How to implement a strategic account plan
The biggest problem with strategic account plans is failure to launch. You've done all the hard work to create it, now how to you implement your plan and make sure it's a success?
Is your strategic account plan in trouble?
There's an art to implementing a strategic account plan successfully. I know that now.
I would get so frustrated with my clients - month after month (sometimes year after year) and still no progress on my strategic account plans? It sure wasn't from lack of trying. Why haven't they implemented even a handful of my recommendations? I mean at least the ones that will save the big bucks? Why do they keep bursting my balloons?
Do you ever ask yourself: "why should I invest all this hard work in putting a plan together when I'm the only one who cares about it?"
I've asked myself that same question many times. Because, like you, I want to help my clients. And, like you, I want results, not excuses.
So why did my strategies fail?
Have you ever tried to get a child ready for school? You tell them what to wear and all you get is arguments. You might eventually convince them to put on the outfit you suggested, but you can tell their not happy. If they're a teenager, they've probably packed a change of clothes they'll slip into the minute your back's turned.
But ask them to pick out their own clothes, suggest some changes, put your foot down and insist they take a jacket. What happens? You get results.
And so it was with my clients. The plans were all mine. I told them what to do and how to do it. They never really cared about them and mostly, were co-operating under duress. No wonder I had nothing to show for it at the end of the year.
What went wrong with my strategic plans?
I learned that to succeed it needed to be OUR strategic account plan and not mine. It's just that simple. Don't do what I did, do this instead:
- Match your strategy to your client's strategic style and business environment e.g. If they favour short-term planning and quick wins, then you should too.
- Be realistic - start with a small number of focused and impactful goals to create a strategic account plan you can actually deliver.
- Use data to support your recommendations and to measure results
- Gain commitment for the resources you'll need (e.g. time, money, people) up front rather than along the way. Otherwise, your plan could stumble.
- Get the support of decision-makers and influencers - even if there's nothing for them to specifically do on your plan - you may need them to remove obstacles later.
- Ask your client to formally sign off on their approval of the strategic account plan. It's a small way of getting them to commit.
- Make your plan flexible enough to seize new opportunities and to ditch strategies that aren't working.
- Make sure your strategic account plan gets attention by scheduling recurring tasks to promote success and update stakeholders on progress.
1. Match your client's strategic approach
Mirror and match is a classic tactic to build rapport. You enter another person’s world by assuming a similar state of mind: mirror their body language, match the pace of their conversations etc. Why not use this same tactic but apply it to your strategic account plan? If your strategy matches the style and pace of your clients' your likely going to have much better success implementing it.
In the book, Your Strategy Needs a Strategy, BCG global strategy experts Martin Reeves, Knut Haanæs, and Janmejaya Sinha explore approaches to strategy. While they talk about organisational strategy, you can apply their findings to tailor your account plan to match your clients' industry.
Think about your clients and see if they fit into any of these strategic styles. If you're not sure - use the image to the right to see where industries typically fall on the strategic style matrix.
Industries that are unpredictable and can't be changed (i.e, reactive). Your strategic goals and objectives are constantly changing. Plans are made, then regularly evaluated, changed or abandoned to reflect the dynamic environment.
Industries that are unpredictable but can be changed (i.e. you can influence and be proactive). Plan your strategy in short-term cycles. Experiment, You’re treading new ground. Don't get too crazy. Your initiatives should err on the side of conservative but don't be afraid to push some boundaries. Stick close to your plan and evaluate constantly.
Industries that are predictable and can be changed. Get creative. These clients are disruptors and ready to set new, game-changing goals. Don't be afraid to tackle sacred cows. Make your strategy big and bold and adopt a build it and see approach
Industries that are predictable but organisations are hard to change. Your strategy will typically stay the same every year and build on the successes of the past. You don't need to reinvent the wheel, just improve it.
2. Be realistic about your strategic goals
Strategic plans take time, resources and focus. If you're too ambitious with your account plan you're going to run into trouble very quickly.
There's nothing worse than getting to the end of the year and presenting the results of the plan and making excuses as to why nothing was achieved.
