By Mark Donnolo
When I hear the words “strategic account planning” in a meeting, I usually notice a range of involuntary visceral reactions, from understated moans to eye-rolls and furrowed brows. Nobody thinks of account planning as aspirational. It’s often mind-numbing pain followed by an executive presentation where you get picked to death about something you don’t believe in anyway. At best, it’s a couple of quick weeks of light-hearted drudgery before saving the plan in the account folder. So, if you’ve read this far, you may be curious, desperate, or looking for something more.
Aspirational account planning isn’t about a structure, a tool, a technology, or a recount of history projected into the future. If that’s how your sales organization looks at account planning, you’re missing out on a tremendous opportunity. Aspirational account planning revolves around how you think about and with the customer. That’s it. If your team gets the thinking right, you can easily fill out the forms, write the report, or use your CRM tool. The thinking is what makes account planning aspirational and motivational. The thinking is what gets results.
As we emerge from COVID into a new business environment, it’s a great year to think about account planning aspirationally, not incrementally. Your strategic accounts are your best accounts, the ones that need your help, and the ones you can likely grow the most. Why try to retrofit an outdated plan for customers who are facing seismic changes in how they conduct their business and set their goals?
In my book, Essential Account Planning, we spend some valuable time thinking big and looking at how companies change the way their customers in their largest accounts think about them. I cite examples from some B2B companies with aspirational accounts in the $50 million to $100 million+ revenue range because that number is significantly larger than their average account size of say $5 million. If your account size is $1 million, then your aspirational accounts might be in the $10 million to $20 million range. The first step is to find that critical group of accounts with significant untapped growth potential for your organization.
The goal of aspirational account planning is to step out of your comfort zone and envision what you could ultimately do for your account, what major difference it could make for their business, and how you could stretch your thinking and idea generation beyond what you’ve done before to help the customer regard your team and your company differently and grow their business with you.
I think about a client I worked with in the software and services business. Let’s call them Acme. They had one of the largest telecom carriers in the country as a customer for a number of years. Acme sold about $50 million a year to the telco, which was lot for Acme. The telco saw Acme as a vendor, but Acme saw themselves as a partner.
After years of vendor stagnation, Acme replaced their account leader with someone who was a big thinker and a believer in aspirational account planning. She had an introductory meeting with the telco customer and learned that they had to be selling at least $200 million a year to the telco to be taken seriously, considered a partner, and have opportunities for bigger projects. The account manager was shocked. The Acme team had been playing at the ground level for years and had no idea how many levels of opportunity were above and available to them.
When she recovered from her surprise, the account manager did some aspirational planning with her team (more about that below) and came back to the customer with some big ideas and a proposal. She envisioned Acme doing $300 million of business with the telco within three years and she had several program ideas to back it up. The customer paused, showed some signs of disbelief, and then wanted to learn more. After some joint planning between Acme and the telco, the telco customer viewed and treated Acme like they never had before. They also worked with Acme to help them reach their growth objective over the following three years, which they did together.
How do you start? We suggest a seven-step aspirational account planning methodology:
Step 1: What are our insights and beliefs? Start with your own perspective and understanding. How does your team think your customer perceives your value proposition? How does your team think the customer would describe the value you deliver? Can you quantify that, and can you expand on it? Write down your firm’s three-to-five year aspirations for the customer based on what you know about them. Most account teams take this step, minus the big aspirations, and move to documenting history and writing up the account plan. So the next steps will be valuable for you to make a change.
Step 2: What are the customer’s goals and insights? When I wrote Essential Account Planning, I interviewed a lot of sales executives and was surprised to learn that most of their strategic account teams do not work directly with their customers on their account plans. Really? The teams go with their own knowledge and do account planning to the customer, not with and for the customer.
Here, you meet with the customer to learn their goals and challenges But, you don’t just want to ask about their goals and challenges. You want to understand their C-Level Goals* for the business, their goals for their organization (say R&D), and their personal goals in their roles. Then you want to understand the story behind how they got to where they are and why they have those goals. Ask about their aspirations too. What will things optimally look like when they exceed those goals? You’re not talking about how to reduce cost another 2 percent or how to improve delivery times incrementally. You’re talking about their aspirations and you’re understanding the whole story. Do this so you have valuable information you can use to develop your ideas, get aspirational, and help them.
