Per definition, whereas the word "maintenance" is about keeping things the way they are now, active account development is actionable and dynamic.

Sometimes it happens on autopilot and your new customer will provide you follow-up access to other problems existing within the account. This way, if you’re fortunate enough, you'll instantly be able start a new sales cycle and take things on from there.

When your product is already established at your customer's site, you’ll find it easier to work with your internal sponsors resulting in less selling effort needed to close consecutive add-on deals.

However, sometimes things are not all that easy.

The importance of actively developing your accounts

Account development is not a low priority hands-off process, but a strategic necessity. Neglecting existing accounts can lead to your competitors taking away your business.

A robust active account development strategy is your best bet to protect your customers from competitors' advances and leverage your accounts for referrals and new sales opportunities. Particularly in niche markets, your reputation among customers can significantly influence your buyers' decisions and provide synergies helping your clients do the selling for you.

Account development strategies

After closing your initial sale, it’s unlikely there's any immediate business potential as your product tends to satisfy the current need until there are significant changes. Some salespeople will resort to waiting and occasionally calling their clients to ping whether there's anything new regarding the strategy or people while maintaining an overall passive stance.

According to Rackham, such a passive-static approach is one of the least successful and most expensive ways of doing business, rendering the distinction of breaking salespeople down into β€œfarmers” and β€œhunters" wholly inadequate.

In order to protect your most important accounts from competition, your best defensive strategy may be going on the offensive and working on them actively by identifying additional business opportunities.

He lists five simple ways to ensure your current accounts are harnessed for maximum potential.

1. Don’t maintain, but actively develop your accounts: Without a clear sales goal, shifting over to simply maintaining good personal relationships and going for an occasional visit, lunch or a social chat will not be enough. This will not protect your account from competition.

The most successful salespeople Rackham studied looked actively for new opportunities instead of resorting to static maintenance. By turning every customer-care call into a consultative one attempting to extend their business they stood the greatest chance of protecting the business they had already won.

2. Document the good news: During the most active phases of interacting with your accounts, and especially when problems come up during the implementation phase, you'll tend to put a lot of effort into correcting any issues.

But what happens when things are done right? Most people are too busy to notice any smaller successes which continue going unrecorded, whereas problems incur ample documentation, emails and correspondence. As the good things don't get remembered later down the road, an eventual new decision-maker who'll try to understand what happened can inevitably force you into a weaker position.

A simple good tip here is to ensure there’s a positive trail of good things and successes, not only the problems. It's wise for the salesperson to collect and document the positives throughout the journey from people who are satisfied with the work being done. This way, when the renewal finally comes up in some years' time, you'll be in a stronger position to ensure the smooth continuation of your business.

3. Collect references, leads and recommendations: Again, the issue with a satisfied customer is that the better you've covered their need, the less there tends to be an immediate opportunity for any direct add-on business. But these sorts of customers are extremely valuable in their own right because you can ask them to serve as references for your other prospective clients.

Best yet, you can ask them openly for any potential leads to be contacted. A satisfied customer will often be more than willing to give the right introduction to a potential client in another company.

Remember again, however, that the enthusiasm might be at a temporary low during the implementation stage’s motivation dip, so your best-bet would be to do this either very early or wait until your solution’s installation is complete to gain maximum impact from getting introduced to new business leads.

4. Don’t trust your β€œhappy ears” – ongoingly re-assess your understanding of client’s needs: Once or twice a year the more successful sales professionals tend to conduct a business review with their customers treating them as completely new sales opportunities. By looking deeper into and probing for any of their ever-changing needs they want to understand what is truly going on in their accounts.

However, even many of the experienced salespeople can at times convince themselves they already know all the needs of their present accounts, so they wrongfully consider it as a waste of their time.

Being an experienced coach, it happened to Rackham many times that after asking the skeptical salespeople to actually go into their accounts and try uncovering new needs, up to a half of the presently dormant customers revealed new potential business opportunities.

If it's not you who ongoingly re-assesses your customer’s needs, it will be your competition that'll do it for you. Rest assured – your competitors will continuously try to uncover and develop any needs you are neglecting.

5. Impact and influence your client’s future decision criteria: Even if your customer has no present need or cannot provide new leads, there's still a chance that by visiting you’ll get a new sales opportunity. By having access and molding your clients current decision criteria you can ensure that in the future your offering is perceived as stronger than that of your competitor.

The less effective salespeople tend to move on to talking about non-business topics when they don’t see a new business need, but it’s much more powerful to work on your client's current decision criteria if you can!

One non-obvious strategic error to avoid

When companies launch new products they tend to try and sell it to their key existing accounts first. This is a mistake resulting in wasted business potential. If your product or service is brand new, you are initially better off spending some time to gradually learn the best ways to sell it.

As salespeople in Rackham’s experience are found to sell better when they talk about their customer’s challenges instead of talking about their own products, the large amount of talking about your new shiny product’s features could be a turn-off to your present clients.

Instead, start by introducing your newest products to your less important accounts and approach your key customers only when you’ve learned to make a solid problem-based or needs-oriented sales call.

Concluding note on account development

The quote: β€œIf you’re not improving, you’re falling behind” is apt here as your business relationships are never simply static. Like Rackham says, they’re either getting better or they are decaying. Don’t put yourself at ease by thinking your relationships will continue indefinitely while remaining impervious to competition.

Resting still and turning complacent can be one of the worst mistakes you can do with your current customers. In our market economy, what you may have done to your clients in the past is history, and the only thing which is important is what you can do for them today or tomorrow – and this mentality is the essence of successful account development.

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