A closer look at key account planning for B2B sales

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"Focus on the 20% that yields 80% of the results."

You’ve likely heard some variation of this saying. And while it may not ring true in all cases, in B2B sales it certainly does.

With sales-based organizations having to become increasingly strategic with their resources, key account planning has quickly become a valuable approach for increasing revenue and boosting sales. 

Keep reading as we dive into key account planning, the role of relationships in strategic account management, and how you can accelerate pipeline with account-based sales strategies.

What is key account planning?

Key account planning is an account-based sales strategy or process used to help win and retain your most valuable customers. 

When organizations implement key account planning strategies, they dedicate more of their resources to growing relationships with their key (or high-value) customers.

It’s not that all your customers aren’t valuable. They are—and they shouldn’t be neglected. However, the reality is that B2B business revenue often follows the Pareto Principle. This means that a small subset of accounts—usually about 20%—drives a substantial portion of business revenue—often around 80%.

By extension, this 20% of customers is what makes up your key accounts. Investing in these important customers often offers the biggest bang for your buck, which is why key account planning has grown in popularity among B2B organizations. And because these accounts drive a majority of business revenue, losing even one of them can be costly.

Instead of treating all your customers the same, key account planning takes into account unique customer needs and decision-making factors, so you can position your business to deliver value for each key account. The goal is to put a plan in place that keeps your customers happy and nurtures a larger and mutually beneficial relationship over time.

What is key account management?

Key account planning and key account management go hand-in-hand.

Key account management—or KAM—is the process of implementing the activities identified in your key account plans. This includes dedicating resources, such as account managers and sales reps, and finding the right tools to help keep and grow the business of your key customers.

KAM is also the practice of strategically managing outreach and customer communication beyond the initial sale. Key account managers are responsible for building meaningful relationships with customers to keep them engaged and happy with the products and services they receive.

That being said, the name key account management is a bit of a misnomer. It goes beyond simply maintaining and managing a relationship. A key account management strategy shouldn’t aim to just retain your top customers, rather it should grow the relationship in order to increase business revenue and returns.

What are the benefits of successful key account planning?

Key account planning is a long-term strategy that can yield high rewards for organizations when implemented successfully.

Build key customer relationships

The days of transactional B2B sales relationships are behind us. 

When sellers focus on building relationships with key customers rather than closing deals, it creates a sense of trust and loyalty. Once that relationship is established it becomes much easier to win deals and grow accounts.

Key account planning also opens the doors to the right contacts. Account planning helps position your organization as an integral part of your customer’s business success. As a partner, rather than just an external vendor, sellers are more likely to build personal relationships with key decision-makers rather than being passed around from contact to contact. 

These relationships with not only customer companies—but the people in them—can accelerate pipeline and position your team to capture future sales opportunities. 

Improve customer satisfaction 

It’s simple: happy customers are more likely to stay customers. 

When sellers strategically build their customer relationships through key account planning, they have access to critical insights about a client’s needs and expectations. It becomes less about selling, but rather how you can best provide value to your customers.

This makes it easier to identify any challenges and frustrations a customer might be having with your product or service sooner rather than later. Instead of leaving customers alone to become increasingly frustrated and seek alternative solutions, key account planning puts you front and center.  When you’re there to help important customers navigate these challenges, it becomes a much more positive experience.

On the other hand, it also makes it possible for you to celebrate your customer’s wins and successes right alongside them. 

Increase lifetime customer value

Higher customer LTV (lifetime value) generally correlates with a better return on sales and marketing effort, which is why it’s a key metric for most B2B sales teams. 

With recurring revenue models, the longer an account stays a customer, the higher the LTV. Maximizing the LTV of key accounts is even more critical as customer churn can contribute to a significant loss in recurring revenue.

Key account planning takes measures to keep that revenue coming in. However, as sellers build relationships with these customers, they’re also more likely to identify and successfully propose opportunities for cross-selling and upselling. This revenue is often easier to generate, as customers who have already had success with your product are much more likely to be open to additional products and services.

For example, a seller who is well-versed in their current customers’ needs can easily recommend an extra license or promote a different product. As the customer’s business grows and trust develops between the seller and the customer, it becomes easier to increase revenue and drive up LTV.

