The Bones of Effective Account Planning – Part 1

Account Planning is an activity that frames the entire sales process for an organization. Our top rep in one region last year called it the single biggest contributor to his success. For a sales rep, it’s like time spent sharpening the ax before a day full of chopping wood. Account planning can become part of the rhythm of any business using some key practices explored in this post.

Table stakes

If you want account planning to take root, your sales leaders need to care. It’s not enough for a support department to drive it, and it can’t be on a laundry list of tasks without accountability. A complete program that changes rep behavior requires an investment of setting standards, training reps and managers, communicating expectations, tracking progress, and evaluating the impact. Ultimately, this needs to be built in a way that tangibly improves a rep’s performance – if it doesn’t drive revenue, why would a rep care?

Making account planning a priority is not enough. After committing to the process as an organization, you need to know whether reps actually complete plans and set a bar for quality. Without established best practices, training, and clear expectations, account planning can become a meaningless activity – even with firm follow-through from sales leadership. To address whether reps complete plans, you should track (automatically or manually) when reps turn in completed plans. To hold to a quality standard, managers need to sit down with reps and review the plans, offering feedback to improve the approach according to set objectives.

You can extend the success of account planning in a number of dimensions, by instituting rep and manager training, creating standard templates, including cross-functional teams, and creating repositories of the best plans.

However you build account planning into your business, some core elements will always be present. They fall into two categories: broad (prioritizing your book) and deep (planning for key accounts).

Prioritizing your book

How a rep prioritizes a book of business (AKA territory, account list) varies depending on the deal cycle and size of book. However, two key elements are always present in one form or another.

1. Revenue potential and likelihood of success

Establishing revenue potential and likelihood of success turn a list of accounts into a diversified portfolio in need of a strategy. Sometimes the two factors are obvious – you’re an Enterprise rep with the same book as last year – and sometimes you may have no clue how to estimate either factor. The bottom line is that any approach to prioritize prospects is better than alphabetical. No matter what data point you choose (but start with obvious and available), you are testing a hypothesis that it aligns to one or both of the factors.

The reason these two factors require a strategy is that once you stretch accounts across the two axes (low and high revenue, low and high probability), you need to make trade-offs. Of course, you’ll prioritize high revenue potential and likelihood of success. Slam dunk. You’ll skip low revenue potential, low likelihood of success unless every other prospect shuts their doors. But what about high revenue potential and low likelihood of success (big bets)? Is it better than low revenue potential and high likelihood of success (quick wins)?

The balance of big bets versus quick wins (relative to the other quadrants) uncovers a rep’s – and organization’s – risk profile. Mostly big bets? Expect fewer deals early on that need to pan out later in the cycle, and look for early indicators that big deals are moving through the pipeline. Mostly quick wins? Make sure you have enough volume to offset the small size of the deals, and find ways to scale efforts.

If you have very few accounts, split into budget holders or individual opportunities. Unless you have one monster signing event a year, you can divide your priorities across a similar matrix with the right lens.

2. Path to revenue

Once you understand the composition of your book, the goal is to turn the strategy into a quota-beating process. Typically that involves either a timing play or a volume play.

A timing play is dividing the effort strategically across the year, especially if reps are comped quarterly on attainment. That lowers the risk at the end of the year with fewer, larger deals. The client’s fiscal year, lower awareness of your brand or products, or other factors may push deals later in the year. As long as those are offset by deals you can accelerate, you can balance your time across the year by dividing your time appropriately.

A volume play – for many, smaller accounts – usually involves backing into a quota through a series of events with averages. If you need to hit $1 million, you can work out the number of deals required based on the average deal size. Given a number of deals, you can estimate volume required based on other gates to clear: product demo to signed deal, call to demo, email to call. That ends with a practical number of emails to send, with a specific email-to-call rate. If you can clear all of the gates at or above average (either volume or rate), you’ll beat your quota.

The two steps in combination reveal the composition of accounts and the effort required (over time or through volume) to achieve a goal. Managers should be looking for accuracy in defining revenue potential and likelihood of success, strategies that map practically to the composition of the book, and a believable path to revenue tied to the strategy.

In the next post, we’ll consider the four components of every good account plan, so reps can go deep within their top accounts.

Chris is the Director of Customer Success for OpenGov, a tech startup powering more effective and accountable government. Chris has led Customer Success, Account Management, and sales strategy at startups and tech companies including LinkedIn.

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