During recent years, I have assisted dozens of organizations in creating a simple and workable strategic plan.  Along the way, I have witnessed some flowery documents; content rich in filler but lacking the killer. My clients have discovered that a powerful bullet point outline trumps a 50-page cornucopia of buzz words.  The right document turns into an ongoing guidepost; focusing the minds and longer term direction of the company. Each time you make a tactical decision, the longer ranging strategic plan serves as a directional North Star. 

After reviewing “strat [strategic] plans” from hundreds of businesses, I see a breakdown. Even though the leadership team had ideas about market conditions which might be exploitable, technologies to be exploited and competitors easily replaced, behaviors needed from their sales teams were a major obstacle.


Should Salespeople have Strategic Plans?

Returning to my hotel from a very long day spent in a strategic planning session, I had an epiphany.  Many of the very best salespeople operate their territories as if their customer list was an independent business; albeit a stand-alone business flying in close formation with the rest of the mother organization.  And most sales managers live with, perhaps even encourage, a certain level of controlled entrepreneurial spirit out in the field. 

 Might it be possible to push a strategic planning process to those closest to the customer?  During the next few weeks, I talked to some of the sellers most recognized as top performers in their companies and industries.  A fundamental difference in the way they thought about customers emerged, even though individual sales call activities were similar to their contemporaries; application acumen, product skills and problem solving were about the same.  But they consistently outperformed the rest of the pack.  They thought about accounts with a long-range strategy.

I discovered most salespeople with five or more years of experience are proficient in the transactional components of selling.  They connect with their customers personally and professionally.  Because they understand product and technology issues the customer, the salesperson’s business increases.  At first glance, one would say they are headed down the road to success.  But with time, acceleration of growth slows, plateaus hit and the seller’s overall development is hampered.

Even with journeyman-type experience, the average seller treats each customer interaction as a reactive event.  It’s a never-ending carousel ride where one identifies issues, problems are solved and the process repeats with no end in mind.    Sales skill improvement comes tied to the seller’s ability to spur the rotation in their selling merry-go-round.  It’s a reactional game.

Sales managers complain their teams lack the ability to properly utilize all the resources available to them.  Business level conversations with customer management it seems are seldom carried out, and when they exist at all, the content rarely moves things forward.  Selling time, resources and organizational energy are wasted on the wrong accounts or focused on the right account at the wrong time.

What might happen if we applied the principles of strategic planning to a sales team’s best accounts?  As simple as it sounds on the surface, when salespeople apply the same processes found in their parent company’s strategic plan, customer-centric thinking improves.  Sales effort shifts from a string of single events to a consequentially planned maneuver for sales growth, competitive position and mutually beneficial partnership.  


Building an Account-oriented Strategic Plan

We could toss out a bunch of consultant speak, but cutting to the chase, the strategic plans revolve around an understanding of current position and exploring future options with the goal of impacting the future.  We painstakingly identify strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats with as much objectivity as possible.  Even though the whole concept sounds relatively straightforward, many organizations struggle because today’s small issues become emotional barriers standing in the way of longer-range thinking.

Salespeople planning for long-range success face even more emotional baggage.  By its very nature, selling is a high contact and visceral game.  This emotional aspect calls for management coaching and insistence on incremental steps to creating a meaningful plan.

To facilitate incremental thinking and provide the right level of coaching, I break the strategic plan into progressively important phases. 


Where do you stand at the Account?

Wouldn’t it make good sense to pause for a short while and ponder the question: What does the customer think of our organization?  Or better yet, how do they see me in the context of a supplier?  Do they respect my company, or are we just another in a long litany of guys they buy from?  Is our organization noted for “dirty deeds done dirt cheap” pricing, or are we a value-producing machine standing ready to be called upon? 

These points are sometimes painful to ponder.  In what Jonathon Bien refers to as the Lake Wobegon Effect, everyone thinks of their organization as the deal of the century.  Maybe some accounts think of you that way.  But in our account-based planning, we’ve got to understand how this customer thinks of us today.


What do you know about the Account?

Strangely, sales types gloss over account knowledge.  Oh, they have general ideas as to the products and services provided, but they lack deep understanding of the customer’s business interworking.  Even though most swear to be “solution providing” sellers, they lack details on the customer’s labor rates, business costs and market sweet spot.

Taking an inventory of knowledge around an accounts business situation provides coaching points for the management team and the ability to call in outside assistance.  Thinking critically on this topic gives the salesperson future direction in areas worthy of exploration.


What level of Prioritization does an Account Justify?

Thomas Jefferson wrote, “All men are created equal…”, but trust me, all accounts are not created equally.   We don’t have time to create a strategic plan for every account on our list.  Somewhere along the way, we must objectively determine if an account fits the right criteria to justify our efforts. 

Again, setting prioritization allows management to ask coaching questions and provide an outside opinion on an account-by-account basis.  Good salespeople appear universally optimistic; sometimes to their own detriment.  Benchmarking data, previous experience with similar accounts and other guidance help expand the chances of success.


How do you think about Account Opportunities?

Sticking with our Thomas Jefferson analogy, some accounts are easier to convert than others, some require high activity levels for short duration and others require a longer duration but less intense time investment.  Time pressures may prohibit working two time intense opportunities simultaneously. 

Without sounding overly stereotypical, salespeople have a habit of underestimating the time required to achieve selling objectives.  With “too many balls in the air,” the chances of costly errors increase.  Opportunities are lost, and customer confidence dwindles.  Some strategic thought allows better scheduling and execution of plans.  


Are you following the Money at your Account?

The truth is most salespeople follow technology, applications and customer needs and pursue friendly contacts.  I can’t help but wonder if a lot of salespeople actually feel they cheapen their work by the exchange of money.  How many times you have heard a salesperson lament: “The proposal was perfect.  The product was everything the customer wanted.  We were the best supplier on the planet.  But, the customer didn’t have any funding?”

Call me mercenary, but I believe today’s sales team must consider the finances.  Just evaluate the cost of building a decent proposal.  Days of time spent pulling information together, gathering details from suppliers and crafting the whole thing into a presentation can run into the thousands of dollars for the selling team.  Understanding who controls the purse strings (and if the purse has anything in it) is critically important.


Who do you know at the Account?

Thinking more about the money, why do so few sellers take the time to build relationships with high- level management types at our accounts?  I regularly get calls to jump in and help “save an account” because somewhere along the way, the salesperson has never built a relationship with the guy who writes the checks. 

Account top brass call the shots.  Regardless of what your technical guy or project manager tells you, if Mr. Big says to switch the business, you’re done. 


What Value do/can you bring to the Account?

Enough about your great service, fast delivery and wonderfully trained inside sales people.  Let’s get down to some meaty stuff.  Directly and specifically, what can you do for this account?  This isn’t part of the boilerplate on your website.  Instead, precisely how can you help this single account make more money, gain market share, boost their efficiency or improve their productivity?  Name names, give figures, cite recent examples. 

Most sellers leave it to the customer to connect the value dots.  No salesperson has the time to do it for every account.  But they do have time to make the effort at a select list of accounts.  


Still don’t believe me? Let me send you a test …

You may be skimming over this article and nodding in agreement.  But deep down, you’re thinking, “My sales team is already doing this.  They’re professional, they’re smart, and they’re all above average.  This strategic planning thing is for everybody else.”

 I have a simple test.  You can find out where you stand in a matter of minutes.  It’s going to be the first chapter of my new book on Strategic Planning for Accounts.  And, because I am an all-around nice guy, it’s yours for the asking.  Just shoot me an email.  Then decide.