Six must-haves to look for in an account planning template
With longer buy cycles, expanded buying groups, and increasingly complex customers, sellers need to keep track of a huge range of moving targets to sell strategically and stand out from the competition. As a result, most mature sales functions are adopting formalized account planning, including use of templates to inform and document key insights and actions.
There are numerous choices between home-grown tools, publicly available content, and off-the-shelf options embedded within sales methodologies and technology platforms.
Each offers value. The key is to choose one that fits into your selling environment ... and then embed it into your sales culture. Here are a few things to keep in mind as you make
A template must be connected to a process to be valuable. And sellers have to be trained in that process. Otherwise, it is just a vehicle for another administra- tive exercise that sellers will avoid or invest little in. Don’t pick a template. Pick an approach, and then be sure you have a template that helps people more easily adopt the approach. Some approaches will be focused on closing an opportuni- ty with a client, executing the steps of a sales process. Others will be aligned to approaches for mapping out strategic accounts and initiating opportunities in multiple business units. While you can tackle both in one “form,” multiple tools may make more sense, as these are different (yet aligned) sales motions.
1. Find a form that follows function.
Ideally, the more information you gather, the better. But practically, this begs for
“analysis paralysis.” Ask yourself what information is most vital to make good deci- sions and take winning actions. For example, don’t get so caught up in analysis of financial statements that you might miss key factors such as budgetary issues or ability to integrate into the tech stack. Sellers don’t need to write a Harvard case study—they need to build and execute a sales strategy.
The following report highlights topics that are generally captured in account planning templates. Consider what subset of these items is going to help sellers in your organization outsell their competitors and position themselves as trust- ed partners. It’s likely to be some of the harder-to-access insights, such as power structure, white space, culture, or monetizable pain points. So, you’ll want to be sure to have those clearly called out in your chosen template.
Start at the organizational level. The information that will need to be gathered here is the big-picture view of how the organization is structured, how it makes money, and what factors are driving its health—including internal and external factors. Be sure to translate this information into impact on purchasing. In addi- tion to the standard financial filings and analyst calls, look for the less tangible insights—such as culture—which can make the difference between winning and coming in second.
2. Ensure the data collected makes a difference.
□ Buying centers and organizational structure
□ Financial situation
□ Business model
□ Alignment to ideal customer profile (ICP)
□ Company ecosystem of customers and suppliers
□ Current, relevant events (mergers, product launches)
□ IT charter
□ Existing tech stack
□ Industry category and key industry trends
Here, the goal is to explain—in an unbiased way—what might be driving pur- chase of your solutions, and what might be standing in the way. Identify the white spaces (unresolved issues that you can fix) that are creating monetizable pain. Clarify what success looks like, and what might be part of a compelling busi- ness case for change.
Emissary research shows that, on average, 5.5 decision makers are involved in a technology purchase, and 85% of those teams are cross-functional in nature. In this part of the plan, sellers will identify all these individuals, how they like to con- sume information, their decision-making role, their personal style, and individual success factors.
When interviewing B2B buyers in the Emissary human intelligence network, one of the things we hear most often is frustration with salesperson messaging.
□ Impactful conditions and pressure on your target personas and functions
□ Key strategies &
priorities (what drives needs)
□ Current problems/
impact of problems
□ What does success look like? (organization-level goals and success aims)
□ Timing of needs, triggers
□ Perception of urgency
□ Sources of inertia
□ Influential people and positions
□ Decision-making roles
□ Individual goals, success aims
□ Political influence
□ Decision-making style
□ Organizational dynamics, power structure
□ Relationship mapping to the selling organization
Throwing a random ‘here is my product’ in a LinkedIn invite, and [making] me connect the dots to my needs, is a waste of my time.
—Senior IT Executive and Emissary Advisor
□ White spaces
(unresolved problems) solved by specific products
□ Product compatibility to
IT infrastructure □ Biases (cloud vs. on prem, broad vs. best of breed)
□ Incumbent providers
□ Strength of existing relationships
□ Buy vs. build position □ Projects competing for the same budget (even if they address different needs)
Sellers need to clarify the account’s white spaces and link to product features and benefits. It will be important to understand whether the account has any incum- bent providers, as well as any purchase preferences the organization might have.
