Your sales team needs account plans. Here’s how to create them.

Main illustration: Ryan De La Hoz

Account plans are one of the most important weapons in a salesperson’s arsenal. They bring together critical information about your customer, your competitors and your sales strategy to nurture existing business in a simple document to ensure each customer is set up for success. So why do sales teams often ignore them?

The formula for selling SaaS software is quite simple. You acquire users, you monetize them and you look to keep them around for as long as possible.

While each of these pillars brings with it tremendous growth opportunities for salespeople and their customers, over the past few decades salespeople have put the majority of their time and effort into acquiring customers while retention and monetization take a back seat.

New logo acquisition is a key metric that sales teams focus aggressively on. But it’s a simple truth that most salespeople do not celebrate when a large customer renews their contract in the same way as when they sign on the dotted line for the first time.

According to research by Invesp, 44% of companies admit they focus more on acquisition than retention. Meanwhile, the same research points out that customer retention is far more financially sound for your business and increasing customer retention rates by 5% can increase profits between 25-95%.

startups focus more on acquisition than retention

How to create an account plan for your sales team?

A strategic account plan is the cure to acquisition addiction for your business and, done right, will act as the blueprint for each customer’s success with your product. It will guide your sales team towards growth opportunities, flag churn risks and defend against potential attacks from your competitors. Here’s a step by step guide to creating yours, along with some handy account plan templates you can start using right away.

  1. Gather the building blocks of your account plan
  2. Create a 360-degree view
  3. Putting your account plan to work

1. Gather the building blocks of your account plan

The first step of an account plan is preparation, gathering all the data points at your fingertips that will make or break a customer’s success. Think of it as time spent sharpening your axe before a day full of chopping wood.

The type of information you gather will depend on the type of business you run and also the type of customers you’re selling to, but at a high level we recommend starting your account plan by answering some of the below questions:

  • What are the customer’s business objectives?
  • What is top of mind for your customer? (launching new market or new product?)
  • Who is your champion?
  • What is their org structure?
  • What is the decision making/procurement process? Who might derail your renewal deal?
  • What features are they/are they not using?
  • What are the metrics that matter for your customer?
  • How do they measure the ROI delivered by your product?
  • Where do we win and where do we lose compared to other products?

Most of the above can be gathered from Salesforce, Crunchbase, Linkedin Sales Navigator and, of course, Intercom, but some questions (such as understanding what really matters to your customer) may prove more difficult to answer. The secret here is simple: ask the customer. You probably think you know this already – and that’s great. But your assumptions need to be validated, or broken down, if your account plan is to have real impact.

2. Create a 360-degree view

account plan template

Once you’ve started pulling together your research, it’s time to start mapping it out into an internal facing document that will become a crucial reference point throughout the customer lifecycle.

Bonus: Download your template account plan spreadsheet here.

The data points you’ve collected will inform the five main components of your account plan.

  • Business objectives. This describes your understanding of the customer’s needs and how it relates to your own product.
  • Relationship and decision making. This paints a picture of the organization, its relationships, mobilizers and blockers.
  • Assessment of customer. This describes the current lay of the land. It gives an overview of the account and the strengths and weaknesses of the current relationships.
  • Actions for the next 90 days. Based on your research findings, these are the steps the customer can take that will lead them towards value in your product and thus renewal. For example, identifying if any feature requests can be implemented in your product roadmap.
  • Actions for the next 365 days. This is the white space in the account where you can help your customer to identify new potential areas of opportunity – and simultaneously discover new areas of opportunity for yourself. For example, identifying and meeting a new champion in a new team such as marketing or customer support could open up new opportunities.

Once you’ve been able to fill out each of these five components, you should have a helicopter view of other existing workflows, the competitive landscape, near-term buying plans and long-term needs. More importantly, you can now quickly assess your strength in the account versus your competition which in turn reveals new cross-sell and upsell opportunities.

3. Putting your account plan to work

While your account planning process doc is great for preparation, there is little point collecting key information about a client if there’s no follow through. Ultimately, an account plan is only successful if it tangibly improves a customer’s experience with your product. That’s why you need to translate your research into a customer facing presentation that aligns both sales rep and client around a shared objective.

account plan template

The first step is to assemble team members for a kick-off meeting (virtual or in person). At a bare minimum, the sales rep and customer champion should be present, but it can also be useful to have other key decision makers present, such as budget owners or someone from procurement.

In this meeting, translate all your previously collected data points into a concise, narrative pitch-deck that articulates how important your product is to your customer’s existing success (with relevant ROI metrics), your deep understanding of the client’s business and their objectives and finally a series of recommended action items for the next 90 days that will make the customer even more successful with your product.

Bonus: Download a template for your account plan pitch deck here.

What’s crucial in this call is that there’s mutual buy-in from both sides into the account plan. Your customer should know and subscribe to your account plan. It should mirror the activities they are following day-to-day internally, as well as some simple steps they can take to improve their current way of doing things.

Companies built on recurring revenue can’t afford to treat customers like they’re disposable.

It should be transparent too. They should have a copy of the deck; the same copy you have internally. Once the plan becomes mutual, measurable and transparent the agenda for every conversation going forward has a focus.

In many ways, what you’re trying to do here is set up the relationship akin to a traditional client-consultant relationship where sales reps can be seen as trusted partners who improve their businesses. Your account plan is the key to getting this type of relationship off the ground. By showing your deep understanding of the business’s problems as well as a deep understanding of how your product can help, clients will be assured that your product isn’t just a tool for the here and now, but a long-term investment that has the flexibility to match their needs as they evolve.

Pro-tip: When forming your recommended action items for the next 90 days, frame them in small, incremental steps. Quite often, your product will be disruptive to your customer’s existing way of doing things. For example, introducing conversational marketing to an established organization and getting to switch from asynchronous online forms to real-time conversations with prospects requires a radical shift. At Intercom, we always make sure that we transition from the old world to the new world is as seamless as possible.

Unless your business is transactional in nature, expanding your relationships with customers should be an ongoing priority. Companies built on recurring revenue can’t afford to treat customers like they’re disposable.

Nothing makes a customer feel more unimportant right off the bat than to have the rep they worked with during the sales process permanently disappear the moment the deal is signed. Instead, encourage all your reps to create account plans for each client so that they are fully invested in the post-sales handoff and ongoing customer success – which has the added benefit of increasing their chances of winning future business.