As should be obvious to my readers by now, I’ve recently been on a kick to apply lean principles to sales and personal productivity. The core of lean is to reduce muda, or waste, and waste is defined as any activity that does not add value to the customer.
If you work in sales for a company, you probably have to enter an account plan into a CRM system, and you are very likely less than enthusiastic about it. Companies love CRM systems because it helps them capture information about their customers, but one of the major challenges is to get salespeople to consistently supply accurate information.
Why is that? There are actually three customers for the activities that salespeople perform: their customers, their employers, and themselves. In many cases, the only one of those three who receives value from many CRM systems is the employer.
Salespeople naturally would rather spend their time in front of customers than in front of computer screens filling out forms, so they’re naturally reluctant to take the time. In addition, they often see the systems as a surveillance tool that their management uses to keep tabs on their activities.
Customers don’t care if the account plan gets into the seller’s CRM, because to them that is not an activity that adds value. In fact, if they can’t reach the account manager because he or she is busy filling out their forms, they see it as worse than waste.
Fortunately there is a way out of this. The trick is to design the plan so that it adds value to all three stakeholders. A properly designed account plan does more than capture static information about a customer. It allows for the salesperson to think critically and plan for ways to deliver insights, consulting, or solutions to help their customers improve their business.
Salespeople will get value from the plan if it helps them focus their thinking on what they know and don’t know about their customers’ needs and decision process. Probably the major benefit that participants in my account planning workshops get is uncovering the “unknown unknowns”, those hidden land mines that often turn out to be the difference-makers in winning or losing business. Most salespeople are way overconfident about how much information they carry in their heads. They think that they know everything they need to know about the customer’s situation, and the only way to expose the fallacy is to force them to write down the answers to hard questions. When they uncover what they know and don’t know about the customer’s needs, the solution fit and the decision process, their action steps become much clearer to them, which leads to less wasted activity and shorter selling cycles. Well-designed account plans also share information within the various members of the sales team and help spark additional ideas.
How does the customer benefit from well-designed account plans? When salespeople are sincerely using plans to figure out better ways to provide value, solve problems, or help the customer achieve their business and personal goals, they will bring better solutions. They will also waste less of the customers’ time.
In fact, if the employer designs the account plans from the point of view of helping salespeople better add value to the end customer, their own value will take care of itself, because salespeople will embrace the process and consistently provide accurate and valuable information.
Actually, you could apply this approach to any sales activity. Simply ask yourself how much value each customer of the activity is getting from it. Those that help the end customer and the salesperson, usually end up benefiting the employer as well.
 I’m covering my bases with the Challenger Selling and Solution Selling camps here. Just call me Switzerland.