For example: In the tech space, look for biases toward best-in-breed versus broad solutions, preferences regarding cloud versus on-premise, and leanings related to open-source versus proprietary.
Competition is a tricky one. Yes, it’s important to understand whether other providers are going after the opportunity. (Odds are the answer is yes). And yes, incumbent relationships make a difference, as buyers are clear that they tend to go for the path of least resistance when selecting providers. But sellers should be careful not to overlook other sources of “competition,” such as in-house solutions or a completely unrelated project which is tapping into the same budget. When we survey tech buyers, 99 percent report having initiated a buying process only to never actually decide on a solution. Often these “no decisions” are due to the influence of a non-traditional competitor.
□ Annual category spend
□ Approval limits for centralized vs.
□ Vendor management procedures, cycles
□ Past purchasing behavior
□ Decision-making criteria for this decision
□ Budgetary and tech debt cycles
Another vital set of intelligence is clarifying the buying process and its driv- ers. Sellers may earn an advantage by understanding tech debt cycles, budget timelines, and spending authority. It’s also important to anticipate whether the process is likely to be formal or informal. What relationships will be needed with vendor management? With procurement?
Consider what role procurement will play if involved. For example, they may issue an RFP which you can get ahead of. They may coordinate support. Or they may have a much more strategic role. Recent Emissary research into tech purchases shows that in 19 percent of cases, procurement can veto the buying group’s deci- sion.
Again, you won’t want to collect every one of these sub-items. But you do want to make sure sellers have a mechanism for capturing—and acting on—
those insights which make the difference in your results.
It’s one thing to collect the intelligence. It’s another to do something with it. Be- fore jumping into next steps, the template should guide the seller through mak- ing key decisions on the sales approach. These decisions include determining whether to pursue the account or opportunity further, what position to take, and how to configure solutions and pricing. Note that none of the decisions is carved in stone. As the account and the people within it change, the insights will change, and the decisions keyed to those insights will need to change too. The best sell- ers will use the template as a collaboration tool to engage coaches, advisors, and peers in helping them to craft an approach.
3. Use a tool that guides analysis.
□ Go or no-go
□ Appropriate goals for the account near- and long-term
□ Beachhead value proposition
□ Solution configuration
□ Messaging elements
□ Product positioning
□ Proposal strategy
□ Negotiation parameters;
The purpose of the account plan is to drive actions by the selling organization, aligning the selling process to the buying process. These actions should be both strategic and tactical in nature. For example, tactical actions would include ask- ing for permission to interview buying committee members on their needs prior to a presentation. Strategic actions could include inviting key decision makers to another client’s thought leadership event. Actions should drive not just your sales cycle but also the growth of the relationship over time. Recent Gartner research1 shows that many buyers perceive their sellers as overly focused on the tactical. In fact, only 7% of the key accounts Gartner surveyed said that their account manag- er was a “business-growth-focused advisor,” and 40% said the account manager was a “tactical-focused coordinator of day-to-day activities.”
4. Drive both strategic and tactical actions.
□ Steps to take to gain access to a new account (e.g., who, when, what message, what channel, and how to navigate the organization
□ Steps to align selling and buying processes to close deals (e.g., scoping, needs assessment, proposing, resolving blockers, negotiation, proof of concept, launch)
□ Steps to take to grow existing relationships and cross into new BUs (e.g., establish multi- pronged relationships, make joint investments, share success data)
1. Gartner. 2021. “Gartner Says COVID-19 Significantly Impacted 41% of Key Customers’ Spending with B2B Sales Organizations.”
There are two common pitfalls that derail use of account planning templates.
The first is treating them like a pre-funnel activity. In this scenario, a seller invests a ton of time to fill out the template before a key sales process milestone … and then they never touch it again. This results in very little application of the sales approach to the actual opportunity and account. The second misstep is when sellers have little customer intelligence to populate the planner and end up trying to collect it all during the sales process. Instead, use the planner throughout the funnel:
Sellers need to collect as much information as pos- sible ahead of their client conversations, mining a range of sources—such as CRM and customer data platforms, and account details from third parties—
and tapping into former executives such as those in Emissary’s human intelligence network. With this knowledge, they can provide value and drive the pro- cess at an earlier point than the competition.
