Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Developing an Account Plan: 5 Questions to Answer

Developing an account plan is a critical element in driving customer success. But where do we begin? To create an effective account strategy, start by answering these five deceptively simple questions.

Why are we here?
One of my favorite TED Talks is Simon Sinek's "How Great Leaders Inspire Action". His message revolves around the importance of starting with Why. Similarly, when developing an account strategy we need to start with why. Why are we here? The answer to this question requires more thought that you might guess. The easy response is that the customer purchased the product and we are here to make them successful with it. While this is true, it does not answer the question why and is not the foundation for an effective account strategy. To articulate your answer it helps to break the question of why into three parts:

  • Why did the customer buy our product? The customer has a problem they are trying to solve. The answer to why starts with the problem. And again, the answer requires more thought than you might guess. For example, the customer is not implementing our product because they want to be innovative. The goal to be innovative is a part of the solution, not the problem. The problem might be that they can't attract the best talent. One of the reasons for this might be because they are not viewed as innovative. If we accept the desire to be innovative as the problem we are trying to solve, we will completely miss the point and fail in our account strategy to solve the real problem.

  • Why do they care about that problem? Once you have identified the real problem that the customer is trying to solve, it becomes easier to articulate why they care about our solution. For example, their inability to attract the best talent is leading to a failure to execute on the core corporate strategy. HR cares about the inability to attract talent, fill the pipeline and provide hiring managers with qualified candidates in a reasonable amount of time. In turn, the line of business leaders care about their inability to deliver quarterly results. It is not an HR problem we are solving. It is a business problem.

  • Why is that problem important to their business? If you have identified the true problem to be solved and answered the question of why they care about that problem, the answer to the question of importance becomes almost obvious. If the line of business leaders fail to deliver quarterly results, this create a performance gap that may result in a loss of market share as competitors seize the opportunity, a miss on earning, and a loss of market capitalization.

Starting with the question of why we are here provides us with a solid foundation from which to build an effective account strategy. By understanding the real problem the customer is trying to solve, why they care about that particular problem, and how it impacts their business, we can more effectively plan for how our products and services will align with the problem and provide a viable solution.

Where are we going? 

Once we have a solid understanding of the problem we are trying to solve, it is important to understand where we are going. This is not the implementation, configuration, training or change management plan. It is not the product roadmap or the adoption plan. The answer to where we are going is a description of the destination. What does solving the problem look like? An effective strategic account plan has a clearly defined and agreed upon view of the destination that we are working together to reach. If the business problem is attracting the best talent, the destination may be a description of what a full talent pipeline looks like, the stream of talent in it, and the flow of candidates into hiring manager queues. The challenge of defining where we are going is in the description. The more detailed you can make it the better. A great account plan has a description of the destination that gets people excited, that generates a sense of purpose, and is a place where they can visualize themselves.

How will we know when we have arrived?

This question is an obvious element of an account plan but is often only addressed as a box checking exercise. Did we ask about the business objectives? Check. Did we ask about the measures of success? Check. But developing an effective account strategy requires more than just checking the boxes. It requires clear, metrics-driven answers to whether we solved the business problem and arrived at our destination. An effective account strategy maps out these details, ensuring that the customer and the HireVue team have a shared vision of success that is not left to subjective assessments or the current impression of the tools. By articulating clear measures of success that tie back to the core problem and business impacts, we can easily overcome hiring manager objections, recruiter and talent acquisition obstacles, or other challenges. By clearly defining specific and measureable objectives that are aligned with the tools and processes to measure them, we can be sure that our customer knows what success looks like and when we have achieved it.

How will we get there? 

We have a clear problem to solve and we know where we want to end up, but how will we get there? This sounds tactical. And it is. Creating a strategic account plan does not mean setting aside the tactical elements of execution. A strategic account plan actually goes deeply into the tactical plan to ensure that the path to achieve results is clearly mapped out. This is the implementation, configuration, training, and change plans. It is also a well formulated governance model that agrees in writing to the rules of the road. If we are going to reach the destination, we need to agree who is driving, who will participate when there is a question of direction at an intersection, who changes the flat tire and who we call for help if we run out of gas. A strategic account plan clearly maps out these roles without losing sight of the problem we are solving or the final destination. It is easy to focus on the How when creating an account plan because it is tactical and easy to define, but without a clear reason for going and a clear vision of where we want to go, we are just driving around.

What do we need to do? What do we need to not do? 

A critical part of managing a strategic plan is deciding what we are going to do. That's obvious. Less obvious is the need to decide what we are not going to do. This is harder than it sounds. It requires more than simple answers like "we are not going to get off schedule" or "we are not going to get distracted". It requires firm commitments and a proactive plan to address distractions and detours. For example, we are not going to start socializing the scheduling solution until the interviewing solution has reached 80% of our target audience with a 90% adoption rate, which we plan to be November 30, 2014. These commitments become especially difficult when you start to realize some success in an account. When adoption is growing, when the customer is happy, referenceable and eager to speak on our behalf, it feels like a great time to pitch additional use cases or introduce additional products. While we don't want to limit our upsell potential in existing accounts by waiting and watching as the full account plan is executed, we do need to be very careful and strategically pick our opportunities. It doesn't make sense to attack an opportunity to solve a scheduling problem when the talent pipeline isn't filled with people to schedule. But by carefully considering what we need to do and what we need to not do, and including these considerations in our account plan, we will be more effective in solving the core problem and will position the account for long term success instead of just another short term contract win.

Creating an effective account strategy begins with identifying the core business problem to be solved, agreeing with our customers on a vision of success and including specific measures to understand when we have succeeded. An effective account strategy also requires understanding and planning for the tactical details required to reach that destination and a formal plan for addressing challenges and questions that will arise. Finally, a effective account plan requires planning in advance for what we will and will not do along the way. By starting with these deceptively simple questions you can create an account strategy that leads to customer success.

About David Verhaag 

David is the Vice President, Client Experience at Degreed, the lifelong learning platform. Prior to Degreed, David established and scaled the Customer Success function at Kahuna and HireVue and spent eight+ years with SuccessFactors where he led the development of the global Customer Value team. David lives on a sailboat in Half Moon Bay, CA.

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