Many years ago, I was taking over an account and joined the handover meeting with a client. The key account manager's final task before moving on to greener pastures was to present to the client the results of her strategic account plan.
Every discussion began with
- "We ran out of time on that"
- "That one didn't really get off the ground"
- "We couldn't do that because..."
Sadly, she had bitten off more than she could chew and it took me a long time and a lot of work to restore that client's confidence.
You don't want to be that key account manager, do you?
When you are implementing your strategic account plan, decide on fewer and focused goals. Think about the time you have, the resources you'll need and the return on investment. Choose those goals which have the most chance of success and maximum impact.
There have been times I've had only a single project on my strategic account plan, but it was a big, fat, juicy one.
Less really is more if you want your strategy to succeed. Save the shopping list for the groceries.
3. Use data to make decisions
Avoid vague targets like "improve satisfaction" or "increase savings." Sell your strategic account plan by stating exactly what the results will be and how you calculated them. Show what before and after looks like and why it's important to your client.
Without details, you won't know what resources you need or how to measure success. You need to prove that your recommendations are worth everyone's time.
There are usually three pillars of data you're going to need:
- Cost savings. Compare what they spend today against a future target and measure easily with some basic number crunching.
- Satisfaction. Measure the change in satisfaction over the strategic account plan period. Get started with these free tools.
- Process efficiency. How long does it take to do something and how much does it cost? How can your strategic account plan reduce both time and cost? I suggest doing a simple time-motion study at the beginning and end of your strategic account plan and calculate the difference. You can automate some data gathering with time-tracking tools like TimeCamp and RescueTime.
If you're worried about the analysis, remember you're not a physicist calculating trajectories for re-entry of the space shuttle.
Most of my calculations are rough and dirty, back of the napkin stuff. But that's OK. The point is to gather and review enough data that:
- it verifies the strategy is worth pursuing.
- gives you a target you can measure.
- lends credibility to your argument.
- is compelling enough to help gain support for your account plan.
4. Decide who you need to help with your strategy
When implementing a strategic account plan, success will be measured by how well you deliver. To deliver, you need resources (e.g. time, people, money). To get resources you need support.
Ask what - and who - do you need to get your strategic account plan off the ground? Communicate with key stakeholders in advance of implementing the plan so they know what's expected.
Highlight how vital their contribution is to the success of the strategy (i.e. use guilt). Listen to their feedback and incorporate what you can into the strategy.
Go through your plan and assign tasks to people and dates. Avoid generic "Me" and "Client". Name names (or at the very least departments).
I start with date ranges like Q1 or November and get more specific as the project gains momentum.
Everyone must understand from the beginning:
- what work is involved
- who's going to do it
- when it's required
- how contributions will be measured
- how their feedback will be captured
Because guess who's gets blamed if the plan fails? That's right, you!
5. Make friends with influencers
A favourite quote from the film Braveheart. You may need to outsmart your main contact to get your strategic plan implemented. They can't always be trusted to do what's good for them!
Cast your net wider than your main point of contact. The good news is you don't have to get in front of the CEO.
However, you do need the support decision makers and influencers if your strategic initiatives are to succeed. It's even more imperative if you're tackling Big Hairy Audacious Goals (BHAG's) - and let's face it, those are the ones that count.
It's time to turn on the charm.
Let them know about the plan in advance so they understand its importance. Be positive and encouraging and ask for feedback on your strategic account plan. Tweak things if you need to.
Because you want champions of your strategic account plan. Including them early on will help you build an army of advocates.
A word of caution. Your contact may not want to share the plan with senior stakeholders. Don't take it personally. It's probably because they're intimidated or don't want to stick their neck out (yep, your client might be a scaredy-cat).
The solution. Volunteer to have those conversations on their behalf. I've presented my plans to Executive Committee and Board meetings. I'm not too proud to beg if it gets my strategy signed off.
If your contact still resists, take it as a sign they don't have confidence in the strategic plan. Or aren't committed to doing what it takes to implement it and make it happen.
You may need to dig deeper to uncover their concerns.
