If it’s January, it must be Strategic Account Planning time, right? That season when companies identify their most valuable customers and demand that the key staff people responsible for those accounts create some kind of annual planning document? Each year a “Strategic Account Plan” or whatever names it goes by is generated for each major customer. The document maps out strategies and tactics for a year’s worth of activity between buyer and seller. Most treat it like a magic talisman with the power to keep the cash cows producing.
The problem is, ever since the beginning of mankind, these Strategic Account Plans are almost universally myopic. If you read between the lines, each one tells the story of “how we will sell them more of what we make.” Each one is based on pre-fabricated milestones drawn from thin air. Even the account planning process is flawed. Once the first plan is generated, 12 months, 3 weeks, and 4 days later someone takes it out, does a search and replace, and that’s the new plan for the new year.
Here’s a better way. Why not trade in fax-it-in Strategic Account Planning for an authentic, intentional Strategic Relationship Planning process? If more executives recognized that the real assets of a company reside in the breadth and depth of its relationships, internal and external to the enterprise, I submit there would be more emphasis on nurturing those relationships.
Focus on outcomes for needs-based segments
To move from flawed account planning to effective strategic relationship planning requires a fundamental shift in how an organization thinks about, engages and influences its customers, because the fundamental nature of marketing has changed. While marketing can still be understood as a set of processes for establishing value in order to exchange goods and services, end customers now drive the process and control the communication channel.
We are transitioning to a pull economy, which is fundamentally about becoming an object of interest and creating gravity with far greater emphasis than the traditional push. At every level and in every channel, customers have lost faith with traditional mass advertising and marketing. Our customers pull information that they find of interest and value instead of making time to absorb what we push, and they are more likely to pull it from sources we don’t control – such as social media and recommendation engines. On the B2B side, buyers have grown jaded. Traditional sales techniques like those featured in so many passé sales methodologies (pick your flavor as I’ve been through 9 of them!) have become irrelevant.
In the pull economy our organizations must attract customers by provoking their interest in our unique value. That interest is sparked when a company represents an authentic purpose its target customer considers relevant. No one purpose will resonate with all customers, which leads to the need to focus on outcomes for specific segments of the overall market. A strategic relationship plan becomes a canvas upon which you invest time, effort and resources to really get to know them, that which moves their needle, how aligned your current offerings may be to meet or exceed those needs, how you can anticipate their future needs, and in the process, reward your team for win/win vs. we win, and transform the lives of those who entrust you with their business.
In the new paradigm, strategic relationships are crucial
Conversations are fundamental to good relationships. Great relationships are derived from multiple interactions in uniquely different context, where they ascertain a) your passion for your chosen field, b) vested interest in their improved outcome, and c) synergy of thought and move forward momentum. In the process, they must believe your credibility and feel trust, not just be told of both.
In working with a dozen or so enterprises on this effort over the past couple of years, I’ve particularly appreciated bringing senior leaders of both sides together in a facilitated session, where the primary objective is for one side to better understand the current and future needs and aspirations of the other, and how their respective organizational focus may be aligned. The outcome of a long day of heavily lifting (mental), becomes a prioritized list of initiatives, owners on both sides, desired outcomes, and timeline.
Although the above example is one of an external relationship, intracompany relationships could benefit from the same process. Wherever there is a strategic initiative or grand challenge underway that requires buy-in—the internal equivalent of sales—and follow-through—the internal equivalent of customer service—strategic relationships are crucial, so relationship planning promises a definitive ROI.
Get the key people the initiative will impact around a table. Discuss outcomes, including possible failures—this is a great time and place for doing a pre-mortem. Just as with a client/vendor relationship audit session, your day together with internal stakeholders will generate stronger relationships and more clarity about the outcomes for which you are jointly and individually accountable.
The prize: resilient relationships
Strategic Account Plans even at their best were inflexible. The speed of today’s business requires much greater agility. Strategic Relationship Plans, on the other hand, are flexible. Their intent is to increase resilience, not to lock in a customer for a year due to some cookie-cutter “plan.” The plan is a living understanding among key stakeholders, not a stale document on a shelf.
Maybe in 2014, you can think and lead differently when it comes to your organization’s most valuable asset: its portfolio of strategic relationships and what they need, vs. your want of SEOT – Sell Everything On the Truck!
- Strategic Relationships not Account Plans, keep customers interested in the value you offer.
- In the pull economy, organizations must focus on the outcomes desired by needs-based customer segments.
- Break silos to bring senior teams together from both the buyer’s and the seller’s organization for strategic relationship planning, leading to clarity about outcomes and strategies to achieve them.