The Distribution Blog

Turning a Haphazard Sales Approach into a Systematic, Strategic Account Planning Process

April 17, 2024

Table of Contents

The sales leaders we speak with admit they don’t have a great answer to an important question: “How do your sales reps approach account planning?”

That phrase is an oxymoron because most sales reps don’t have a set plan to build toward their quota. We see sales reps grabbing whatever low-hanging fruit they can find.

Often, this looks like reps working from instinct or visiting the same customers they always visit and selling those customers more of what they’re already buying. We’ve heard leaders in distribution describe their field reps going on “milk runs,” where reps visit the same accounts each on a regular cadence. Some complain that reps visit the top 10% of their accounts (the accounts spending the most) while the remaining 90% get little love.

This haphazard approach is a growing concern for distribution leaders with cross-selling and up-selling goals.

That’s not to say that when customer outreach is left to each sales rep, the distributor won’t grow sales. They might. But often, they’ll grow with the market. Distributors who want to grow faster than their market take a different approach — strategic account planning.  

Account Management from Sales Rep’s Intuition

Chances are, your sales reps are responsible for managing dozens, even hundreds, of accounts that are usually very different. Often, they have diverse segments, buy different things, and purchase varying product volumes — and each has a unique decision-making process. As you can imagine, keeping track of this is nearly impossible. Opportunities are sure to slip through the cracks, making for an uneven, chaotic sales roller coaster.

When you start strategic account planning you move your sales team from “order-takers” to “trusted advisors.” A trusted advisor can ask intelligent questions to move the sales needle, like:

  • “I saw your competitor offering (this product)? Were you thinking of expanding this product line?”
  • “Has something changed about your business? Were you not able to get the products you needed from us?”
  • “How is your expansion into the (X) market going?”

A successful sales or retention strategy requires knowing more about the customer than just their name. Otherwise, it’s just account management from the gut, where the sales rep is winging it on every call. There’s a more strategic way to pitch solutions to problems your customers are experiencing. Sales reps need to combine what they know about each customer with insights from the right software – often a CRM.

Know Your Customer and What They Are Trying to Achieve

As a sales rep, you need to ask your customers the right questions and document their answers. What does your customer want to accomplish in the next 12 months? It doesn’t matter if you’re selling dental products to dentists, JanSan products to a hotel, or HVAC tools to contractors; sales reps should understand their customers’ goals, priorities, challenges, and how they plan to measure success.  

As Dale Carnegie said in his book “How to Win Friends & Influence People”:

“Thousands of salespeople are pounding the pavements today, tired, discouraged and underpaid. Why? Because they are always thinking only of what they want. They do not realize that neither you nor I want to buy anything. If we did, we would go out and buy it. But both of us are eternally interested in solving our problems. And if salespeople can show us how their services or merchandise will help us solve our problems, they will not need to sell us. We will buy. And customers like to feel that they are buying – not being sold.”

If you aren’t sure what your customers’ goals and challenges are, you need to find out. A good sales rep should have a list of leading questions to show interest, engagement, and get valuable information straight from the source, such as these:  

  • “Would you tell me about your current business, including your target market?”
  • “What are your goals for this quarter? This year?”
  • “What obstacles do you face in achieving these goals?”  
  • “How do these obstacles impact you and your business?”
  • “What’s keeping you up at night?”

But it’s not enough to know what your customer wants – you need to know how to help them get there. What products or services can help your client achieve the objectives they shared?  

Strategic Account Management with Proton

What if you had a plan for every account you engage with? This approach leaves little to instinct, systematizes best practices, and turns order-takers into trusted partners.

We recommend your sales reps have this data at their fingertips for every account to prioritize who to talk to:

  1. Last contact date
  1. 12-month spend
  1. 12-month YoY % change
  1. Benchmarks for increased sales
  1. Last order details

Today’s AI-driven CRM software offers these insights and more.  

Account plans aren’t created equally and should depend on the status of an account. We propose four status segments: Active (healthy), at-risk, inactive, and new. CRM software powered by AI can set this status automatically alleviating a manual process and updating health status in real time.

  • Active Top Accounts: These are your top-spending accounts. They have momentum, so sales reps should prioritize growing them even faster.
  • At-Risk Accounts: These accounts are breaking their typical buying patterns and are predicted to churn. Perhaps they typically order a product once monthly but have gone four months without an order. These accounts need a re-engagement plan before they go AWOL or switch to a competitor.
  • Inactive Accounts: These accounts were once At-Risk, but weren’t approached in time, and they’ve completely stopped buying from you. These accounts need a re-engagement plan.
  • New Business: These are new accounts or prospects. Your goal is to build relationships by learning about them so you can slowly but surely win their loyalty and business.

Identifying which accounts are on the brink of leaving, which ones are ready for an upsell, and which require just that bit of extra attention to convert into a sale often requires making sense of your data.  

