Account Penetration — Some Thoughts

Stephen B. Westrate
© 1999 Westrate-Yarbrough Group, LLC
All Rights Reserved

Author's note: This article is adapted from a memo and presentation delivered at a sales meeting in mid-1987 by the late Robert Graham, former CEO of Novellus Systems. At that time, Novellus had almost no position in the marketplace. Bob Graham's guidance and direction helped Novellus to gain market share in a very short time.

There has been a significant amount of rhetoric and posturing regarding the subject of account penetration. The term means different things to different people, possibly because they do not really understand the concept. Many people try to define Account Penetration as a THING; when it really is a PROCESS. The process begins with the Sales Force obtaining ownership of the account. The Sales Force has ownership when nothing goes on in the account without their involvement and direction. It is observed that in many technology companies, there is a tendency of the Sales Force to let Product Marketing, Manufacturing or Finance groups call the shots, and then the Sales Force just complains. That is definitely not ownership . . . it is reporting. Real ownership is taking command, not just passing information back and forth between the factory and the customer.

How does a Sales Force gain ownership of an account? By taking control and executing well. Some of the tasks involved in this process are:

  • Develop a meaningful and real relationship with the decision-makers. By this we mean, an ongoing exchange of favors and information, not just a speaking relationship. Decision-makers are those individuals or groups who actually make the purchase decision. They are generally managers, directors, vice-presidents, and sometimes presidents and boards of directors.
  • Develop a significant relationship with all significant decision influencers such as group leaders, section heads, maintenance personnel, and administrative staff.
  • Make sure that the decision influencers and decision-makers are aware that the Sales Force's goal is to obtain orders.
  • Understand the dynamics of the specific customers' business. This includes, but is not limited to understanding the sales process within the customer, how he is organized, who his competitors are, what his strategic and tactical goals are, and how your product or service fits within his general plan. (See QuestTeam Global and Strategic Account Management at the bottom of the "Technical Sales and Marketing" page—link at the bottom of this page. This contains more information as well as training programs available).
  • Become aware of every piece of equipment in every fab area and know how and why the customer likes or dislikes it. With regard to your own product, make sure that all systems are up and running. If it is not up, for whatever reason, then make certain that it is being brought up ASAP.
  • Develop an understanding of the customers' expansion plans and make sure that your product is the product of choice.
  • Control all visits between the customer and your company. Control the dissemination of all information between the customer and your company. If your customer wants to visit your company, be there and control that. Search out and take to the customer, anything that might help him/her to do a better job.
  • Understand every piece of information you are asked to transmit between your customer and your company. If the information is good, make sure it gets publicized. If it is bad, make sure it is corrected. If it is wrong, do not pass it on until it is right. If it will have a negative impact on the relationship, either stop it or modify it.
  • Get the requirements straight and paperwork clean before passing it on.
  • Leverage from strength. If your company has a good technology and articulate technologists, use these assets to enhance the overall relationship, while at the same time, maintaining control of the relationship. Make team sales calls. Use representatives from the management, technology, and support organizations to aid in the development of a real relationship with the customer.
  • Do not be intimidated by either the customer or your own company's personnel. The Sales Force's knowledge base must be greater than anyone else with respect to the specifics of the customer interface. If it is not, then the Sales Force is not doing the job well.

The tasks described above are facets in an account penetration and account ownership process. Processes take time to accomplish. Depending on the complexity of your product, its place in the technical roadmap, and the position of your competition, the process could take years. Experienced executives understand this and are willing to make the investment in time to obtain long term strategic goals as opposed to short-term tactical goals. This sometimes takes enormous patience and tenacity. The management secret is to encourage the Sales Force to be good at what they do.

Encourage them to take responsibility and work the problems 110%. They should have access to help (not direction) as soon as it is needed. The Sales Force should be visible at both the customer and at the company so that all concerned know what is happening. The Sales Force should be empowered and not let sideliners interfere, nor should the Sales Force allow incompetence at any level impact the process negatively. The Sales Force should be allowed to use all the resources available, all the time remembering that the people around them fall into two camps—those that help with solutions and critics.

Another part of the process of Account Penetration involves the personal responsibility of individual members of the Sales Force. Each member of the Sales Force should have an account sales plan which includes the objectives of account ownership, the strategy, tactics, and tasks involved. The plan is a dynamic document and should be reviewed and adjusted periodically. Individuals in the Sales Force should consider it a personal failure if the competitor beats them when their company's equipment would meet the customer's requirements. Furthermore, the Sales Person should consider it a personal failure if he/she did not know about a pending order long before it goes out to bid. In that situation, certainly the customer knew that business was to be had and most likely the competitor knew it as well. The Sales Person must be responsible for his/her forecast. If they are willing to take responsibility for the booking and receive the commission, they must also be personally responsible for their errors.

If the Sales Force is encouraged to believe that it owns the accounts, and its sole responsibility is to maximize yield from them, and if they act accordingly, then they will achieve account penetration and ownership. This concept of the Sales Force having ownership sometimes flies in the face of the techno-elitists within an organization. Those managers who think that technical differentiation is the only reason for a sale probably have trouble understanding why, even with demonstrably superior technology, their product does not have 100% of a market. The answer, of course, is the quality, skill level, and empowerment of their sales force vis-a-vis the competitors' sales force. Demonstrated product superiority is only part of the whole equation. Superior selling skills, empowerment, and managerial support are the other parts. It is management's role to equip their Sales Force with the appropriate tools to win—win account penetration, win account ownership, and win orders. Treating account ownership as an event and not a process is a management failure to understand the dynamics of the process and is likely to end with unsatisfactory results.

Postscript: The QuestTeam as a team and as individuals offers a broad line of professional consulting services to those companies or organizations who would like to tune-up their selling and marketing skills. Click on "Products & Services" at the top of this page.