to get the account planning cycle off the ground:

  • Assemble the team.
  • Conduct a kick-off meeting
  • Assign homework
  • Hold an account planning meeting with the entire account team
  • Finalize the plan
  • Present to leadership

Ideally, account planning will fit within a company’s strategic planning cycle. For a company in a fiscal year, it probably needs to start in the third quarter so people can work on the plans and continue their day jobs. This staggers the amount of non-selling work teams have to do. It also ensures those plans are pretty tightly in place at the beginning of the year. (You don’t want account planning to become a fire drill or a process you have to short cut. The tyranny of the urgent will always overtake account planning, so you have to allow enough time for both.) And, ideally, once the process gets going, the account plans are refreshed each year, rather than started from scratch. After the first year, the account planning process is largely about updating the prior version and ensuring the right people contribute and buy into it.

In-person meetings are 100 percent better than Web conferences or phone calls. The team chemistry and idea sharing is almost impossible to replicate over the phone. When at all possible, challenges of cost and time should take a backseat to the benefits of in-person meetings. That said, in-person meetings are infinitely more difficult to pull off.

4. Demand accountability. If no one holds the sales teams accountable for plan presentations or status updates, the message is clear: Account planning is a one-time exercise that can be ignored for the rest of the year. Three factors I’ve found effective for accountability are direction, leadership demonstration, and measurement. First, give clear direction on the account plan strategy and process and set the expectation that the team will follow. Before the annual account planning meeting is finished, make sure each team member clearly understands his or her commitments and has an accountability point (a deliverable at a target date). Hold people responsible for those commitments.

Second, leadership should demonstrate the account planning process in action and make it the system of record. This means the chief sales officer and sales leaders must use the account plans in their conversations with the team. When a sales leader visits a salesperson in his or her city and goes on account visits, the sales leader needs to ask for the account plan and use it to get up to speed on the account. No account plan, no customer visit. Gone are the days of asking about the account on the car ride over.

Third, measure and recognize performance relative to the account plans. Measure and recognize successful account planning in the employee performance review process. It’s not adequate to measure sales performance alone without measuring how the rep got there.

What happens if you have a lack of compliance? Then the hammer has to come down. You never want to fire someone for not being part of the account planning process, but account planning is an important enough part of the company’s business processes that it has to be taken seriously. Determine your policy for lack of compliance around account planning. Sales results alone don’t give sales teams a pass on account planning. If you treat account planning compliance casually, expect casual results. Establish and maintain effective account planning habits to increase the odds of consistent account growth.

Mark Donnolo is the managing partner for SalesGlobe, which helps companies connect their sales strategies to the bottom line. Donnolo has been a sales effectiveness consultant for close to 30 years, and has helped the following companies: LexisNexis, Comcast, IBM, AT&T, Office Depot, and Accenture. He is also the author of “Essential Account Planning: 5 Keys For Helping Your Sales Team Drive Revenue.” For more information, visit: