A deep dive into successful account planning

Posted September 9, 2021

By Serena Miller

Editor, Sales Best Practices at Outreach

It should come as no surprise that it's more cost effective to retain an existing customer than acquire a new one. However, sales leaders may be underestimating the extent to which this impacts their business. Research done by Frederick Reichheld, inventor of the Net Promoter Score, found that increasing customer retention rates by 5% increases profits by 25% to 95%. 

For most B2B companies, customer churn stems from inadequate customer care. Many sales teams are so energized about finding the next big fish that they fail to prioritize their current customers. But with time and attention, sellers can generate more revenue by working closely with existing customers after the initial sale has taken place.

Here, we’ll review how account planning helps foster close customer relationships, how to surmount common obstacles to account planning, and how to build an effective account plan.

What is account planning?

Account planning enhances relationships with existing customers by creating strategies tailored to their goals for growth and expansion. It’s a key piece of an account-based sales process. When done well, account planning more closely resembles a partnership between an organization and its clients than a simple transactional relationship. Typically, account planning requires extensive background research on a B2B customer’s industry, competitors, and sales and revenue data.

Why account planning matters

Account planning doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long-term investment. Forming close partnerships with clients leads to better retention rates, which ultimately yields more revenue throughout those clients’ lifetimes.

While it’s tempting to focus on acquiring new customers, don't underestimate your current customer base. Many companies set their account planning strategy according to the “80-20 rule,” based on the belief that 80% of future profits come from 20% of existing clients. Why? The probability of upselling an existing client is far higher than landing a new prospect.

Strategic account planning equips you for the process of developing relationships with customers. Not only does it reveal client objectives that may not be so obvious, it also drives you to get familiar with the client’s industry, competitor landscape, and open opportunities on their horizon.

With this foundation, you and the client can better quantify account success, hit those sales KPIs, and build a communication line between internal and external stakeholders. In the end, developing this level of trust with your clients encourages them to think of you whenever they have a new sales initiative they want to pursue.

The challenges of account planning

While simple in theory, establishing a partnership with your clients takes time. Let’s take a look at a few challenges you might encounter in the process and practical solutions for overcoming those hurdles:

Learning unfamiliar industries

While you might have a broad understanding of a specific vertical, it is essential to learn the nuances, unique terms, and competitive landscape, too. Read blog posts, watch YouTube videos from reliable sources and companies, and follow industry experts to get a more comprehensive understanding of your client’s business. This due diligence will give you context for the types of problems your clients might face and help you avoid industry-specific issues in the future.

Finding the right stakeholders

Finding the right person inside a company can feel like finding a needle in a stack of needles. Not everyone has the bandwidth to talk to you, and even those who do may not even be involved in the decision-making processes. Ensure your client contacts are willing and able to work with you to achieve their overall goals. The right stakeholders are key to getting required information or metrics, the approval of sales and marketing initiatives, and more.

Understanding your clients’ accounts

Many companies won’t share their sales numbers, internal issues, and competitors upfront. Questionnaires, templates, and account-based software (ABM) can quickly collect the information necessary to fill in the gaps so you can recommend a strong strategic plan.

Tips for building a successful account plan

The task of creating an account plan can seem daunting, especially with all the background research it requires. Below, we’ve broken down the process into five key steps, proven to result in a successful, effective account plan.

1. Background and client information deep-dive

Deep knowledge of a customer’s business model, sales targets, and overall mission set fantastic account managers apart. To build a successful account plan, you need to ask questions that encourage customers to open up without feeling interrogated. Open-ended questions that demonstrate you have a solid understanding of the client’s industry work best. Here are a few examples you can use in an initial discovery call to start the account planning process:

  • How is your company perceived in your industry?
  • What internal or external pressures hinder your success?
  • Can you define what success looks like for both your division and your company as a whole?
  • How would you describe your company culture? What do you think could be improved?
  • I saw [article or announcement] on LinkedIn recently. Can you tell me more about this [objective, product launch, etc.]?
  • Who in your organization would be best for me to talk to about [ specific task/ask]?

If a customer can tell you are familiar with the ins and outs of their business, they’ll feel more comfortable telling you about their current initiatives, KPIs, and target markets, and where they’re falling short of their goals. This information offers insight into how you can help right now and in the future.

Also consider who you’re targeting as intended customers. You'll gain a better understanding of differing segments of your customer base and what their needs are by developing buyer personas and customer journey maps.

To build a customer strategy map, start by listing all the stakeholders you have relationships with and noting their involvement and personal wants and needs. Once you’ve recorded existing relationships, begin identifying other relevant departments with whom you’ve yet to interact. Next, try to find out what job titles could get you traction in those areas and what use cases most interest them. These untapped business units are often called “white space,” meaning they are ripe for adding value.

