However, that complacent behavior can backfire quickly if a key contact in an account leaves or changes positions. Forget about growth — your business in the account could evaporate instantly. You can’t take that risk. You need better insight into the account and activity.
Protecting and growing key accounts is essential to the well-being of any organization and is too important to be managed reactively. Account managers are part of a business and need to have both short-term and long-term plans for that business. An account development process provides this type of short-term and long-term planning for your large accounts. Good account plans provide checkpoints; measurable objectives that allow you to see if progress is being made. Equally important are checkpoints that let you spot and correct small problems before they become major issues. Plans often change, but they can provide a place to start.
Some organizations have specialized account managers, and others expect their salespeople to play the role of both hunter and farmer. However, planning is not typically a salesperson’s favorite part of his or her job. Planning takes time and does not provide immediate gratification. It is an investment of effort up front for an uncertain return later. We see this challenge over and over in organizations with these hybrid roles. The key is finding the right balance, setting the right expectations, and reinforcing the expected behavior through management feedback and rewards.
When you don’t plan and are focused on the short-term with large accounts, you are typically taking orders as they arise; you are not focused on the client’s long-term business objectives or the bigger picture for your company. You are seen as a commodity rather than a Trusted Advisor, and when you’re a commodity, your customers are usually very price sensitive and not loyal.
Planning links your company’s products/services to your customers’ important long-term goals, making them real solutions. You get more visibility with the business and with key stakeholders throughout the company and become more integrated into the client’s organization. This makes it harder for competitors to unseat your position and creates more sustainability when budgets get tight.
So, how do you ensure that key accounts are receiving the right focus?
Good planning includes verifiable outcomes. These are checkpoints — signposts that forecast the health of the company‘s relationship with a large account. Verifiable outcomes are leading indicators based on the client’s actions (not the salesperson’s actions) that demonstrate the company’s level of alignment with the client.
Have you ever had a client that you thought your company had a great relationship with and then lost that client a few months later to a competitor? This happens to every salesperson at some point in their career. Wouldn’t it have helped you to have an early warning system or indicator that would have allowed you to take action to prevent the loss of the client? Verifiable outcomes are leading indicators embedded throughout the account development process. They enable you to understand how well-aligned the client and company are at any time.
There are three characteristics of verifiable outcomes:
- They involve client feedback or action. The outcome requires some reaction from the client. It is OK if the reaction is not wholly positive. The reaction has occurred and you collected feedback, which is more important.
- They are observable. The salesperson should be able to produce some evidence (e-mail, document, etc.) that the outcome has been achieved or be able to answer some specific questions about his or her interaction with the client that would lead the sales manager to conclude that the interaction with the client has been sufficient.
- They increase the confidence of the salesperson that the client and company are well-aligned. The Completion of the outcome should give the salesperson greater confidence that the relationship is healthy.
Verifiable outcomes allow us to objectively determine the status of the relationship. Wishful thinking and anecdotal evidence are reduced, which makes your assessment more accurate. Losing a relationship with a large account or being forced from a Trusted Advisor or technical expert position down to a product provider will have a direct and dramatic impact on your book of business. Verifiable outcomes help you to identify risks to the relationship and take corrective action before it is too late.
When you set the right expectations; provide the processes, tools, and skills; and then reinforce the desired behaviors through inspection and rewards, you stand a much better chance of protecting your downside and enhancing your upside in key accounts.