11 account planning best practices to win more business

Posted May 7, 2024

headshot of blog author, woman smiling

By Serena Miller

Editor, Sales Best Practices at Outreach

In a perfect world, we’d all know our prospect and customers’ business inside and out, make strategic recommendations on the fly, and sell with confidence the moment we step into our first meeting. But it takes work — namely, research and planning — to arrive there. 

So, how do you balance strategic account planning with all the other tasks on your to-do list? As sales teams selling to other sales teams, we know the struggle all too well — so we’ve rounded up our top tips. Keep reading for our top 11 account planning strategies to foster close customer relationships, overcome common obstacles, and build more effective account plans. 

11 account planning best practices: Tips for building successful account plans across your team

account planning best practices equip team with tools for success
Account planning 11 best practices blog
account planning best practices, take a customer centric approach
Collaborate cross functionally
account planning best practices find the best ways to engage
Encourage incremental growth
Evaluate your KPIs
Consider your sales qualification method
Leverage multi-threading
Conduct a competitor analysis
Pull up account plans when coaching reps
Bring the plan into your team's workflow
account planning best practices equip team with tools for success
Account planning 11 best practices blog

1. Take a customer-centric approach

A common pitfall in account planning is an overly inward focus — prioritizing what your organization wants to sell over what your buyer truly needs. This approach often misses critical nuances in the prospect’s or existing customer's business landscape.

Start by deeply understanding your buyers’ business environment and their unique challenges. Engage regularly with key stakeholders to gather insights and stay informed about any changes in their business, and don’t be afraid to pivot. Consider major events like recent mergers and acquisitions, or shifts in strategic direction, which can dramatically affect their needs and the value they could get from your relationship.

2. Collaborate cross-functionally

True account planning is a team sport. It should involve a mix of voices and perspectives, not just from those on the sales floor but also from business development reps, solution consultants, customer success managers, and even executive sponsors. At Outreach, our go-to-market teams collaborate directly in the same platform they use to source their own pipeline and organize their book of business.

My AE and I are truly partners together in the way that we present our account team. We’re aligned on what we’re going to present and how to respond to the feedback we get, so we're in line every step of the way.
Whitney Martin, Customer Success Manager at Outreach

A successful account planning strategy encourages teams to take a unified approach to target accounts. Together, these cross-functional groups offer a more holistic view into the account’s goals, needs, and challenges. 

3. Research the account to find the best ways to engage

One of the best ways to initiate an account-based selling (ABS) strategy is to start with a list of your ideal target accounts. Using that list, sales and marketing teams can create customized engagement plans for each account. Consider tactics like personalized emails, targeted ads, and other strategies designed to engage the customer and drive conversions. Additionally, sales teams should monitor buyer interactions, identify trends in their industry, and adjust their outreach strategies as needed to make sure they’re sending the right kind of message, to the right buyers, at the right time. 

Making it to President's Club: Advanced account-based strategies for sales teams

Check out our free ABS masterclass with Armand and Nick from 30 Minutes to President’s Club. Together, they’ll cover how Outreach can make you an expert in your target accounts long before the initial conversation. Get on the waitlist to learn how to build a 5-minute point of view, successfully break into accounts, and implement 6 strategies for multi-threading.

4. Encourage incremental growth

Successful growth account planning hinges on customer improvement — a key driver of a customer's perception of success. Instead of adopting a “set it and forget it” mentality, which focuses on short-term objectives, a strong account plan should be dynamic and forward-looking, emphasizing long-term success. 

Many traditional plans tend to be overly focused on the seller and their sales stages. Shifting the focus to your prospect or customer's perspective allows for more meaningful engagement. To do this well, continue to revisit the plan to make sure it is built to meet and anticipate their evolving needs.

By focusing on how to progressively improve your buyers’ workflows, account plans transform into strategic tools that deliver incremental benefits and foster a deeper, more productive relationship.

5. Evaluate your KPIs 

Align with your buyer on specific, quantifiable, and achievable sales goals when creating your account plans. Key performance indicators (KPIs) give you something to track and show your prospects and customers you’re committed to their success. Some common account planning KPIs include:

  • Customer retention rate / churn rate
  • Email response rate
  • Call response rate
  • 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.