The average buying cycle within most industries is long—and growing. For technology purchases, Emis- sary research into tech purchasing pegs the cycle at eight months on average. During that time, most of the items in the examples above will change, some significantly so. Therefore, decisions being made will need to be revisited and the actions continuously recalibrated.
Analyzing account plans over time can generate incredibly useful win/loss insights, help marketing refine personas, and build new content to support
5. Ensure the template is a living document.
Utilizing these kinds of templates is going to require behavior change among sellers and their managers. If you launch a tool and you don’t see a lot of people using it, that’s a sign that they haven’t embraced the underlying account and op- portunity management processes. To keep planning from being a check-the-box exercise, ensure that it’s constantly on the seller’s radar:
□ Coaching: Managers should review all account plans and use them as the basis for coaching sessions and account strategy sessions. In addition, sellers should use the plans to seek coaching from additional sources both within and outside the account (e.g., former employees).
□ Technology: Account plans that are tech-enabled are better able to take advantage of data within the organization. And if, like many organizations, the CRM is the seller’s hub, adding the plans there will increase the likeli- hood that they will be built and used as intended.
□ Visibility: The templates should be core to communications. If a seller needs marketing support on an account, then they need to share the account plan. If someone wins a deal, celebrate by sharing highlights of the account plan. If you launch new sales training, it must incorporate the account plan. It has to be everywhere.
□ Collaboration: Keep the template alive and use it as a collaboration tool among sales, marketing, and customer success. Especially in large ac- counts where multiple sellers may be working with different buying cen- ters, tools like a consolidated account plan can support better collaboration amongst the selling organization, and a better and more seamless experi- ence for the customer.
6. Make adoption easy.
Formal opportunity and account planning methodologies can be vital to winning, keeping, and growing more business with clients. But without care being given to tool selection and implementation, many of these initiatives fall short of expec- tations. Those in the market for a new approach should keep these tips in mind:
1) Find a form that follows function. The template itself is going to be irrele- vant if it isn’t attached to a process that sellers are trained on. Worry about the process first, and then pick a template that helps people execute the process.
2) Ensure that the data collected makes a difference. The form is useless if it’s empty. Help sellers with efficiency by concentrating on collecting the intelligence which ultimately makes a difference in the outcome. Take ad- vantage of intelligence resources, such as internal data, publicly available information, and insider insights such as those provided by the Emissary human intelligence network.
3) Use a tool that guides analysis. Too many times, people jump from col- lecting data to taking action. They don’t invest enough thinking time in de- veloping the strategy. Make sure your tool and its underlying process takes sellers through the cycle of making (and remaking) decisions. Get inside and outside coaches to help sellers make sense of the data that they have collected and transform it into decisions.
4) Drive both strategic and tactical actions. The point is to take action, but double check that both strategic and tactical actions are being empha- sized in the template and its approach. Otherwise, your organization will execute seller-centric plans and miss opportunities to engage customers and prospects at a deeper level. Make sure to critically examine your cho- sen template from the customer’s perspective.
5) Ensure the template is a living document. Most sales cycles take time.
Situations change. People change. And therefore insights, decisions, and actions need to change. Make sure that the account planning tool you pick lends itself to being a living document to be used before, during, and after the sale.
6) Make it easy to adopt. Sellers are too busy to add “one more thing” to their to-do list. Therefore, the account planning tool has to be seamlessly inte- grated into their world. It should be highly visible, embedded in the tech- nology, and the focus of coaching and collaboration conversations. Look for a tool that fits.
In conclusion, there really is no right or wrong template to select. Pick (or build) one that helps you execute your approach. And take care when installing it, so that you are driving tangible impact versus adding to seller distraction.
More About Emissary
Emissary is a human intelligence network. We connect enterprise sales and marketing professionals directly to our community of over 8,000 talented senior and C-level executives with recent experience in your most important accounts. We help sellers and marketers shorten sales cycles, close more deals, and build positive long-lasting relationships with clients and prospects. To learn more, follow us on LinkedIn and visit us at Emissary.io.