The middle of the fourth quarter never fails to create emotion. If you’re in sales, the time is spent both in an effort to finish strong and on identifying (or being told and accepting) your goal for the following year. The pressure to make the number is real, accompanied by a flurry of activity to deliver services or ship product and bill before the December close.

Many of our actions at this time of year tend to be transactional — in service only of meeting that goal — and there is great joy in reaching and exceeding those numbers. After all, sales is a competitive field.

But in the world of complex sales, we can lose sight of the actual race we are running. Is it, for example, a 40 yard dash with a monthly number to hit? A mid-distance race like a 10K with an annual number to focus on? Or is it a marathon equivalent, measured by nbo/client lifetime value?

The reality, of course, is that our focus should be on all of the above – we should always have an eye on short term, middle term and long term. Why? A race is run not in one leap but in many small strides; a sales culture that is heavily focused on the here and now runs a real risk of not being there later.

Given this reality, sales organizations naturally look to key account planning as the solution. But that’s like creating a training calendar for a race — when it is done well it is part of a solution, not the solution. There is much more to be considered: you need to actually stick to the calendar, have the right shoes for your feet, dedicate time to running, fuel your body properly and prevent injury — all to have that calendar be of any use in finishing the race. Likewise, once you embrace key account planning you also need to put it into action and embrace key account selling skills along with it. The plan, while critical, is ultimately a means to an end.

There is both a science and an art to bringing the key account plan to life, so let’s first focus on an integral aspect of the external dynamics of optimizing a key account: questioning. Questions are like the energy bars and water stations along the marathon route. They keep you going and determine how far you’ll go.

Most salespeople ask questions like “what are you looking for in a partner / supplier” or “what do you see as your biggest business challenge?” These questions are transactional or qualifying in nature – they focus on the current situation, an opportunity or the likelihood of doing business together in the short term. The curiosity and questions offered to the customer are limited to the sphere of what we’re trying to sell. It’s all about us, our needs, our interests.

In the terms of that marathon, these questions are like eating packets of sugar – they’re good for quick hits of energy and may get you to that first mile marker or maybe the second or third but you’re still running with the pack. You’re not differentiated – everyone else is right at your heels.

Instead, we need to fuel up for the longer distance, to consistently focus on our customers. We need to ask thought provoking questions. Better open-ended questions. Questions that will provide more insight and create value for the customer.

For example, let’s contrast questions like “How much of product X do you plan to use this year?” with “How do you think this business will look different three to five years from now.” With the second question, a client can infer that you value their opinion, that you’re interested in their business as a whole, that you’ll still be around in five years. 

As Zig Ziglar said, “Questions are the Answer.” Just like the right foods will give us more energy, better questions can help us deliver an essential fuel to a great relationship: insight. At the moment, many sales training programs place emphasis on insight and hypothesis creation without a corresponding emphasis on questioning. This is an overcorrection that just perpetuates the “me first” seller attitude. Instead, we need to have more curiosity!

Better questions help us to out-understand our competition and if you out-understand, you can generate powerful insight that will be relevant to the customer…and relevance is important! If you’re rattling off information that you assume to be pertinent to the client, without confirming that it actually is, you are putting size 8 running shoes on your client’s size 10 feet.

Once you’re focused on questions, you can add other elements to your approach, ensuring that key account planning goes a longer distance for you this year:

  • Don’t underestimate your competition. Surprise winners and come-from-behind victories happen all the time. Even if you’re out in front, work hard to maintain that edge.
  • Overconfidence abounds. Don’t get too focused on the features of your products or how great your service is. Make sure they relate to the client and that the client understands the value – what’s in it for them.
  • Don’t accept a lack of access to the customer and get to your stakeholders early. The average decision-making process involves seven people on the customer side. Know who they are and find a way to reach them.

We’ve covered the ‘science’ — a formula of questions, insight, value and consistency— but how about some ‘art’ in helping you accomplish these goals? This comes from a fictional but famous runner in a film: Forest Gump.

In the movie, Forest is everywhere. He runs across the country, inspires Elvis Presley’s signature dance moves, plays on the all-american football team, meets president Kennedy, influences John Lennon and becomes a ping pong diplomat. He delays the moon landing, offers a Coca Cola to Dr. Martin Luther King and is overheard on the broadcast of the first superbowl.

Wait! Those last three weren’t actually part of the movie — but you might not be surprised if they were. Why? Because Forest always seems to be around. A similar but tough-to-teach trick in effective key account management is to appear to be everywhere for the client. In other words, you can shortcut the marathon as long as you appear at the checkpoints.

The people who do it well know that you can be smarter about the work and create the appearance that you’re there when you’re not: when you have a conversation with one person, make sure you talk about the other conversations you’ve had. It gives the appearance that you’re connected, aware and a partner to the business. The more ubiquitous you are (or appear to be) the more present you’ll be in the minds of your customers.

The first step to all of this is, of course, taking a first step. And then another and another. Now get going, the race won’t run itself!