Account Planning Means a Painless Pitch

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Do you hate selling to your clients? Does the thought of making a sales call give you ulcers? You’re not alone. Many freelancers – including me – don’t think of themselves as natural salespeople. You might be a techie or an artist (or both!), but you probably aren’t cigar-chomping, back-slapping, deal-closing salesperson like they show in the movies.

Guess what? That’s okay. In fact, with the right approach, you’ll probably out-sell the stereotypical salesperson 2-to-1.

What Is Account Planning?

Account Planning is the perfect approach to selling for those who hate to sell. It turns that mysterious conundrum that we call the sales process into clear-cut problem-solving and project management.

Account Planning isn’t a new approach; it was pioneered by IBM, back when the blue-suited IBM salesman was epitome of technical sales. I learned about Account Planning from Rick Wolff of WWG Partners, who was a top salesman for IBM, DEC, and Accenture before striking out on his own. As Rick can attest, while Account Planning works for multi-billion dollar companies, it works just as well for a company of one.

So what is Account Planning? At its most basic level, Account Planning simply means managing the sales process with the same level of rigor and preparation that you would the implementation of a Website. Rather than trying to use the hard-sell on potential clients, you treat them as if they were already your clients – except that the final product of the sales process isn’t a piece of code, but a signed contract.

The Account Planning Process

You begin the process of Account Planning by developing an internal account plan for your client. This is your private plan (not to be shared with the potential client) for all the steps that need to occur for your client to give you their business. While the steps can vary, I recommend you focus on five basic actions:

1. Develop a value proposition

You’ve got to believe that giving you their business is the best decision your client will make. To make sure that this is the case, develop your value proposition. Your value proposition should succinctly and concretely detail the benefits that your client will get if they give you their business. The value proposition should speak the client’s language and hit their hot buttons. For example, you might tell a potential client, "Right now, you’re spending $10,000 per month answering simple customer service questions over the telephone. We can create a Website that will handle these inquiries and direct them to the appropriate responses automatically. Even if it only reduces your call volume by 25%, it will pay for itself in less than two months."

2. Identify all the elements of the decision-making unit

Unless your client is also a company of one, it’s unlikely that only one person will be involved in making the decision. Make sure that you identify all the elements of the "decision-making unit" (DMU) that will be involved. This means figuring out that John in Marketing has the ability to approve items up to $5,000, but that $10,000 sales go to Susan, the CEO, for approval, and that Jane in IT has veto authority over all Web projects. Once you understand the DMU, you can figure out how to appeal to their specific needs.

3. Create a pre-call plan

Would you start designing a Website without a plan? If not, why would you make a sales call without one? Your pre-call plan should include who you’re talking to (with all contact and position information), when and where you’re talking, what you’ll need to the call (e.g. send out a link to your portfolio in advance of the call), why you’re talking (your goal for the call), and how you’ll take the next step. You should also anticipate their top three objections, and how you will respond to them.

4. Provide options

Always present three options to your potential client: Good, which satisfies all their needs and stated budget constrains, Better, and Best. The fact is that many clients believe that they know what they want, but simply aren’t aware of all the possibilities. If you present them with those possibilities, you make it clear that you’ve thought about their situation, you increase your chances of making the sale, and you improve your chances of making the sale larger.

5. Create an implementation plan

While it may seem strange to create an implementation plan before you actually get the gig, doing so serves several important purposes. One, it gives you a better idea of what it will take to complete the project: maybe you’re not asking for enough money! Two, it shows the seriousness and care with which you treat their time, signaling that you’ll show even more care when you implement the project. And three, it helps set everyone’s expectations so that it’s clear how to achieve success.

Joint Account Planning – Involve the Client

When you’ve finished your internal Account Plan, it’s time to conduct Joint Account Planning with your potential client. With Joint Account Planning, you work directly with the potential client to create the final draft of your Account Plan. This converts the sales process from adversarial to cooperative, and gives you far better intelligence about the internal workings and thought processes of your client than you ever could get on your own. Not sure who needs to sign off on your proposal? Why not ask the client?

Joint Account Planning may sound crazy, but it works. Remember, the most valuable thing you can do for your clients isn’t to drop your prices, it’s to meet their specific needs. Clients welcome the opportunity to participate in Joint Account Planning because it increases the chances that their expectations will be met.

The final account plan that you create with your client should include all the different milestones that need to occur in the sales process, including any sales calls that you need to make. And because the joint account plan is a mutual commitment, you won’t have to worry about hunting down the client when it’s time to make those sales calls.

Is It Worth It?

You may be thinking to yourself, this sounds like a lot of work. Maybe it works for million-dollar sales, but will it work for me? Yes, account planning takes work, but so does making 20 sales calls instead of one. Account planning works because it increases the chances of making a successful sale. Let’s say that you spend an entire day on each of the five steps. You would never spend that much time, but let’s take that as an absolute worst-case scenario. Is selling a major project worth one work week of your time? For most of us, I think that the answer is yes, especially in comparison to the countless hours we’ve wasted pursuing business in the past.

Let’s face it: selling is an important part of being a freelancer. Why let it be the most painful part? All you have to do to make selling painless is to apply the same planning skills that you use when you’re implementing your projects.

Chris YehChris Yeh
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Chris Yeh is a partner at Porthos Consulting, a sales and marketing consultancy that focuses on delivering measurable gains in lead generation and revenues. Chris and his work have been featured in Fortune, the Financial Times, and the New York Times. He earned his MBA from Harvard Business School.

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