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3 Key Steps for Revisiting Sales Account Strategies for a Changed Economy

Growing accounts

how to reassess strategic sales accounts


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Recently, the Initiative on Global Markets, a research center at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business, asked a group of quantitative macroeconomic researchers about their forecasts for the economic recovery. The group included experts from Harvard, MIT, Johns Hopkins University, and other institutions.

Each expert was asked which of four possibilities they thought was most likely: a recovery that is U-shaped, V-shaped, W-shaped, or “swoosh” shape in which the drop is followed by a long, gradual recovery. One of the most sobering findings was that only one economist anticipates a V-shaped recovery. In fact, many of the economists believe that the recovery will resemble a “swoosh” shape, with 58% of the group citing this as the most likely outcome. The data also showed that the experts believe that real GDP will not catchup to pre-crisis levels until after the second half of 2022.

This result mirrors our data at Richardson Sales Performance and Sales Performance International, which shows that 46% of recently surveyed sales professionals believe that the current downturn will last 7-12 months.

Most importantly, this outlook is evident among buyers who are concerned about their liquidity, supply chains, and revenue prospects. In response, many of those buyers have halted or abandoned their purchases. These circumstances are prompting sales professionals to revisit their original account plans, which were drafted at the start of Q1 or earlier, and address issues that are now irrelevant compared to current buyer needs.

While these findings represent a daunting forecast, they also offer an opportunity because they give the sales professional much needed clarity on the long-term picture. And while this picture does include difficult terrain, it is a landscape that can be traversed because the topography is coming into focus. Charting the new path requires sales professionals to properly reassess their account strategies.

Here, we share the three key steps in doing so in the order in which they should be executed.

Step 1: Select the Right Customers

Sales professionals must prioritize their efforts by defining which accounts represent meaningful opportunities. This approach works because it means investing already limited time on customers that are most likely to yield revenue.

This approach begins by considering the “hard” factors, like revenue generated and product mix. Sales professionals must also examine “soft” factors, like their level of access, relationships, and buying behavior. Sales professionals need to explore which accounts have divisions, locations, or departments they aren’t serving. They need to identify the customer’s unresolved pain points and the key decision makers and influencers with whom they need to build relationships.

Sales professionals must not become too focused on the accounts that have spent the biggest totals. The idea is to look for the accounts with the biggest potential for future purchases — this is the white space. Moreover, sales professionals must do so within the new context of the coronavirus in which “the economic toll of any coming recession will hit different regions in disparate, uneven ways,” according to research from the Brookings Institution, which shows that over 24.2 million Americans work in the five sectors that are most exposed to the effects of the pandemic, a group that includes transportation, mining, and employment services.

Selecting the right customers, however, means more than focusing selling efforts on the strongest prospects. It also means becoming judicious about which accounts are subjected to a complete review. Many accounts will not demand the rigor of a revised strategy because they simply do not represent significant opportunities in our changed economy. For this reason, selecting the right customers should be the first step in revisiting an account plan because sales leaders have a limited amount of time to spend on the intensive process of redesigning their approach.

Step 2: Learn the Customer’s New Strategy to Revise Your Value Map

The most effective solution value proposition is one that is tied to the customer’s strategy. In the changed environment of today, the customer’s strategy has shifted. Therefore, the sales professional must similarly change their value proposition in a way that maps to new customer circumstances. Tracking and adjusting to these customer changes has long been a strategy of successful sales professionals even before the global pandemic because business volatility has increased over recent decades. Consider that “since 1980, the volatility of business operating margins, largely static since the 1950s, has more than doubled,” according to research from Boston Consulting Group.

Re-learning the customer’s strategy means getting out of “response mode” in which sales professionals merely react to piecemeal information offered by the customer. Sales teams need to become proactive and start new conversations intended to explore how the customer’s business has changed. In conducting these conversations, many sales professionals will discover that although their original value proposition is now irrelevant, there exists a new and stronger value message elsewhere. This is the case for sales professionals speaking with buyers who seek supply chain alternatives amid growing concerns with reliance on businesses in devastated regions. Emerging trade policies, rapidly changing consumer needs, and an increasing reliance on consistent delivery of products and services are all factors representing new opportunities for sales professionals.

These areas are the customer’s white space, which is often found in unarticulated needs. Exploring this region enables sales professionals to expand, or simply preserve, the business with the customer. A sales professional might discover that their solution fits the needs of another division. Or, they might discover that other solutions can address challenges that surface late in the sales cycle. The customer’s white space is a powerful way to capitalize on front-loaded selling efforts. Accessing the customer’s white space requires consistent engagement because these new needs are surfacing daily and often change.

Step 3: Assess the Changed Stakeholder Structure

The group of key stakeholders involved in buying decisions has changed. Steve Dodman, CSO at Richardson Sales Performance and Sales Performance International, explained why in his recent brief, Five Sales Leadership Practices for Navigating Turbulent Times, when he wrote, “In a slowing economy, budgets often centralize and move upward. That is, the number of people authorized to make a spending decision shrinks and belongs to those higher on the corporate ladder. As a result, spending decisions made prior to a downturn are often reversed and sales professionals find themselves trying to preserve relationships and deals that were once assured.” Sales professionals must track the changing sphere of influence in the buying organization.

A new set of stakeholders means addressing a new set of needs, value drivers, and even emotions. These emotions are important to consider because during a global crisis, fear and anxiety run high. While these emotions might not be directly related to the product or service being positioned, they still have considerable influence over selling outcomes. In fact, research from Harvard and The University of California has found that emotions “carry over from one situation to the next.” The researchers call these “incidental” emotions. This phenomenon is even further complicated by the fact that the “carryover of incidental emotions typically occurs without awareness.” Sales professionals must address the new stakeholders with an awareness that unseen influences are in play.

As the stakeholders and their emotions evolve, so will the case for change. The case for change revolves around a targeted issue — a problem or opportunity that is severe enough to warrant change. The sales professional must help the new set of stakeholders compare their options, identify the best solution, and evaluate value vs. risk.

The consensus is clear: the road ahead will be challenging. However, sales leaders can prevail by taking advantage of this forecast shared among economic experts, sales professionals, and buyers alike. Doing so means identifying accounts in need of a new strategy, rediscovering the customer’s new strategy, and delivering messaging that speaks to the changing group of stakeholders.

Contact us to learn about how our Major Account Planning program enables sales leaders to selectively reassess strategic accounts, make the necessary adjustments, and deliver a value proposition that addresses the most current and relevant customer needs.

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