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.