“Whenever we can replace human judgment by a formula, we should at least consider it."
--Daniel Kahneman, 2002 winner of the Nobel Prize in Economics and author of Thinking, Fast and Slow, named one of the best books of 2011 by The Wall Street Journal, The Economist, and The New York Times.
Reading Kahneman’s book reminded me of how important it is to remain open-minded and objective in business, especially in the conclusions we draw and the decisions we make. The path to extraordinary growth with our most significant accounts is no exception. Every good large account planning effort should involve an account plan presentation to a review board of executive stakeholders. Ideally there would be two reviews annually-- a one-hour initial account plan overview and an abbreviated follow-up review three to six months later. As the number of accounts planned and presented increases, it is essential to find an efficient method for reviewing the accounts and providing feedback to the teams.
Like a newborn wellness Apgar test, we developed a simple, 6-dimension scorecard to assist in the evaluation and feedback process. The scorecard can be tailored and weighted according to your strategic account environment. If you prefer, use a “very weak” to “very strong” scale rather than points to assess your account teams’ plan presentations.
Measures of Account Team Competencies:
1. The Customer’s Environment (20 Points) _________________
2. The Account’s Key Financials (Total 10 Points) _________________
3. The Current Relationship (Total 25 Points) _________________
4. Planned Strategy and Execution (20 Points) _________________
5. Additional Resources (10 Points) _________________
6. Team Self-Assess: What has the Team Learned Through the Strategic Account Planning Process? (15 Points) _________________
Evaluator Notes (additional comments on the plan presentation):
ACCOUNT PLAN TOTAL (100 possible points): _____________
This standard account scorecard can help make the team feedback process more productive for the account team and more efficient for the executive reviewers. It will provide a reference point from which to build your own account plan criteria and associated scoring. Use the final scores to prioritize which accounts require additional management oversight.
I have had the recent opportunity to consult on several large account sales planning initiatives in the high-tech industry. Leading a corporate-wide strategic account initiative is a challenging role with a lot of responsibility and visibility. If you are successful, you’ll be well rewarded. If not, the outcome can be unpleasant. From my observations, there are five factors that must be present to increase your probability of success:
1. An Executive Review Committee
You must have executive stakeholders committed to the strategic account program. Geography leaders, sales management and product-line leaders should all be represented on the executive review committee. The formation of the committee will demonstrate commitment to the program and ensure the planning process gets the time and the attention it requires from the account teams. The committee will be instrumental in reviewing the initial and follow-on account plan presentations and making recommendations for supplemental actions, investments, and resources.
2. Ability to Select the Composition of the Account Teams
A complete team will most likely include representatives from: global sales, marketing, sales support, engineering, manufacturing, the product lines, post-sale implementation and quality support. If potential participants can have a significant impact on the account, they should be involved. Even the best designed planning sessions will be undermined if the relevant team members are not present. All members need to be actively involved as a unified team to best understand, strategize, and plan the targeted account.
3. Authority to Institute Interim Plan Reviews and a Team Coaching Process
The best programs provide interim plan development reviews to give the cross-functional teams feedback on their draft plans. For example, a 90-day planning process may warrant 30-day and 60-day coaching sessions to improve the quality of the final plan. Interim reviews will help identify the need for any additional data or resources required. A final draft rehearsal should also be scheduled. The team rehearsal will significantly improve the quality of the final account plan presentation to the executive reviewers.
4. Ability to Influence (or Set) Account Team Compensation
Major account planning and execution is a team activity. As part of the program, team roles, responsibilities, and incentives must be reviewed and updated. The program leader needs to be able to influence team compensation in order to drive the desired behavior and reward positive results. In most situations, growth within an account is a team effort. No single team member should receive a financial windfall. Compensation models should be designed to financially reward all team members when account growth exceeds expectations. The involvement of HR will be essential.
5. Global Account Sales Team Leader Training
Global team leaders will require additional training to manage the newly-formed teams. As in professional sports, the best performers do not always make the best coaches. Pipeline management, sales opportunity coaching, selling skills assessments, and performance review input are typically tasks assigned to global account leaders--regardless of the sales model implemented. You’ll need to partner closely with HR to make sure your account leadership career model and training aligns with your role expectations.
When done correctly, with the right level of corporate commitment, leading a global strategic account planning initiative can be profitable to the organization and rewarding for the leader assigned. Though there are many factors that contribute to a successful account plan initiative, control over the five key areas I’ve mentioned will provide a strong footing upon which to build a successful program.
You may also be interested in our case study, "Strategic Account Planning in a Global Team Environment at Analog Devices".