2. Conduct a competitor analysis

Creating a competitive analysis adds structure to conversations about a client’s direct competitors. No matter how aloof they seem to be about other companies in their space, your customers will be interested to learn about their competitors’ strategies and performance. In fact, some companies have whole departments dedicated to competitive intelligence. Having a sense of the industry landscape allows you to find innovative ways to help your customers gain a competitive edge.

The “Five Forces” competitive analysis model is a great place to start. It helps you assess your client’s business in terms of competitive rivalry, supplier power, threat of new entry, substitution threat, and buyer power. When you understand their competitive advantages (or disadvantages) in each category, you can help your client position themselves against competitors in terms of products, services, or go-to-market motions.

For example, if your client’s company specializes in in-product surveys, and you know your client’s biggest competitor doesn’t have this functionality, they now have the opportunity to highlight the features their competitors don’t have in future marketing campaigns.

3. Develop KPIs for success

Institute specific, quantifiable, and achievable sales goals for your account plans. Key performance indicators (KPIs) give you something to track and show your customer you’re committed to their success. Some common account planning KPIs include:

  • Customer retention rate / churn rate
  • Email response rate
  • Call response rate
  • Strategic email total
  • Strategic call total
  • Customer referral total
  • Upsell, cross-sell, and contract extension revenue

Since some KPIs may not differ much from sales teams at your own company, try to think beyond these standard metrics. Measure buyer sentiment and set goals for up-skilling and training other account managers and sales teams to have enough foundational knowledge to uncover new opportunities.

4. Create your account plan

With your customer’s background, competitive analysis, and KPIs completed, it’s time to create your plan. Account plans should include a realistic objective to accomplish in a set amount of time. Example: Increase email newsletter sign-ups for 5%.

Next, create a list of corresponding tasks assigned to internal team members, the client, and external vendors needed to accomplish, and clear deadlines for completing those activities. Remember to utilize the knowledge of your client’s competitors and the edge they have over them as a feature component of your upcoming plan. These to-dos should be rooted in your previous conversation outcomes and propel your client’s goals forward.

Monitor your accomplishments to stay apprised of your KPIs. In B2B sales, it’s imperative to keep your customer stakeholders on track. At this stage, you need to prove that your plan contributes to your client’s objectives and continues to provide excellent service with the products they already have. Store this plan in an accessible place and report on progress to keep your account plan top of mind.

5. Evaluate the results

Account planning is an ongoing process. Industries are constantly changing, and clients’ goals will transform along with those changes. Once one account plan is done, another begins. But before you start the next plan, take time to debrief. Meet with your client to discuss the successes and failures of the plan — what went well, and what is something you can work on in the next plan?

This is also a good time to bring up your original KPIs. In the meeting, make sure to highlight where your account plan excelled. Frame the not-so-stellar KPIs as next steps to tackle with the new account plan.

It’s also important to allow the client to share their honest opinions, too. The client should understand the impetus behind the next account plan, offer any desired revisions, and discuss any new initiatives that could shape future plans. Relay any product or service concerns to the appropriate teams with concrete examples for them to work from.

Once you’ve done this evaluation process a few times, ask yourself what else you can do to foster a better relationship. Use a data-based approach here. Analyze your KPIs by account and industry and consider:

  • Where are the holes in your workflow?
  • What do you not know about your customers?
  • What about the white space you found in your initial research — how much is left, and how can you fill it?
  • Can you work together with other sales team members or even customer success, marketing, or product teams to meet your goals?

Account planning strategy sets your customers up for long-term success

Your clients deserve to feel special, so it’s only fair that they get the best service you can provide. But giving them extra time and attention isn’t just about delivering excellent service now; it’s about cultivating an exceptional long-term relationship to reap the benefits. That said, building account plans across multiple clients gets complicated quickly — even for the most experienced sales executives.

Deals today involve an increasing number of stakeholders, making it nearly impossible to manage and close deals without an agreed-upon plan from the start. To close the gap, reps have needed to create, update, and collaborate with clients on lengthy spreadsheets with multiple tabs, Google docs, and slides, while sustaining long-term engagement from the buyer. Essentially sales reps have had to holistically project manage their deals with very limited, inefficient tools.

Success Plans within Outreach help sellers align and collaborate with their buyers to drive smooth, predictable purchase processes. At the same time, leaders can operationalize their sales methodology to drive greater qualification consistency and success across the organization. As a result, teams get to improve deal accuracy, reduce deal cycles, and close faster

Want more sales account planning best practices?

Outreach recently hosted a live demo on how to shorten deal cycles and boost win rates with account planning tools like mutual action plans. Watch the replay to see Outreach sales manager Christine Allanson and top AE Grace Presnick walk through their own account planning best practices. Together, they'll show you:

  • How sales leaders use Outreach to operationalize qualification methodologies like MEDDPICC, MEDDIC, BANT, or SPIN— ensuring sellers consistently and continuously qualify deals
  • How top-performing AEs use mutual action plans to align with all stakeholders all the way to close
  • How to use mutual action plans to avoid potential deal-killing scenarios, such as a departing champion or new stakeholders entering the deal.


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