Optimizing your sales funnel? Start here.

Tap into the metrics that stand between you and your revenue goals. Get our checklist of basic and advanced KPIs that best-in-class sales organizations use to measure success. Use these slides as the framework to anchor your sales team meetings, training sessions, strategic planning, forecast calls, or executive briefings.

6. Consider your sales qualification techniques

Embedding sales qualification techniques like MEDDPICC into daily activities is key. This method focuses on mapping the buyer’s main challenges, the metrics that matter to their business, and the right internal champions. By making account planning a routine part of your sales qualification process, reps know to identify these key details — and what information they can leverage to keep the deal moving forward. 

Create a groundswell for folks who have potential influence on your key buying persona. The right champions have a reputation internally who can go shake trees and start to build even more champions.
Logan Rusconi, Solutions Consultant, Outreach

7. Leverage multi-threading in your account management strategy

Another common mistake in account planning is focusing only on one key person. Successful teams start by mapping out all important stakeholders, understanding their influence, and figuring out the best way to engage each of them. This strategy ensures that the sales team targets the right prospects and becomes well-known within the buyer’s organization. 

For example, subject matter experts can talk to buyers who need more tactical or technical information about your solutions, while AEs can focus their attention on pitching leaders who need to understand the overall value. Senior leaders should reach out to their counterparts at the top, paving the way for strategic conversations in the C-suite. This method not only makes your efforts more efficient but also aligns your team’s actions with the buyer’s needs.

Outreach data insights
When more than one contact is engaged, deals are 37% more likely to close

Sales cycles are getting longer, and more voices need to be heard before any contracts are signed. You already know multithreading is a great practice, but cross-department threading could be your strategic advantage.

8. Conduct a competitor analysis

Creating a competitive analysis adds structure to conversations about a client’s direct competitors. 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 accounts 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 clients 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.

Where sales leaders go wrong in 1:1 meetings

One-on-one meetings between sales managers and reps can build trust and help reps achieve their full potential. But without structure or true visibility into deals, these meetings can be a waste of time for everyone. Here’s how Outreach sales managers make sure they’re driving productive coaching conversations. 

9. Use sales’ account plans in coaching

Rather than treating them as static documents created during annual planning sessions, managers should actively use these account plans to coach their reps on ways to advance deals, penetrate deeper into key accounts, and build expansion opportunities. Here are some strategies for effectively integrating account plans into the sales coaching process:

  • Regular updates: Treat account plans as living documents; pull them up before and during every meeting and ensure they are updated regularly.
  • Strategic focus: Shift coaching sessions from a simple review of past activities to a larger conversation around a customer’s pain points and how to help.
  • Evidence-based coaching: Base coaching on concrete data and metrics documented in your account plans.
  • Reward proactivity: Encourage and reward AEs for sharing difficult information about accounts early and asking for help to prevent customer escalations, churn, or contraction. 

10. Bring account plans into your team’s workflow

For account plans to be effective, they need to be a central part of your team’s workflow — not just a one-time note-taking exercise. Within Outreach, account plans are built into the tools reps use every day. But regardless of the technology your team uses, it helps to keep your plans easily accessible and layered with context about the relationship and previous communication. That way, these key account details are easily transferred to new owners as teams change or transition. 

11. Equip teams with tools for success

Ensure that every team member has access to up-to-date data and a shared space for collaboration. Reinforce that process daily, in team meetings, before sales calls, and in manager 1-1s. This centralized hub is where information should flow freely, allowing cross-functional team members to understand their roles and align their efforts.

Most organizations treat account plans as an information repository. Making them really little to no value for account managers, and it gets treated like another administrative tasks.
Shiela Rahimian (Director, Advisory)

Gartner®, Create a Reliable Account Planning Strategy to Drive Growth, March 2, 2023. GARTNER is a registered trademark and service mark of  Gartner, Inc. and/or its affiliates in the U.S. and internationally and is used herein with permission. All rights reserved.