6. Get commitment to your strategic account plan
You want your client to get fired up and commit to implementing your strategic plan, don't you? There's no room for freeloaders - unless you want to do ALL the heavy lifting?
Once you and your client have built the strategic account plan, I recommend you seek final agreement on:
Don't invite further feedback for now. You're done with talking - it's time for action.
The plan doesn't have to be perfect - you'll be tweaking it over time anyway. Gain your clients' commitment and request formal sign-off.
A simple email will do - with an offer that's almost impossible to refuse. Something like:
Please find attached the strategic account plan for next year. Together we've developed a robust set of objectives which I'm confident will deliver real value to your business.
I'm excited by these opportunities and delighted to be working with you on making them happen.
Please reply confirming the strategic plan meets with your approval and I'll get started right away!
If they're uncomfortable with the plan, they'll tell you. If they're happy, your plan will get the green light and you're off.
7. Be flexible
The assumptions made when strategic planning may prove wrong. That's OK, we can't predict the future. But is your plan flexible enough to adapt to change?
Business is unpredictable. There are internal and external forces at work influencing the delivery of your plan. Be aware of what's going on in your clients' business and your own.
Seize opportunities to improve or adapt your plan. Take advantage of new trends or unexpected situations.
On the flip side, don't cling to a goal because it's a great idea even though you know it doesn't have a snowflakes chance in hell.
Be aware that support may wane and stakeholders come and go.
Stay close to the people you need and be on the lookout for new allies and detractors. The success of your strategic account plan depends on it!
8. Your strategy needs a marketing plan
Let's face it, real life sometimes gets in the way, right?
Most strategic account plans face certain death because they're ignored. Others are invisible because we don't dedicate time to tracking activities and results.
If you're not communicating your plan you are wasting a precious opportunity. Don't fall into the trap of executing your strategic account plan in silence only to have a big reveal at the end of the year. Otherwise, for the better part of 12 months, your client has been wondering what the heck you've been doing!
At any moment if asked, "What does your key account manager do for you?"
You want your client to shout from the rooftops all the wonderful things you've achieved.
Don't let the answer be "I don't know."
Make sure your client knows what the value you bring ALL year round.
Let's solve that problem NOW.
To make your life easy, you must establish a manageable format for you to track the progress of your strategic account plan. If you don't already have a format of your own then sign up to Trello (a free online project management tool) and copy my Strategic Account Plan board.
Next, you need to build a marketing plan for your strategic account plan. It's as simple as setting up 4 recurring tasks. Do this:
- 1 x weekly highlight (success, challenges, observations etc.). Only a couple of sentences needed. Even if there's no update, send a news article you read that relates to the strategy or something of interest. You want your strategic account plan to stay front of mind and for your client to know that you are working on it.
- 1 x monthly update call to a decision maker or influencer other than your main point of contact. You can leave your update by voicemail if you miss them with an invitation to call you back if they wish.
- 1 x monthly progress update on your plan. Recap your activities for the month. Focus on what went well, what didn't go well and priorities for next month
- 1 x quarterly deep-dive review into the plan. Here you want to re-align. Build on successes and dump things that aren't working. Fill in the detail of exactly what needs to be done in the quarter ahead.
Modify the frequency based on the number of clients you have.
If you have a big portfolio then you may need to move weekly to bi-weekly, monthly to bi-monthly etc. Just make sure you have at least 1 of each of these actions completed every quarter and that your strategic account plan makes progress.
- BCG Perspectives - Your Strategy Needs a Strategy. Helps you cut through the noise and find clarity regarding which approach, or combination of approaches, to strategy is best.
- Your Strategy Needs a Strategy - the App. Super-fun game that simulates the five business environments and asks you to choose the right strategy through the example of selling lemonade in New York City’s five boroughs. It's harder than it looks. Download for iPad and Android
- How To Create An Insanely Easy Strategic Account Plan. Step-by-step guide to creating a powerful strategic account plan. Template included.
Follow these steps and implementing your strategic account plan will be a breeze. You will have done everything you can to set up your strategy for success, so what are you waiting for? Go get 'em, tiger.