Subscribe to The Art & Science of Complex Sales

    How to turn account planning outside-in to grow faster

    New Call-to-action

    Account planning is a critical element of complex b2b sales. Traditionally, this process begins with an assessment of where the sales team might win “more wallet share” or how many additional products they might be able to sell into each account.

    Then, perhaps, a plan is made for approaching the client with this goal in mind.

    Although it’s the traditional approach, I call this the “inside-out” way to grow accounts. It starts “inside” your company and looks “outward” at the client.

    This “inside-out” approach risks treating the customer like a bank account from which to withdraw funds, and might fail to honor the fact that they have their own viewpoint on the relationship–a viewpoint that is more important to them than yours.

    Thus, the key to stronger growth, is to turn the inside-out account planning around and choose instead an outside-in approach.

    What is outside-in account planning?

    Turning account planning outside-in means choosing NOT to do some of things that we usually do. Specifically, it means NOT beginning with what YOU want but rather starting with what THEY want.

    Most account planning begins with what we, the sales team, can get out of each account–more wallet share, filling in white space, more money, more sales. Outside-in account planning starts with what the customer will get out of us.

    Here at Membrain, for instance, when our sales and customer success teams sit down to look at our customer’s account growth projects, we don’t ask, “How can we get a larger share of wallet,” we ask, “How can we help this customer? (in our case by increasing sales effectiveness)”

    Other questions include:

    • Have we delivered on our past promises?
    • How and where is this customer getting the most from us?
    • Are there ways that we’re letting this customer down?
    • How do they perceive us (aligned with how we’d like to be perceived?)
    • What is their entire industry struggling with?
    • Are they struggling with the same issues?
    • What are their major initiatives?
    • How can we most effectively align with these initiatives?
    • Who’s who and do we have the right relationships?
    • Do we have a clear and mutual plan of what to do together?
    • Could we be doing more for them?
    • How do we get it done? Who does what?

    We call this our “outside-in” perspective, because it starts with the customer’s point of view, looking from outside your company and in.

    Why outside-in account planning is critical

    In almost every industry, the sales landscape grows more competitive with every passing year. New technologies, new approaches, new competitors, new options–all of these things make it harder and harder to stay in the lead and remain profitable.

    Many traditional sales organizations approach the problem as if it were a product or service problem: How do we offer better features, stronger products, more services?

    This is an inside-out approach that focuses on your needs instead of the needs of the market.

    An outside-in approach allows you as a company and a sales organization to truly feel what the customer feels and understand what the customer needs and wants in order to grow and thrive. When you approach sales (and product and service development, and customer success) in this way, HOW you sell becomes a major differentiating factor.

    Customers know they are seen, heard, and understood, and that you care as much about their success as you do your own.

    Customers want to work with you because they know you are as committed to their growth as you are to your own.

    Customers move into win-win relationships with you, because as they grow, you grow; and as you grow, they grow.

    At Membrain, for instance, because we listen to our customers and work closely with them for their growth and success, we learn exactly what they want from our product… and then we deliver it. In this way, we’re able to offer a product that is far superior for our customers than anything else in the market. Simultaneously, our collaborative sales and account growth approach differentiates us from competitors and makes us valuable to our customers.

    Common barriers to outside-in account planning

    Deciding to move to an outside-in account planning approach won’t happen overnight. There are a number of common barriers to its implementation, some of which don’t yet have a good solution; and others of which can be overcome readily with a change in mindset.

    One common barrier is that the customer feedback tools that are generally available don’t provide enough outside-in insight. For instance, a Net Promoter Score survey (NPS) is a useful tool, but only provides a 0 to 10 score, without substantial context for what that number means in terms of what the customer wants from you, and where you can provide more value.

    Additionally, NPS surveys are generally used as a customer service tool and rarely looped back to the sales team.

    A better tool would help you to collect data after every sales interaction, as well as data about what the customer needs and wants that they’re not getting from your salespeople–or from anyone.

    This information, in turn, would be looped back to the sales manager and made actionable so that they can coach and train their team to provide more of what the customer wants.

    Beyond these types of tools, teams need to get really interested in how the customer sees the relationship. For instance, in win/loss analysis, our systems crunch quantitative CRM data because that’s what's available. But what if they were truly interested in the customer experience, and followed up with conversations to collect qualitative information about what the customer chose instead, and why.

    Then imagine this feedback looping back into account planning so that future customers could receive more of what they actually want from the team.

    Would your customers be willing to pay for that call?
    Neil Rackham

    This famous quote from Neil Rackham is an excellent example of outside-in thinking. Instead of focusing on what you get out of the sales call, it focuses on what the prospect gets.

    Sales teams who are curious and interested in the customer’s experience find out what the customer wants to get out of each call, and then provide it. When this is done at its best, then sales calls become calls that customers would be willing to pay for, because they add so much value to their day.

    Defining customers by outside-in criteria

    So often, we define our customers by how much potential value we can get from them.

    But what if we turn that outside-in and define ourselves by how much value they get out of us?

    I really got to thinking about this when we were working on the account growth module for Membrain and devised a grid by which to define a customer’s growth potential. It’s a visual that quickly demonstrates which of your customers have the greatest potential to grow their account with you.

    But looking at that graph got me to wondering what would happen if the customer had a similar graph about us.

    What if they put our value to them along one axis, and how much they wanted to work with us more along another.

    Where would we be?

    If their grid doesn’t match ours, then it’s not a good sign for us. If we view them as a high potential strategic account, and they view us as a low-value commodity vendor, we are unlikely to grow with them.

    This kind of outside-in thinking enables us to view ourselves through the eyes of our customers to find areas where we can improve in order to serve better. And when we serve better, we can sell better.

    When you think about how you conduct account planning, how much of your thinking starts with what you can get out of each customer? What would happen if you instituted more outside-in thinking?

    I’d love to hear your story in the comments, reach out and let’s chat about how you can implement more outside-in thinking in your sales process.

    George Brontén
    Published September 23, 2020
    By George Brontén

    George is the founder & CEO of Membrain, the Sales Enablement CRM that makes it easy to execute your sales strategy. A life-long entrepreneur with 20 years of experience in the software space and a passion for sales and marketing. With the life motto "Don't settle for mainstream", he is always looking for new ways to achieve improved business results using innovative software, skills, and processes. George is also the author of the book Stop Killing Deals.

    Find out more about George Brontén on LinkedIn