To encourage adoption, consider setting incentives that reward collaborative success. That could be as simple as sharing strategic account planning best practice examples from top performers, or awarding regular bonuses to cross-functional teams that closed especially complex or challenging opportunities.

Step by step instructions on how to launch an account-based sales process, from building your ICP to tracking and measuring results

Top 3 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 up on reports and articles from industry analysts 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

According to Gartner, only 34% of chief sales officers are satisfied or very satisfied with cross-functional collaboration on key accounts.

Sales leaders must intentionally create a culture that supports cross-functional cooperation. That means bringing data to cross-functional teams, encouraging teams to share information proactively, including difficult news like risks or issues, and knowing how to drive change from those cross-functional teams. 

How to overcome account planning challenges, according to sales leaders

The central theme of our advice is simple: focus on your buyers first. 

Remember that buyers are just people. They want to get promoted, do a good job, and make sure their job isn’t at risk.
Michael Barker, Commercial Sales Manager at Outreach

Understanding these motivations allows you to tailor your approach in a way that aligns with your prospects’ and customers’ goals. You’re not just selling; you’re building relationships.

Recognize that you also bring unique insights that your buyers may not possess. Embrace the role of a trusted advisor by leveraging your expertise confidently. This means stepping up, showcasing your strengths, and confidently leading your clients through new challenges. Remember: they're looking to you to guide them.

You’re the expert. You're teaching our customers something they don't know, and you get to step into that trusted advisor role by being excellent at what you already do.
David Ruggiero, President of GTM at Outreach

Ready to kickstart your account planning journey?

Remember: traditional, blast-from-the-hip prospecting methods simply won't cut it in today's competitive market. Personalized engagement is table stakes, and reps must find the right ways to break through the noise.

That’s where Outreach comes in. Our platform helps you leverage deal insights to align with your buyers, sell with confidence, and advance more deals to the next stage. With Outreach, every member of the go-to-market team can view account activity, understand the buying committee, and collaborate with stakeholders on how to best penetrate the account — simplifying the complexities around account-based selling and account management.

There's more to explore

To see more of what Outreach can do, take a quick product tour of our account planning and management workflows. Or, for a more personalized consultation, request a demo to chat with our sales team. 

Account planning FAQ

What is account planning?

Account planning refers to strategies that build and strengthen relationships with buyers to create long-term success. It’s a vital piece of an account-based sales process. When done well, account planning resembles a partnership between an organization and its clients rather than a simple transactional relationship. Typically, account planning requires extensive background research on a B2B customer’s industry, their business challenges, competitors, and sales and revenue data early in the relationship — or when finding opportunities for expansion.

Why is account planning important?

Account planning is important because it creates close partnerships with buyers, accelerates deal velocity, improves retention rates, and creates expansion opportunities, ultimately yielding more revenue throughout those clients’ lifetimes. But account planning doesn’t happen overnight. It’s a long-term investment.

While focusing on acquiring new business is tempting, 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 to develop relationships with your buyers — prospects and current customers alike. Not only does it reveal buyer objectives that may not be obvious, but it also drives you to familiarize yourself with their industry, competitor landscape, and open opportunities on the 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 current and future clients encourages them to think of you whenever they want to pursue a new sales initiative.

What are the three phases of account planning? 

To create an effective account planning strategy, follow these steps:

  1. Identify your key accounts: Begin by determining which accounts are most valuable to your business. These are usually accounts that promise the highest potential for growth, have strategic importance, or contribute significantly to your revenue.  
  2. Conduct thorough research on each account: Once key accounts are identified, conduct in-depth research to understand each account's business, challenges, competitors, and market position. Also, look into any previous interactions between the account and your company. 
  3. Develop customized strategies for each account: Using what you’ve learned, define clear objectives for this account. Document the steps to achieve these goals, key milestones, necessary resources, and potential risks. The strategies must be adaptable, with regular reviews to ensure they remain relevant as account needs evolve.

ⁱGartner, Create a Reliable Account Planning Strategy to Drive Growth, March 2, 2023.


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