Using Formal Account Planning With Your Sales Team

How much account planning do you lead your team through at this time of year?

For the majority of sales teams the last month of a business year and the first month of a new year traditionally involve some type of territory planning and quota assignments for the year. Account and territory planning are always good things to do, but for too many companies these “end of last year/beginning of next year” planning efforts turn out to be a waste of time.

Effective account planning needs to be an ongoing process and not just a once a year event where the entire team conducts extensive planning and quota identification for the coming year, and then completely ignores any plans identified for the rest of the selling year. Account planning rarely works as a one time “event.”

Ongoing account planning provides benefits for you, the sales manager, and your entire sales team.

Ongoing account planning is not just meant to benefit you the sales manager but instead provides benefits to everyone when successfully implemented.

For the sales professional ongoing account planning helps them organize (and prioritize) their territory, identify goals for their top accounts, and identify specific account strategies they want to follow. Effective account and territory planning also helps them focus their efforts on the best and most achievable opportunities that exist within their entire assigned territory as well as helping them communicate to other team members what they want them to help accomplish with this account.

For you the sales leader, ongoing account planning helps you quickly gain an understanding of a rep’s goals, strategies, and tactical plans for their top accounts. Written plans also help you as the coach to look for gaps or unfulfilled opportunities within their account plans so you can provide coaching advice and assistance to the members of your team.

As the leader of your sales team, you have the opportunity to coach and lead all the members of your team as they develop, and then follow, identified and written selling plans for their most important accounts. How much ongoing account planning have you been leading your team to complete and follow?

Account planning can increase your competitive advantage.

Successful and ongoing account planning can increase your team’s competitive advantage and selling effectiveness by helping them identify, organize, and develop written stepped plans of what they want to do to win an account’s business.

Once developed, these written plans can then be used for ongoing coaching by you their sales manager and can be used to communicate the need for additional help from other departments and executives within your company. After a sale is won or lost these account plans can then also be used to coach the sales rep on what they might adjust and try different next time they go after similar business.

But too many account planning sessions cover the wrong “stuff.” Most account and territory planning ignores the proactive “future focused” selling efforts that can actually increase your team’s competitive advantage but instead only focus on planning to identify for an account the number of calls they plan to make on that account and to identify any scheduled special events or time lines planned for these accounts.

Leading your sales team through ongoing account planning.

Interested in increasing your team’s account planning efforts? Effective account planning is best implemented when the following six key ideas are initiated and maintained:

Idea #1 - Develop and utilize a standard account planning form.

The first idea to you leading effective account planning is to develop and utilize a standard account planning form. An important component of effective account planning is standardization and consistency. Though each final account plan could be different in the goals or implementation plans identified, the planning tools and processes you follow need to be consistent. By everyone following and using the same planning form and process, you, as their coach and leader can now apply consistent solutions and suggestions. But if each rep wants to develop and utilize their own planning form then your entire team will revert back to becoming independent “selling painters” as discussed earlier losing any consistent team selling structures and processes.

A sample standard four-page account planning form (PDF) is included at the end of this article. This is a form I have developed and implemented for a number of my clients. I am happy to have you adjust and/or adapt my form to fit your selling environment and culture. You just want all members of your team using and following your standard form once it’s finalized.

Page one of the planning form listed at the end of this article focuses on identifying and discussing “Where we are now” while page two details “Where we want to go” with this account. Page three offers space to organize “How we plan to win this business” and the final page four includes a one page planning form to help you identify and plan how you want to maintain and grow this account’s business over the next twelve months.

Idea #2 - For now only focus on each sales professional’s top five accounts.

The second idea to effective account planning is to initially only focus on each sales rep’s top five accounts. Effective account planning needs to be built and grown into a sales organization. An account planning effort will fail if you announce to your reps the need to finalize written plans for all their assigned accounts as their first attempt at account planning. The greater the number of initial account plans you ask your team to develop, especially if account planning is new to your company, the lower your success rate will be with these planning efforts.

The best way to start a team’s planning efforts is to begin with them building detailed plans for their top or most important five accounts only. Focusing on their top five accounts allows everyone time to learn how to conduct effective account planning and to give you time to strengthen your account planning coaching skills. You can always increase the number of accounts that need to have a written account plan as your team becomes more comfortable with both your account planning process and how to successfully follow their plans.

Idea #3 - Develop a proactive coaching plan to lead your sales team’s account planning implementation efforts.

A third idea for effective account planning is to develop a proactive coaching plan you can follow when meeting with your team during these account planning implementation efforts. Ongoing account planning will only stay in place as long as you, their sales manager and leader, push the issue. As soon as you stop asking about your rep’s account plans, they’ll stop developing or following any written plans.

Start off now by coaching and leading your team in the development of their account plans for their most important accounts. You might consider conducting a team meeting with multiple sales reps present as you show them how to develop an account plan for a single identified account. Walking your entire team through the development of a plan for a single account can help your team members better understand what you’re expecting from any developed plan and how you want them to use and follow this plan in their selling efforts. Once you’ve shown them what you expect you can then assign each to complete this same process for their five largest or most important accounts.

