19 jul 2019

Account Planning: How to maximize impact and achieve lasting results

Account Planning is one of the most important tools in complex B2B Sales and has been used for decades. Yet Heads of Sales or KAM (Key Account Management) frequently complain that the instrument falls short of their expectations in creating sustainable competitive advantage, nor has become part of the Account Manager’s daily operating practice.

But what are the reasons behind this negative assessment?

During our ten years of experience of helping organizations build strategic partnerships with their most important customers, two main reasons for this critical appraisal have become apparent. The first is the failure to choose the "right" account planning method, the second is connected with a faulty implementation.

Let’s first look at the aspect of choosing the "right" account planning method:

There are many different Account Plans available. All promise to generate superior growth and increase your relevance as a supplier. And yes, some of them will lead to more business opportunities in the short term, but will fail to create a true sustainable competitive advantage. This is so, because conventional Account Planning methods focus merely on increasing the SOW (share of wallet) relying mostly on cross- and upselling. This vendor-driven perspective will sooner or later lead to price competition, since product- or service advantages are short-lived in a global and digital world. Instead your aim must be to establish a true strategic relationship with your customer, putting their business problems in the center of your approach and not your own sales budget. And the best way to build strategic and sustainable partnerships is by engaging the customer in a collaborative process of jointly developing solutions which lead to more efficient processes, reduce total cost or improve the customer’s position in their market. Don’t get me wrong: you do need to generate opportunities, but these will be the natural outcome, once a true strategic relationship is in the making.

An Account Plan must help you to develop a true strategic relationship with your customer, putting their business problems in the center of your approach and not your own sales budget.

So when selecting your account planning method, keep in mind that it must assist your account managers to establish a truly strategic relationship with your key accounts. The points below should serve as a guideline to evaluate whether the tool you are considering meets this requirement. Consider if it will help your KAM to:

  • develop a thorough understanding of the customer’s major market and ecosystem trends, competitive environment, business objectives, challenges and main initiatives they are currently working on (or should be working on!)?
  • identify areas for potential collaboration and joint development of solutions, not only at the operational, but strategic level of the customer organization?
  • focus on areas for collaboration with the biggest impact (instead of a broad portfolio of joint initiatives that carry the risk of an inefficient use of limited resources)?
  • systematically broaden and deepen your relationship network beyond their normal contacts and allow them to move to a higher level of the customer’s organization (Decision Center Analysis), where value can be created by working on topics of strategic importance?
  • assess if they are entering early enough in the customer’s decision process in order to position themselves as a viable partner and to come ahead of other competitors?
  • understand your company’s gaps in relation to the customer’s decision criteria and expectations and develop strategies to close the gap?
  • start building a business case as early as possible, which visibly demonstrates to all stakeholders the value of partnering with your company?
  • develop an Action Plan that is the end-result of real customer insight and joint strategizing, with both the whole Account Team and the customer? (see graph below)

Graph 1: Example of a multi-step Account Planning tool for strategic customer engagement

Now we come to the second reason for the perceived limited effectiveness of Account Planning, its faulty implementation:

Vital to every successful implementation are 4 success factors. If you get these success factors right, tangible results will definitely be attained. Remember, your aim is to make sure that Account Planning truly becomes part of your Account Managers daily practice, only then has Account Planning been successfully implemented. Getting the implementation right, is just as important as choosing the right method.

The 4 success factors of successful implementation are:

  1. 1. Move to blended learning & coaching: Instead of the still widely practiced frontal class-room training, blended learning takes advantage of different training formats and media, thus engaging the Account Managers actively in their own training process. After the initial training period, systematic and hands-on coaching must follow, focusing on specific customer situations. It is facilitated either by the direct superior or by an expert coach. This will ensure that the skills learned will be properly and routinely applied.
  2. 2. Focus on a limited number of Accounts: Most Account Managers are overburdened by daily operational business and they chronically lack time to invest in the longer-term development of their most important customers. To remedy this, Sales or KAM Leadership should consider the following points: implement an Account Selection Process that allows the Account Manager to focus on a small number of target accounts or in the case of a GKAM (Global Account Manager) just one global account, free Account Managers of routine administrative tasks and optimize internal system.
  3. 3. Select the "right" Account Managers: In today’s highly competitive environment of B2B sales, the Account Managers required profile (capabilities & personality) is changing rapidly: They must be capable of working at higher levels of the customer organization and be fully equipped to manage the strategic partnering process. Furthermore, the ability to act as a consultant and sparring-partner instead of the traditional seller is vital. Finally, they must have the acceptance of the whole customer-facing team and be able to lead effectively without direct line authority.
  4. 4. Top management commitment: Lack of engagement from superiors and top management is the main reason for failure in implementation. It is absolutely vital that they strongly endorse the importance of the Account Planning process and be personally involved in and at least partly present during trainings. Furthermore, top management must demand that the Account Plan is used as a regular tool in strategizing, communication and coaching. It must insist that its use is not optional. So Account Managers should be appraised on the basis of the effective usage of the Account Plan. Top Management commitment will also show in the way the organization is adapted, in order to allow Account Managers to concentrate on developing their assigned accounts (see success factor two).

Account Plans are the No. 1 vehicle for changing the mind-set and behavior of your Account Mangers. Success will depend on top management fully embracing this concept.

Graph 2: Success factors of implementation


Account Planning is one of the most important tools in B2B selling. But its true potential can only be realized if you, first, select the correct method and second, dedicate yourself to its proper implementation.

Choose an Account Planning method that helps you integrate into your customer’s decision- and value-creation process. This will allow you to attain strategic relevance for your customer and gradually upgrade your status from simple supplier, to preferred vendor and, finally, to trusted advisor.

Persist in applying the 4 success factors that are at the heart of a successful implementation. This will secure your ROI (Return on investment). No matter how well the method selected, success will solely depend on getting the implementation right.

This will make all the difference for both your company and your customer.

Let us know what your experience has been with choosing and implementing Account Plans. Looking forward to hearing from you!

You can download this article here: Account Planning: How to maximize impact and achieve lasting results (PDF)