Gain a competitive edge in your industry

It’s no secret that B2B sales have become more challenging. Customers are becoming increasingly turned off by stale sales strategies. And many key decision-makers are preferring a completely seller-free sales experience. This is true even in traditionally high-touch industries, such as investment banking or professional services.

Creating a sales experience that feels less like a sales pitch and more like a mutual relationship can go a long way in providing your business with a competitive advantage. Keeping that personal touch in the sales process is essential to building predictable pipelines—for new and existing accounts.

With key account planning, you strategically work with your customers to help them reach their own objectives. By making it clear that you’re invested in their success, customers are much more likely to bring you along as they grow their business.

Fostering client relationships through effective account planning and relationship selling positions you as a company that goes beyond just sales. Having a genuine interest in your customer’s success reflects in how you support and partner with your customers.

Over time, it can even create referrals and warm introductions that drive new opportunities. And those relationships when used in initial outreach can improve success by up to 10x and close deals up to 25% faster.

Close more deals and increase revenue

All the benefits of key account planning lead to one core benefit: increasing revenue.

With closing deals being the key objective for any B2B sales team, the effectiveness of account planning in generating high-value deals has given rise to key account planning as a sales strategy.

Key account planning is a resource-intensive investment, but it’s a strategic one that’s been proven to drive higher long-term profitability in more ways than one.

How strategic account planning can positively impact your bottom line

Key account planning bolsters financial performance in two ways. It can increase revenue but it can also save you money. Successful key account planning helps B2B organizations:

  • Generate more revenue, faster: Instead of sending outbound communication and hoping for the best, account planning helps sellers strategically tailor their engagement approach. Whether you’re upselling or closing an initial deal, a strategic plan for securing high-potential accounts will help you reach your revenue targets faster. 
  • Cut customer churn: We know it costs more to close new accounts than it does to retain existing ones. Investing a little extra into boosting customer retention can reduce long-term sales and marketing costs.
  • Boost sales efficiency: Efficient sales teams can close more deals using fewer resources. When sellers and account managers have a strategic plan in place to attract and retain customers, they can generate more revenue with the same—or even less—resources.

The 6 steps of the key account planning process

As the name suggests, key account planning involves putting together a plan. But to have a plan that makes an impact, there are six steps that sellers should take.

1. Identify your key accounts

Before you can plan for key accounts, you need to know who they are. Who is valuable to your organization? And why? These customers are where you’ll focus your resources and efforts. 

When segmenting out key accounts, consider some of the following questions:

  • Which existing accounts currently drive the biggest revenue? 
  • Which accounts offer the most revenue potential?
  • Which customers best fit your product and service offerings?
  • Which accounts have been with you the longest?
  • Which accounts do you have the strongest business relationships with?

It’s easy to default to your largest accounts. But key account planning is a long game. So don’t make the mistake of neglecting the value of future growth. Some customers may not be your largest accounts today but they may have potential for significant future growth. In fact, a Gartner study found that organizations that only use current spend to identify key accounts are 51% less likely to see an increase in customer spend.

Remember: it’s okay to be ruthless when identifying and disqualifying key accounts. Strategic account management is an investment of your resources, so you need to feel confident that your bet is going to pay off.

2. Analyze your accounts

Once you’ve identified your key accounts, you need to collect the quantitative and qualitative data to inform how you’ll build that relationship. Key account planning analysis often includes surfacing:

  • A customer account overview: What do you need to know about the customer’s industry? What is their current market position? What is their competitive advantage? 
  • Customer interactions: Access to a complete history of customer touchpoints provides a better sense of where a seller-customer relationship stands today.
  • Key contacts and relationships: Who are the core stakeholders within the organization? Where are the paths of warm introductions? Who are your internal champions?
  • Customer budgets: Do the existing—and potential— budgets and resources align with your revenue goals?
  • Relationship strength and sentiment: Do you have a good relationship with this client? Are there any pain points? What are the biggest areas of opportunity?

In order to accurately identify and analyze accounts, sales activity data needs to be accurate and up-to-date.

Tools such as Affinity for Salesforce can help simplify this process. Affinity analyzes your team’s emails and calendars to automatically create a complete history of customer engagement. It can also assess your organization’s entire network to map out and establish the strength of every relationship—so you can quickly identify and manage key accounts.


