The Efficient Strategic Planning Process: Account Planning

Updated on March 7, 2011

T.L. Tassone

By T.L. (Tim) Tassone
TL Tassone Strategic Marketing

For the past several decades in business, much has been written, spoken, and practiced with regard to the necessity, value, and process of Strategic Planning.

Commonly, it is defined as an organization‘s process of defining its strategy or competitive business direction, and making decisions on allocating its resources to pursue this strategy, including its capital and people. In order to determine where it is going, the organization needs to know exactly where it stands, then determine where it wants to go and how it will get there.

The resulting document is called the “Strategic Plan.”

Basically, strategic planning is the formal consideration of an organization’s future course. All classical strategic planning fundamentally deals with at least one of three key questions:

“What do we do?”

“For whom do we do it?”

“How do we excel?”

To be sure, “excelling” in business has become more of a challenge and focus toward being there first with the best in order to meet the needs of the various targeted customer audience segments.

It is also common to use strategic planning as a mean, mode, and tool for successfully plotting the direction of a company. However, strategic planning itself cannot foretell exactly how the market will evolve and what issues will surface in the coming days in order to plan organizational strategy because nothing remains stagnant among the universe and categories of the Market, Product, and Customers marketing/communications considerations.

In many organizations, this is viewed as a process for determining where an organization is going over the next year or – more typically – 3 to 5 years (long term), although some extend their vision to 20 years.

That, of course, works best in a perfect business world of competitive predictability and ample time/space to develop, define, refine, and implement the classic multi-year strategic plan. And as we all know too realistically, we are no longer in a perfect world.

What has happened to the turbulent state of US business atmosphere, and indeed the Global business atmosphere, during the past two or three years has changed the way to use Strategic Planning as a continuously vital tool and business discipline to augment the potential for future success. To be sure, the shear scope and scale of information and process technology, the endless increase and differentiation of various targeted audiences, and the volatile cost of money and business have portended the need for business strategic planners to be more functionally nimble, protectively reactive, and efficiently decisive for the good and well-being of the organization.

Thus, there is a way to make the most of the classic strategic planning process that will satisfy the basic disciplines of the tool while allowing for better, quicker, and more confident outcomes. Rather than changing strategies and tactics on an unqualified and somewhat wholesale basis, a more cogent approach can be used that can reduce the ominous risk of faulty, knee-jerk marketing/communications decisions.

A more efficient strategic planning process can be identified via three meaningful and essential elements of information gathering, management, and application to the decision making process. These three elements will allow for more efficient use of time and money, as well as to enhance the flexibility to surgically correct and right-size the organization’s core marketing/communications strategies and tactics.

I call the revised process of classic Strategic Planning–Account Planning. Account Planning allows the organization drill down into the most essential and vital parts of the sustaining business units in lieu of the entire organization’s business model. It will not alter the Mission and Vision of the organization. It just allows the organization’s marketing/communications effort to become more sensitive to the Product, the Customer, and the Competition (e.g., “The Three KNOWS of Marketing/Communications” article written and published by me previously).

Account Planning is the planning tool that allows the Planner to listen as acutely as possible to the organization’s contributor/patron/advocates in order to hear what that most important funding/participation/advocacy decisions/needs/desires might be in the future. Through this planning process, Account Planning keys in upon the Customer’s Sweet Spot, or that set of cues/images/words that prompt an immediate and positive response.

It uses traditional marketing/communications research (Secondary, Quantitative, and Qualitative) as the basis for understanding the historical issues that have affected parties’ behavior patterns. Once that traditional research has been analyzed and interpreted, Account Planning takes the next step—studying and analyzing the future perspective of the parties’ unfulfilled needs/wants/desires from products or services.

Account Planning then converts that process of future perspective into the development of the best possible creative communications approach that can be designed to attract and “sell” the contributor/participant/advocate.

It can choose form many “tools” to accomplish the desired end result–uncovering the Customer’s Sweet Spot. Here are three significant qualitative research/planning processes that can be used as a part of process of discovery:

The S.W.O.T. Analysis:

This is a facilitated, qualitative research methodology that defines the perspective of the client’s business as well as the organization’s major competitors’ business in terms of establishing a Positioning, or marketing niche’, for the organization’s product/service/brand. Those responsible for the success of the marketing communications effort on the organization’s side of the process make up the research group of respondents, along with other special team members and advocates.

S.W.O.T. stands for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats and is a part of the traditional Strategic Planning process. Strengths and Weaknesses are discussed from the organizations internal environment standpoint, while Opportunities and Threats are assessed from the organization’s external environment. The nature of the organization’s major competitors impact upon the success and Positioning of the business influence all part of the S.W.O.T Analysis process.

The yield from the S.W.O.T. is a documented thorough and current assessment of where the organization’s business is relative to the market, the product, and the donor/customer–and the competition. From this documented assessment, marketing/communications planning issues such as strategy development and even re-positioning can be forged.

The S.W.O.T Analysis is a daylong exercise and process for data collection, which is then documented and analyzed for recommendations and actions.

The Customer Speaksm Qualitative Focus Group Process:

This is a moderated discussion group, very similar to traditional Focus Group research, insofar as the recruitment, composition, and techniques involved.

But is more focused upon the future needs/desires/wants of the prospective donor/customer rather than their historical contribution/funding/selection/decision behaviors.

The moderator uses prompted dialogue techniques (such as ” Imagine that…’ or ” Create the ‘Model’ product/service…”), as well as written response techniques  (such as “Write a news story about…” or ” List those things that really mean something to you about…”) in either a regular Focus Group setting.

The key planning process here is to really discover what means something to contributors/buyers beyond the features that are normally used in the creative part of the marketing/communications selling phenomena via the benefits that those features provide to meeting the contributor/buyer’s needs.

“Customer Speak” Focus Groups are two-hour sessions each (7-10 respondents per group), followed by a documented analysis with interpretations and recommendations for the development of the creative communications product.

The Problem-Solving Lab sm Process:

This is a facilitated, disciplined, and structured process of developing both the quantity and the quality of possible ways of solving marketing/communications problems into the future. It is composed and conducted much like a traditional Focus Group (6-8 respondents per group), but is designed to allow for maximum “invention” among all the participants without initial regard to “perfection” in the idea generation process.

It allows the “organization group” (consisting of those members of the organization, and key advocacy members) who are…” most concerned with solving the marketing/communications problem, and are most responsible for the marketing/communications solution…” to be lead by the facilitator into a series of pre-defined “problem” areas for brainstorming.

The process develops a lot of ideas that are then distilled into “possible solutions” for future marketing/communications analysis and reality potential via testing, strategic planning, etc.

The Problem-Solving Lab process is a one to three-day session per group, with a documented, analyzed, and interpreted report leading to future marketing communications actions.

In summary, Account Planning will expedite the Efficient Strategic Marketing/Communications Process as it is meant to focus upon the organization’s customers’ point-of-view as a part of the marketing communications and creative planning process. All success in any type of business starts and ends with knowing as accurately and currently as possible what the customer wants and needs. The key to being truly competitive is being able to deliver as closely as possible to those customers’ needs and wants, each and every time!

T.L.Tassone, 2011. All Rights Reserved.

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