Harvard Business Review says most sales reps are overwhelmed by too many technologies and too much information that complicates decision-making. Gartner reports only 25% of B2B sales reps say they complete all of their assigned tasks at high-quality level.  

What if these reps had technology purpose-built for distributors and better account management? Instead of a giant database, what if this tool used AI to feed the sales rep the right information to inform each activity?

Account Planning by Client Status for Higher Sales

Proton’s AI-powered CRM plugs into your other business systems (including your ERP, ecommerce site, PIM, etc.), analyzes your data, and turns it into actionable steps for better account planning.  

A CRM powered by AI enables powerful account planning capabilities, such as:

  • Active Top Accounts: Whether identifying wallet share gaps or a customer’s online browsing activity, powerful analytics help distributors manage their top accounts. Sales reps often don’t know their customers’ spending gaps because it’s hard to track when they have so many customers and a massive product catalog. They’d need expert spreadsheet skills and an analyst background to even scratch the surface. But an AI-powered CRM spots categories with a lower spend compared to similar customers, allowing sales reps to see the spending gaps at a glance so they can talk to the customer about them.

Similarly, a CRM can pull in ecommerce browsing data, so what a customer is doing online is at a sales rep’s fingertips so they can query their customers about it. But if they don’t have visibility, there’s no opportunity to see which products the customer is browsing (but not buying) online and talk about them.  

“I see you were browsing the (X) product this week. Are you considering expansion in that area?”

  • At-Risk Accounts: Understanding the last order and contact date is extremely valuable. Maybe the customer stopped ordering because your company’s reps stopped reaching out. With Proton, it’s easy to review spending behaviors. What products were they regularly buying and have stopped? Approach the customers to ask why your company lost that business. Have they switched vendors, or do they no longer have a need?
    “Reviewing your account, I noticed you stopped buying (X) two months ago. Can I ask what happened there?”
  • Inactive Accounts: It’s essential to understand why they stopped buying, so it’s worth having a sales rep approach the customer to understand why your company lost their business. If sales reps can have a productive conversation, there will be some takeaways:  

Was pricing too high?

  • Did your company offer the volume of products they needed?  
  • Was delivery too slow?  

Their answers will give you the roadmap to earn back that business. But to re-engage an inactive account, sales reps will sometimes need a hook. What special offers or promotions could jump-start a conversation with that customer? If your sales rep understands their needs well, they could use it to their advantage. There may be some switch-and-save opportunities. A lot of distributors sell house-brand products that are a suitable substitute. These are all compelling ways to win back an inactive account.

  • New Business: For new customers, the goal should be setting the foundation for the trusted advisory relationship. Asking the right questions to engage a potential customer requires understanding their business and your company’s value proposition. Above all, sales reps should engage with leading questions and active listening to lay the groundwork for long-lasting rapport. As Carnegie said, “Talk to someone about themselves and they’ll listen for hours.”  

How do distribution sales reps do all this? If they undertake any of these steps, they often employ a variety of manual processes with varying degrees of effectiveness. Ranking them from worst to best, they include:  

  1. Spreadsheets don’t scale. They’re error-prone and lack real-time updates, making collaboration a challenge. Version control is always an issue. For managers, achieving performance visibility is super challenging.
  1. BI tools focus on analytics, not action. While business intelligence tools are great, they require analysts to use them. We recently spoke to a leader in distribution who shared his experience investing heavily in BI tools to get sales reps better information. But when it came down to it, it wasn’t clear who was responsible for actually using the tool. Sales reps aren’t analysts, so they couldn’t use the BI tool. And the company wanted to get reps actionable info soon, without having an analyst play the role of a middleman.  There is nothing a sales rep hates more than paperwork.  
  1. AI software is a step above every tool your sales team used in the past. This software takes the data at your fingertips and makes it actionable, prioritizing accounts and suggesting sales pitches to help even the most inexperienced rep be more productive. Whether inside or outside, Proton helps distribution sales reps increase revenue by identifying and targeting the most promising accounts with the right products at the right time.  

A McKinsey report says sales leaders anticipate significant impacts from the new wave of AI products in:

  • Lead identification
  • Market optimization
  • Personalized outreach
  • Dynamic content
  • Up/cross selling
  • Client retention
  • Prospecting
  • Customer journey mapping
  • Sales coaching

Proton is the only AI-powered CRM built for distribution. Managers of leading distribution companies take advantage of the intelligence inside of Proton on a desktop app and on mobile.

  • R.S. Hughes saw ROI immediately on the ecommerce side, with well over seven-figure revenues attributable to
  • MCE uses Proton for their inside sales team for upselling accounts, allowing them to be “more relevant to the customer.”
  • Benco Dental’s sales per call increased 728% with Proton.

Harvard Business Review says, “Sales organizations that embrace tech as a teammate to reach automated selling will achieve a comparative advantage and see a measurable change in sales productivity.” Proton is the tool distribution sales teams need for better account management, consistent sales funnels, and higher revenue. See it in action.

Check out our other blog articles

Ready to make Proton your secret weapon?