Next meet “one-on-one” either in person or by telephone with each sales rep discussing and reviewing their five account plans. This will provide you with a lot of quality private discussion time to help you coach and lead your rep to thinking and planning more moves ahead with their selling efforts.

Once these plans are developed and finalized in writing the next thing to do is to always have access to these critical account plans. You’ll send a profound message to your team members if every time they mention an important account you immediate pull out your copy of their written plan for that account and use that as a discussion guide. Also, bring up any of these plans whenever you ride with, or spend significant time with, any of your sales reps.

If your reps see you referencing and utilizing their written plans every time you discuss that account then you’ll quickly send the message to all team members that these account planning forms are an expected component of their job and receiving your help.

Finally, you want to reference and discuss any developed account plan when there is closure to that account due to either a win or loss. Once an account has made a buying decision you then want to go back and review the written account plan to see if you or your rep can identify areas or ways their account plan might have been improved or have been more complete. This will help to increase their odds of winning next time, or at least making their planned selling process more efficient and/or effective for any future selling efforts.

Idea #4 - Keep your account planning discussions positive and “future focused.”

The fourth suggestion to help you successfully strengthen your team’s account planning process is to keep your account planning discussions positive and “future focused.”

Successful account planning has to be conducted in a positive and open environment. Your reps will stop participating and will avoid any planning if they sense this is a negative inquisition or is not seen as being of help and value to them as the rep.

Remind all in attendance for any coaching session that this is a positive coaching session meant to help your reps to be more successful and for others to better understand how they can support the selling efforts of the rep.

The more negative the comments are to your sales reps then the less effective, and helpful the coaching session will be perceived. Any issues or overall sales performance negatives need to be handled at another meeting and time. This is not a meeting for you to be a "Drill Sergeant" or to hammer them!

You also want to work to keep your account planning meetings "tactical" and "strategic" focused vs. being bogged down in "operational" details. You’re more interested in helping them develop multiple stepped selling processes and account plans than to discuss in detail how a specific invoice or meeting will evolve. Those types of detailed meetings are handled later, away from this planning session. For this planning session to be effective you need to keep more to the bigger picture of where your rep plans to go with an account and how they plan to get there. The details of what needs to be said and how it needs to be delivered can be handled later as the individual steps are being planned and implemented. You also want these types of “bigger picture” planning sessions to stay more "future focused" instead of only centering on past history issues or current territory problems.

A simple way to insure these meetings stay positive and of value to your sales team members is to always ask, “Is this helping?” at the end of any account planning or coaching session. Your rep’s positive affirmations that these planning sessions are helping can confirm you’re providing coaching value to your team. But if they see these planning sessions as negative efforts or a waste of time then nothing will be followed or implemented anyway.

Idea #5 - Prior to any account planning discussion confirm in advance with your sales rep the agenda and overall goals of this coaching session.

A fifth suggestion to help you successfully strengthen your team’s account planning process is to keep identifying the planned meeting agenda you expect to follow. Reducing surprises to your sales team is a great way to lower their resistance to your account planning efforts and a great way to keep them happy and involved in your planning processes. You want to identify in advance of any meeting what accounts you want to discuss in detail, what accounts they’d also like to discuss, and the expected planning session starting and ending times, and then stick to that time commitment.

Be sure and make any agenda planning as well as any account planning meetings a discussion and not a lecture.

You’ll increase your coaching effectiveness if your sales rep does the majority of talking and you only control and guide the meeting through the questions you ask of your rep. Remember, any rep completing an account plan needs to feel it’s their plan and that they own it or there will be little plan implementation.

Idea #6 - Conduct ongoing reviews and discussions of their defined account plans every time you ride with a sales rep or have any quiet time with a rep.

My sixth and final suggestion to help you successfully strengthen your team’s account planning process is to continue to conduct ongoing reviews and discussions of any defined account plans every time you meet or ride with one of your reps. The goal is to get your sales team members to understand how much weight you’re placing on these written plans and to see how often you review or ask about anything listed. The more they see you referencing and asking about an account’s written plan then the more likely they’ll be to support your account planning efforts and to invest the necessary planning and organizational time.

Effective account planning processes will only stay effective as long as you coach and lead your team through these planning processes.

Effective account planning will only stay effective as long as you coach and lead your team through these selected planning processes and structures. Your job as a sales manager and leader of your team is to help them achieve more because of your help than they’d ever be able to achieve on their own. Coaching and leading your team’s ongoing account planning efforts can be a significant contributor to both their competitive advantage and overall selling success…but that success will only be achieved if account planning stays a central and ongoing component of your leadership style and their expected account efforts.

Account planning, like any other sales discipline, demands ongoing sales leadership involvement if it’s to continue to be an effective component of your team’s selling efforts. Only a hand full of sales professionals maintains ongoing account planning efforts on their own. It’s your job as their coach and leader to maintain and continue this effective discipline within your sales team.

As the manager and leader of your sales team, we know you’re good, now the question is, are you good enough and disciplined enough to implement and continue to maintain an effective account planning process within your sales team.



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