2. Understand customer objectives

The foundation of a mutually beneficial sales relationship relies on being able to deliver consistent value to your customers. In order to do that, you need to have a clear understanding of a customer’s goals, priorities, and expectations.

While some insights into a customer’s objectives can be surfaced from previous interactions, it’s often valuable to sit down with key clients to discuss their objectives. 

Some things you’ll want to understand include a customer’s:

  • Top business priorities in the short-term and long-term
  • Current challenges and obstacles
  • Success metrics and KPIs
  • Solutions that have worked and haven’t worked

3. Identify a solution

Based on the challenges and priorities of your customer, you can then align the products and services that you offer to their core business objectives. By identifying potential whitespace—also known as a customer’s unmet needs—you can start to find ways to fill them with your offerings. 

For many B2B organizations, this is also an opportunity to review your own operations and services. How can you elevate your offerings and customer experience to better meet the needs of your key customers? 

While overhauling your existing practices or even adding new products to your lineup can be costly, the value that they bring to your key customers can often generate a much larger return. 

4. Create an action plan

Once you know how you can deliver value to customers, it’s time to bring these solutions to your accounts in a clear action plan. Your plan of action should not simply outline solutions but should provide a clear roadmap to how they tie to the key outcomes that matter to your customers.

Your action plan be able to answer the following questions:

  • What are the overall goals and objectives?
  • What selling activities are of the highest value to your customers and accounts?
  • What resources are required to effectively execute your action plan?
  • Who are the key owners of each task and initiative?
  • How will you measure success for your business and your customer?

It’s worth remembering that your action plan shouldn’t be one-sided. You need your accounts fully on board in order to reach your desired outcomes. 

5. Implement your plan

Once everyone has signed off on your key account plans, it’s time to implement. 

Key account managers should use the plan as a roadmap to strategically engage clients. It also influences how they communicate value and grow the relationship that they have with their customers.

6. Review and optimize

Key account planning isn’t one-and-done. Your customers will continue to grow and evolve. So, in order to keep their business and to stay ahead of the competition, you (and your plan) will need to evolve with them. 

How frequently you review and adapt your key account plans will depend on your own business cycles and that of your clients. However, if you’re not regularly evaluating performance and plan alignment, it can be challenging to make the most of your account planning efforts.

Take key account planning to the next level with relationship intelligence

The foundation of successful key account management? Relationships. 

Without the right relationships in place, it’s difficult to be an effective partner to your customers—even with the best account planning strategy. 

Relationship intelligence turns sales activity data into actionable insights to build better relationships with key customers.

With account planning tools such as Affinity for Salesforce, B2B sales teams can layer relationship insights on top of existing CRM and customer data. Team members can then use this data to streamline key account planning and maximize returns.

When sales organizations use Affinity for Salesforce in their account planning process they can:

  • Easily surface warm paths of introduction to boost relationships with key accounts.
  • Go beyond current spend when identifying key accounts by referencing relationship maps.
  • Automate data capture and access customer insights in real time, while saving 200 hours of manual data entry per employee per year.
  • Stay top of mind for key customers with notifications when relationship scores drop or critical company insights change.


Key account planning FAQs 

What is the difference between key account planning and sales account planning?

While key account planning and sales account planning are very similar, they ultimately have different goals. Key account planning focuses on nurturing long-term relationships with customers to drive revenue growth. On the other hand, sales account planning typically focuses on generating new business and landing new customers.

While both types of planning are valuable for growing B2B businesses, key account planning is critical for making the most of existing relationships. 

What is an account planning template?

An account planning template is a document that outlines all the information salespeople need to build a strong relationship with their customers. While every account should have its own unique plan, the fundamentals are usually the same across accounts. 

Using a template creates a repeatable key account management process that helps ensure success. When sales reps have a skeleton to work from, it helps ensure that they don’t miss any key information that they need to put together an effective strategy.

Does key account planning affect customer account growth?

Key account planning plays a significant role in generating customer account growth. Account planning helps sellers create a roadmap to deliver more value and keep the highest-potential customers happy.

Over time, this builds a trusting and mutually beneficial relationship, which unlocks customer account growth and generates revenue for sales teams.


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