I was recently scanning some research from CSO Insights that discussed sales management priorities. One particular research finding caught my eye: 57.8% of sales managers planned on investing non-selling time to create account plans for their second-tier of accounts. The managers felt that additional planning (and training) was necessary in order to effectively influence the myriad of cross-functional stakeholders now commonly involved in the buying process.
Planning this next tier of accounts can be a good investment, assuming you have the budget, the executive commitment, and the support resources necessary to execute against the plans created. But before you invest the additional time in the second-tier, you need to honestly assess whether or not you are maximizing the revenue opportunities in your top-tier accounts. One way we have successfully generated additional top-tier revenues is by creating a Strategic Account Executive Sponsorship Program.
What is a Strategic Account Executive Sponsorship Program?
A Strategic Account Executive Sponsorship Program assigns company executives to top-tier accounts (those with the greatest current or future revenue potential). The sponsoring executive then becomes a member of the account sales and marketing team targeted with growing the account and defending against competition. The theory is that with executive sponsorship, the account's revenues will grow incrementally at a faster rate than without sponsorship. Our experience with these programs shows good results when they are designed correctly--with the appropriate level of the assigned executive’s time and effort.
Key Attributes to a Successful Strategic Account Executive Sponsorship Program
To follow are the attributes needed for a successful program:
1. Executives are assigned to strategic accounts based on their domain knowledge, comfort level, and past industry experience. For example, you may decide to assign your VP of Manufacturing to an account who prides itself on their leading-edge supply chain efficiency; your CFO to an account with the most state-of-the-art financial systems; your Chief of HR to an account that runs an HR system from the same vendor as you do. This may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how often companies fail to map their executive strengths to the account. Also consider inviting any willing (and qualified) board members to join the program to help cover additional accounts.
2. The executive is formally integrated with the sales account team and support resources assigned to the account. The sponsorship program should be integrated and complementary (rather than separate) to the sales team’s efforts. This includes executive involvement in the account planning process and the providing of status updates to the sales leader(s)--which will be needed for periodic entry into any CRM system used.
3. Executives receive a thorough account briefing prior to account contact. Provide executives with points-of-view, position papers and market forecasts. A thorough understanding of the account and their industry will help drive discussions. Your executives should also be armed with relevant historical account revenue, relationship data and a picture of the competitive landscape. Any past relationship problems should also be made known to any executive visits. This is not the time to minimize any past relationship problems--no executive likes being blind-sided.
The goal of the program is to build additional executive-to-executive relationships. Traditional sales skills are not paramount here. The executive’s focus should be on the customer’s industry, market dynamics and big-picture business issues. Once credibility and mutual respect are established at the executive level, incremental sales opportunities can be pursued by the account team.
4. Sales and marketing work together to prepare executives for the calls. Create appointment-setting phone scripts and, if necessary, one-on-one executive coaching sessions. Many of these early appointment-setting phone calls will be cold calls, which are not easy to make for even the most experienced sales people. A short refresher course, phone script, and a rehearsal will go a long way to helping executives be successful. Don’t be afraid to use an executive “administrator to administrator” approach for appointment scheduling. I’ve often found that a well-prepared executive administrator, armed with a brief topical agenda, can be highly effective scheduling appointments with their counterparts.
5. The time and funds necessary have been budgeted to successfully make the required number of executive “touches” at the account. These program costs are not insignificant, when done correctly. Time and travel quickly add up. How many new executives should be targeted? How often should the executives meet (in-person and via phone)? What incremental sales can be expected? Make sure you’ve allocated the additional expenses required to expand the relationship. More importantly, make sure there is the potential for incremental account growth to justify the added costs.
6. Scheduled periodic executive reviews. Schedule one account for a brief status overview (10-15 minutes) at each executive team meeting. All sponsoring executives participating in the program should be in attendance. The updates should give the executive team a snapshot of the account, the relationship and the latest activities. It also provides a forum for the management team to share ideas, make recommendations, and show executive commitment.
Under the right circumstances, assigning teams and planning additional large accounts can be a wise investment. However, the next tier must warrant the additional planning and overhead costs. Before you move to the second-tier, make sure you are optimizing your efforts in the top-tier by instituting a Strategic Account Executive Sponsorship Program. An effective executive sponsorship program, deployed at your most strategic accounts, can have a greater return on your investment. The sooner you start building lasting, executive relationships, the sooner you'll build a barrier to entry for your competitors.
Mike Peters is the managing director of the Whitespace Consulting Group, a global business development strategy firm. The Whitespace Consulting Group has been helping multi-cultural clients optimize their business development strategy since 2005. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.