Getting the Most from Account Management
Customer Account Plans can lead to stronger customer relationships, a focus on patients, plus increased sales as an outcome.
Account Management seems to be one of the tactics being frequently deployed in an attempt to better understand and respond to customers and to deliver improved sales back to the corporation. On its own, Account Management is not a strategy and does not necessarily help the corporation become more customer-focused or more profitable. It could. But then again it may not.
But there is a tactic that will help the company become more customer-centric while at the same time providing significant opportunities to grow the business. And that is the strategic use of Customer Account Plans.
Not all account plans are equal.
Many organizations have plans for at least some of their key accounts. Most of these plans exist only in the minds of the account leaders and fail to make it onto paper or soft copy. What nearly all of them fail at is being a plan that is co-created, agreed and signed off on by both the customer and the company.
Would you be willing to share an account plan your company has, with the customer? In most cases the answer would be no. That’s because the account plan is more about what the company wants from the customer than it is anything else. It would contain sales targets, maybe portfolio sales, resource allocation, marketing initiatives and the like. There would be very little about what the customer itself needs, heaven forbid, actually wants. Perhaps some data about the customer, structure, key people and the like, probably some ‘sensitive’ stuff that the company would like to keep confidential like profit margins etc.
Transparency is key
What we are talking about here is a different kind of Account Plan. This one is built, from the ground up, by the company and the customer together. It is much more about the customer than it is the company. That is why it is called a Customer Account Plan, and it is completely transparent to the customer. Nothing is hidden or concealed.
Of course, the lack of trust continues to be a big stumbling block, but this is an opportunity to break down some of that distrust by being completely open and ‘up-front’. If all the company wants is to use account management to increase sales – as many customers believe, then it is perhaps not going to useful to build these types of account plans. But, if the company really wants more, in terms of stronger customer relationships, a focus on patients, plus increased sales as an outcome, then using these types of plans is a fantastic way forward.
Account Plans like these are developed in a series of dedicated meetings with the customer, and require the company to listen and learn. This is not the time to offer solutions or make recommendations.
These sessions are about the customer talking about the things that are important to them (certainly not just about your business or your products and services). The customer needs to feel comfortable talking about the challenges they are facing and their point of view. The company’s role is to actively listen and understand and to take notes - lots of notes.
The biggest challenges with this part of the process is the strong, almost overwhelming desire of the company to offer solutions to issues that they are familiar with as soon as the problem is articulated. And the other major challenge is one of selective hearing; being tuned in to only hear the challenges that are most relevant to them as a company today.
Just because the customer identifies it as a need, does not mean that the company should deliver it. However, it is important not to discard the need as it can contribute to new service offerings at a future date, particularly if the company continues to hear the same feedback across a wide range of customers.
These meetings are a terrific opportunity to learn and while these discussions should be open ended and free flowing, some planning and guidance is required to keep the discussion within acceptable bounds. And this is more an art than it is a science.
Too rigid a format and you will only get answers to questions that you probably already know the answers to; too loose, you will spend a lot of time hearing about things beyond your control.
What I’ve seen happen a number of times is that the company receives great feedback, but in the notetaking process and during the subsequent review of the meetings, the words the customer used are translated into 'company speak'. And in the translation, the actual meaning is often lost, so it is better to continue to use the actual words the customer used; it has the benefit if resonating with the customer as well as remaining true to their intent.
This input is at the core of the plan development process. It’s the organization's role to sort through the data to determine what they will and will not deliver against. Just because the customer identifies it as a need, does not mean that the company should deliver it. However, it is important not to discard the need as it can contribute to new service offerings at a future date, particularly if the company continues to hear the same feedback across a wide range of customers.
Capturing customer needs not just what it will deliver
So the Plan is a simple, concise document and does not need to be anything too fancy. In fact, it is better if it is not! A concise note of the customers needs and the company’s intent to act on this or not. Commonly a small number of needs are identified and prioritized as the key initiatives to be delivered within a specific timeframe.
Sharing the entire document with the customer and gaining their agreement clearly is the next important step. Typically these Plans go through several iterations before both sides can agree and commit to the implementation over the coming 12 months.
Both sides have made a commitment and the document itself should be used to keep both parties focused on these agreed, key priorities.
A couple of final points. The Plans should focus on what both parties will work together on over the following 12 months, which projects and priorities are the most urgent and what each party must do to successfully implement the Plan. The Plan should be very clear about what success will look like for each initiative, and can be used with the customer as a measure of success of the overall customer engagement. Did the Company do what it said it would do? What worked and what didn’t. Did the customer do what it said it would?
And finally, do not just include what you are going to be working on, make sure the Plan contains all of the customer input, it will certainly contain terrific insight into customer needs that you may chose to deliver on over time. And use the Plan with the customer as a tool at the end of twelve months to review company performance against stated objectives.
I have seen Plans like these work, they can help reframe your customers’ expectations of a pharmaceutical company.
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