Account-based marketing: How one firm found focus and success with ABM
Account-based marketing (ABM) can have a transformative effect – on the marketing team, on the sales team, on customer relationships and ultimately on commercial performance.
One person who can vouch for this through first-hand experience is Alan Butler. During his time at VCE, the application of account-based marketing was to play a key role in aligning sales and marketing, and enabling the organisation to focus on the right business, and approach it with “authoritative value”.
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And crucially, as VCE became embroiled in a series of acquisitions – becoming a division of EMC, which in turn itself was then acquired by Dell to become Dell EMC - it enabled the organisation to retain a focus on its purpose and its solutions, despite the obvious danger of distraction.
It was seven years ago that Butler first heard of ABM, when he was at Juniper Networks. The concept immediately resonated with him.
“When I dug into it, it really made a lot of sense,” he explains. “Not so much around the notion of marketing and sales working closer together – that was something that had been talked about forever - but more about how a set of people in a company could come together in a more collaborative fashion with a focused purpose around accounts.”
He adds: “It was about driving a new way of looking at insight and data points to understand what is going on with your customer.”
And therefore ABM was at the forefront of his mind when he started work at a new organisation – VCE, a pioneer in converged infrastructure systems. Constructed as part of a collaboration by Cisco, EMC, Intel and VMware, VCE was experiencing rapid growth, but management of this success was proving to be a challenge.
“It took off faster than anyone expected. The rapid growth meant that everything was very ad hoc and uncultivated. Questions about how things were working within accounts… questions about what we saw as future business… all these good things that you ask in well-established businesses were a bit loose. So as a leadership team we needed to get some consistency and to focus on business that was important, because in any company you need a core set of customers that spend regularly.”
A journey together
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This was the opportunity that Butler needed to put account-based marketing into practice.
Explaining what ABM brought to VCE, Butler likens it to a triangle – with market/competitor/industry intelligence at one point, company purpose (“why you exist as a company and why the solutions you have solve the market’s problems”) at another point, and finally the accounts/customers (“understanding why the customers you have are the ones that you do business with and understanding everything about them”) at the third point.
Together, this triangle creates what Butler calls “authoritative value”, something that few organisations have, and something that ultimately puts sales teams in an incredibly powerful position – once they have bought into ABM.
It can be very difficult sometimes for marketing to show what it actually does in a way that the rest of the organisation understands.
“It can be very difficult sometimes for marketing to show what it actually does in a way that the rest of the organisation understands. But one of the things that marketing can really step up and do with a platform such as ABM is driving really detailed conversations around data points that are factual. And that really changes the conversation.
“If marketers can talk very consistently and factually about all these three areas, sales teams take notice, because you’re talking about accounts that they get paid money on. You’re talking about the industry and competitors that they face every time they go in to see these accounts, and supporting them with the knowledge of why they’re working for the business and how the solutions you have solve customer problems. This is authoritative value.”
The technology itself was also instrumental in encouraging the sales leaders to take the leap of faith required to go on the journey with the marketing team.
He notes: “Sales leaders in many respects just need clear and concise detail in a language they understand. The platform that we employed – insight3 – could do that. It was clear, concise and it demonstrated accounts that were important for the business, what they were doing, what their execs were doing, what their outlooks were, what their financials were, and all the press and stories around those.
"So it was a real-life real-time snapshot of those accounts, whereas if I was to ask any of their sales team to go find information about that account and what it might be doing in the next six months, they would roll their eyes and say come back in a week and do a load of google searching. So demonstrating the new technology and having one place to have a view on an account/customer and a single area of focus was hugely advantageous.”
Nonetheless, as with any new philosophy being embedded, there were still doubters that needed to be won over.
“We had one guy who was a very senior in sales, and he was one who said he knew all his accounts and the people and everything he needed to know to make the money so didn’t need any help. I invited him to this session, and he told us he’d give us 15 minutes of his time. And it was fascinating watching this guy still being there an hour later, asking question after question.
"To me it demonstrated the power of data and teaching him how collaborating with marketing could be hugely beneficial. And that was a big eye opener on how this could work on people that initially might not even want to come on the journey with you.”
ABM opened our eyes to making sense of how we assessed and made decisions from data.
ABM would prove to have a transformative effect on the dynamic between sales and marketing, who were no longer viewed as just the team that delivered events or merchandise, but instead were welcomed as advisors on strategy, accounts and contacts. This opened up the door to true collaboration and a joint focus.
“At the heart of ABM is what I call ‘Big Data platforms’. There’s a lot noise in the industry about Big Data and where that resides is in marketing and IT. Those two together have the ability to get huge amounts of data into the organisation, but the challenge is always how you look at the data, are you looking at it with meaningful purpose, or is it just a bunch of data that you look at and everyone says its rubbish?
"ABM opened our eyes to making sense of how we assessed and made decisions from data. And it started in marketing, but it spread through the organisation – it started to make more sense to sales, and then engineering teams, and then customer service teams.”
And ABM also proved useful when EMC began circling VCE with a view to acquiring the organisation, something that was ultimately concluded in October 2014.
“Inevitably there are a raft of questions about how you run the business, how you monitor it, and what you know and don’t know,” says Butler. “The marketing team I inherited were very ad hoc, just running around and doing stuff, and ABM really brought some framework to how we invested money, what we focused on and how we approached things together as one unit. So it was perfect timing in many respects.”
What Butler is keen to emphasise, however, is that ABM is a long-term project, and as such requires patience and buy-in from the organisation as a whole if it is to succeed.
If you’re super passionate about data and about being collaborative within an organisation I think you are going to hugely rewarded.
“It's not something that happens overnight. When I sat down with my EMEA leader I said for the first 12 months you probably won’t know or understand what I’m doing but after 12 months you will not want to be without this. If you’re super passionate about the data that can be obtained by an ABM approach and you are super passionate about really being collaborative within an organisation I think you are going to hugely rewarded.”
Ultimately, while ABM is about data, and teams, and collaboration, at the core of its philosophy are customer relationships. Relationships aren’t built overnight – but strong ones can last a lifetime.
Butler concludes: “What really struck a chord with me around ABM is the focus on long-term business rather than the short-term shock tactics. It makes sense to me because if I was to ask any executive board member or any company owner do you want a customer for one quarter or for a lifetime, I’m assuming most will say they want them for the lifetime. So why would you treat a customer as a short-term holiday romance? Why wouldn’t you look at a customer as something like a long-term relationship? Companies spend a lot of money and time and resource on people to get business. So once you have got the business why wouldn’t you look after that?”
Neil Davey is the managing editor of MyCustomer. An experienced business journalist and editor, Neil has worked on a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites over the past 15 years, including Internet Works, CXO magazine and Business Management. He joined Sift Media in 2007.