By Richard Scheig, Chief Revenue Officer, Upland Software
The view from where I sit as Upland Software’s Chief Revenue Officer is a profoundly interesting one. Our revenue teams are physically distributed through time zones and countries, as well spread across 25-plus product lines that serve industries from healthcare to tech. These complex operations alone would be enough to keep anyone’s head buzzing. But as a provider of a robust set of sales management and methodology capabilities, our teams work with some of the biggest sales organizations in the world. This gives me insight into the state of enterprise sales organizations outside my own, lending me a bird’s eye view into the ways that revenue teams are embracing the current state and accelerating the digital transformations that have become all the more urgent for every one of us over the last two years.
What I see from these dual worldviews is twofold: First, that the global pressures stemming from COVID and supply chain squeezes are throwing roadblocks in the path of us all. And second, while no one is immune to these challenges, the strategic account planning approaches that drive success today aren’t unique to any particular industry or business size. The foundational principles that move the needle are ones familiar to any sales leader: relationships and insights. It’s how faithfully (and effectively) we execute on these principles that makes the difference.
Many of us still can’t hop on planes and sell face-to-face—or at least not as much as we want to—and our customers are grappling with their own sets of shifting priorities made more urgent by forces beyond their control. How we’re able to step up and continue to serve these customers depends on our ability to collaborate internally and prioritize our finite resources to deliver maximal value.
But how, exactly, we do that—how we build account planning motions that drive real wins—rests on the twin pillars of people and problems. We have to be intentional in repeatedly asking ourselves:
- Who are the key players that we serve, and how well do we know them?
- In what ways are we positioning these people to tackle their most pressing problems?
- How are we making this information visible within our own organization so that we can function as a cohesive revenue team?
From what I’ve seen at Upland and beyond, not only is it possible to answer these questions and establish ourselves as trusted advisors to our customers, but we are better equipped now than ever to do so.
Developing a relationship strategy
My salespeople know that it’s not enough for us to become a vendor of choice for a given client. Our intent is never so transactional. Instead, their priority should always be to build a partnership. (They also know, of course, that it’s easier said than done.)
One common misstep we see across sales organizations is account reps who find themselves blinded by hierarchy. Power is often the easier attribute to spot, but it’s influence that we’re most interested in. Getting in front of people with the right titles and selectively tapping executive sponsors is important, but on its own it’s not enough to penetrate an account in a meaningful way. Earning a place as a trusted advisor means engaging everyone in the organization to whom you can deliver value and building out a robust understanding of their roles in the decision-making process, how (and to what extent) they exert influence and what priorities are top of their mind. In mapping a rich understanding of how key players relate to one another, account managers can start to uncover the manner in which things happen in the organization—insights not visible to the untrained eye.
It takes time to map the political structure hidden behind the organizational chart, but it’s time well spent. My sellers uncover influence in all kinds of ways, including looking for people or groups who have worked together at past jobs or have similar backgrounds. Most importantly, they source information from supporters who can offer information they won’t find in their CRM. In any account, we seek to understand:
- Who matters?
- How do they think?
- What is our current relationship?
- What is our relationship gap?
- How can we bridge that gap?
And we ask these questions beyond the sales team. We tap the entire revenue team to build out the most complete picture possible and document it all in a dynamic relationship map, which gives us a living visualization of the political reality we face within an account. Tim Zierden, VP of Enterprise Dealer Partnerships at Cox Automotive, recently articulated to me the importance of leaning on Cox’s customer success team to uncover key insights. “They’re critical,” he said. “They’re our feet on the street.”
It’s true: Customer success folks, like anyone who touches the customer, can fill in what would otherwise be major gaps in knowledge and help revenue teams move from thinking about customers as entities that pop up at various points along a funnel to seeing them as central to everything the business does.
Prioritizing relationships allows us to think more holistically about success. With a relationships-first mindset, our goals aren’t exclusively financial. A win might mean gaining access to new people in an account or developing a deeper understanding of a customer’s biggest priorities. In short, teams are focused on putting the customer at the center.
Critically, these insights aren’t gathered in a vacuum. They’re rigorously documented and shared in visual relationship maps that help everyone who touches the customer see the political landscape within which we’re working.
Insights are everything.
Connecting with the right people isn’t just about having influence within an organization. It’s also about gaining a clearer sightline into the goals that key players are working toward and the challenges that stand in their way. To do so, we have to listen far more than we talk. When we do speak, it should always be in service of asking the right questions, for example:
- What are the customer’s goals? These are usually surfaced in conversations, then validated by an executive sponsor.