Next, you’ll want to understand how the customer quantifies your value in helping them get to these goals and aspirations and why you are important to them. You’ll probably be surprised. In many cases, what your team thinks the customer values (say pricing or innovation) turns out to be something else (say supply chain) or maybe nothing at all because they see you as a commodity. It may be painful, but you can’t help them if you don’t ask. Finally, turn the aspiration question around: ask about the customer’s aspirations for a relationship with your firm. What do they expect from you now? What will they expect a year out?
Step 3. How can we design our aspirations? The aspiration design session is where the big ideas start. Using the insights you gathered in steps 1 and 2, lick your wounds from step 2 and begin a logical process of creating initiatives, projects, and opportunities that align with your customer’s aspirations. You’re going to need to “flush the lines” at the beginning to get all the ideas out that your team already has in mind. These may be fine ideas and good opportunities, but they’ve likely been in the backwater of your team’s thinking for some time. Document those and get out into open water.
How do we start generating new ideas in a logical way? We use a method called Sales Design ThinkingSM to start with the problem statement the customer gave us, examine the story behind that, and then understand root causes to redefine the challenge and create a vision for the optimal solution. Then we think horizontally, or divergently to generate ideas for potential solutions. For example, if “lowering production waste” is a priority, we would explore the question of “what is production waste?” Is it materials? Is it hours? Is it in certain parts of the production process or with certain plants or products? For aspirational account planning, we would also ask a three-pronged question: How could we do this directly for the customer, partner with the customer to do it, or partner with other companies to do it? By combining questions and components, you’ll be able to create an abundance of growth ideas for your customer. You can read up on Sales Design ThinkingSM in my book, Quotas! Design Thinking to Solve Your Biggest Sales Challenge.
As you generate ideas, begin to build your opportunity pipeline. Your objective is to take your annual revenue goal for the account and create ideas that total 2.5x to 3x your revenue goal. You’re doing this as part of your account plan, so you start strong with your customer and start your sales funnel strong at the beginning of the year. As you’re doing your aspirational planning work, you’ll want to engage the customer to partner with you on your thinking. Use your insight work to explain what you’ve learned and some of the ideas you’re considering for getting their feedback. This will engage them, prepare them, and have them on your side to receive your aspirational proposal later.
Step 4. What investments will we make? Because you’re asking the three-pronged question about selling directly, partnering with the customer, and partnering with other complementary companies, some of your opportunity pipeline will require investments. Develop your investment cases, review them with your leadership team, and if appropriate get leadership’s approval for the investment. Also, create your investment case for the customer if you’re proposing you co-invest in a project, say building a new plant dedicated to serving them.
Step 5. How should we propose our aspirations to the customer? You’ve done a lot of ideation, planning work, and investment evaluation at this point. If you’ve done it well, you haven’t done it all alone, but in partnership with the customer. Your customer should have an expectation of what they’re going to hear and be ready to hear and explore your ideas. Like the telecom example earlier, come to the table with your understanding of the story and your aspirational proposal about what you envision over the next three years that supports their vision. Support your story and aspirational proposal with your ideas and investments. This approach should open up the conversation to a discussion about the future that’s much more positive than the incremental growth past. Lay out your plan to move forward.
Step 6. What is our account plan? Here we re-join most account teams who started with step 1 and then wrote their account plan. But to prepare for this step, we’ve understood the customer’s aspirations, designed our aspirations, planned our investments, and proposed our aspirational plan back to the customer. So now, putting the account plan together is a formality. And it’s a lot more exciting and motivational because it’s real, not fiction written on our conference room white board. Finalize the plan for presentation to the customer and include accountabilities and milestones because it will become your working document with the customer. The account plan isn’t going into a dark file cabinet this year.
Step 7. How can we team with the customer to get results? Now that you have an aspirational account plan based on the customer’s goals and your capabilities, you’re ready to launch into execution and growth mode. This is a pivotal point between plan and action. If the account team disappears back to their day jobs after this aspirational process, the plan will reduce back to just a plan. It’s critical to create a living process for your account plan so the team understands its roles, its goals, and its milestones. The organization also has to create accountability for the team to fulfill its roles to make the plan a success. And of course, you’ll need to determine how to implement the plan with the customer and set up engagement points to manage progress to your goals.
Want to learn more about aspirational account planning? Click here for a free download of chapter 6 of Essential Account Planning.
*See What Your CEO Needs to Know About Sales Compensation, chapter 1 for a description of C-Level Goals.
Mark Donnolo is Founder and Managing Partner of SalesGlobe, a data-driven creative problem-solving firm that helps companies solve their toughest sales, organization, and compensation challenges. He is also the author of What Your CEO Needs to Know About Sales Compensation, Quotas, The Innovative Sale, and Essential Account Planning.