- What pressures do they face? Pressures can come from within or without, and some might cause significant changes to the business.
- In light of the pressures you surfaced, are initiatives and priorities the same?
- What’s in motion?
- Are we in tune with the way initiatives are prioritized?
- What’s the solution? Does it involve us?
Again, an essential part of this process is documenting answers and ensuring everyone has access to the latest information, visualized in such a way that we can see how it relates to our relationship map and overall account plan. The best thing about this is that this process doesn’t have to be sneaky. Our teams actively play this information back to the customer. We pull up our insight map and lay out what we’ve heard. We ask them: Does this sound right? This simple question unlocks some of our best conversations. It’s in these moments that true partnerships are forged.
We all know it: There is no sale more valuable than one made to an existing customer. Yet it remains a blind spot for many of us. Research from Gartner suggests that only 28 percent of sales leaders say we’re meeting our cross-selling and up-selling growth targets. Some of the folks at Upland Altify who conducted a study of their own recently found that less than half of the companies they surveyed are effectively maximizing opportunity in existing accounts. That’s a lot of money we’re leaving on the table. At Upland, we call that potential “whitespace,” and it’s surprisingly tricky to measure.
That’s why the final question I listed in the previous section—what the solution to a customer’s priority problems is and whether it involves us—is the most important one. And it has to be answered honestly. Of course, we want a customer’s solution to be something we’re uniquely equipped to help with, but it won’t always be so. If we see that an account isn’t positioned to grow with us at the moment, we take that information to heart and reallocate resources elsewhere. If the answer, on the other hand, is yes–well, it’s full speed ahead.
Sophisticated B2B sales organizations have done account planning for years, but most that I’ve encountered can’t clearly report on KPIs around their whitespace–nor the potential pipeline that exists within current accounts. Some of this stems from a simple failure of collaboration: Insights are locked in silos, whether that’s the brain of a customer success representative or a regional QBR roll-up. It’s in static spreadsheets no one has access to. The good news about this particular problem, of course, is that the insights we need are out there. They’re knowable. Most people just aren’t capturing them in a way that helps the business.
That’s why dedicating time and resources (not to mention investing in the right collaboration technology) is an essential part of the insights-gathering process. After all, if an insight falls in a forest and no one on the revenue team is there to hear it, does it move the deal?
The most effective revenue teams, therefore, are those that circle around the insights they’ve gathered and map them against the account. My friend Dean Kosh, the long-time Director of Global Strategic Accounts at Johnson Controls, says it best: “Insight maps are part of what we do. We have to understand our goals in order to deliver solutions to help them achieve their goals. We don’t go in from a product perspective like we’re selling a device or a widget. We look at goals first and how we can help them achieve them, as well as how we can take out obstacles and barriers standing in the way.”
Account planning: A verb, not a noun
When we approach people and problems, it’s critical that we treat neither as static. The same goes for account planning. An account plan isn’t something that’s finalized and sealed away — it’s a living, breathing strategy, a constant target of iteration and improvement. We don’t painstakingly develop a relationship only to turn and walk away. We cannot simply log someone’s priorities and assume we never have to ask again. Our quest toward partnership and problem solving is active and ongoing.
The current business landscape is a perfect illustration of this principle. As we slowly shake off the hangover of the pandemic and battle supply chain issues that are impacting business the world over, it’s impossible that our customers’ priorities haven’t evolved in the last 18 months. Even if we’re speaking with the same people, we’re most likely speaking with people whose focus has shifted. Everything we think we know needs to be validated, then validated again to ensure we know how we can deliver value.
Keeping sight of why we do what we do
It’s a mistake to measure the effectiveness of your account plan in dollars alone. Instead, the goal should always be to give the customer confidence that you are their trusted partner. This means being clear about what you can do for them, then circling back and proving it again and again. To do so, we have to be intentional about both gathering and sharing information visually across the revenue team so that everyone is equipped to row together. By rallying revenue teams around people and their problems, we can build a motion that truly centers on the customer and that benefits all stakeholders in the process.
An approach built on relationships and insights is both an effective defense of the footprint you’ve already established as well as a powerful point from which to expand your reach. But at the heart of it all is the reason we love what we do: understanding people, aligning around what matters and making good things happen. When you play for everyone to win, it’s damn hard to lose. ■