Organizing for ABM: The Need For Joint Strategy, Metrics, & Skills

Emily Sue Tomac
June 16, 2016

Organizing for ABM: The Need For Joint Strategy, Metrics, & Skills

Align for ABMAs more vendors, thought leaders, and practitioners have embraced (and amplified) the account-based marketing trend, specific questions about what is needed for ABM and what type of companies should be doing ABM are becoming more widespread. Best practices for organizational structure, budget share, and technology are growing in complexity. More Marketing and Sales leaders have learned from their early ABM efforts and technology investments, and are willing to share their key learnings with peers.

Accordingly, the #FlipMyFunnel Festival has grown from 1 track of presenters in San Francisco in February to 3 tracks in Austin this June. TrustRadius, a media sponsor for the show, attended sessions and interviewed presenters to understand how ABM impacts the overall company strategy and structure, and what is required for this to be effective. One of the biggest takeaways was that interdepartmental alignment underlies all aspects of effective ABM, in terms of collaboration on target account lists, the topics and language of marketing messaging, ABM measurement, and integrated tech stacks.

There are two sides to this coin: some interviewees said ABM requires alignment (push), while others said ABM creates alignment (pull). Either way, the consensus is that organizations taking an account-based approach will need to have Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success teams working more closely together.

At a high level, here are some of the important tips:

  • The first step is to get buy-in at a strategic, cross-company level; the second step is to make a list of target accounts.
  • ABM involves the alignment of Marketing with Sales—more so than the alignment of Sales with Marketing, which has failed to work in the past—but also the alignment of both teams with Customer Success.
  • Revenue and engagement within target accounts are key metrics in an account-based framework.
  • Churn is another important account-based metric. Although it is already being tracked by Customer Success teams, churn can easily get overlooked by marketers and salespeople.
  • Alignment is not easy. It requires change management at a structural level, a process level, and at the level of personal collaboration/teamwork skills.

Interdepartmental Alignment is the First Step in ABM

Before account prioritization, develop an organization-wide strategy

Matt Senatore, Service Director, Account-Based Marketing Practice at SiriusDecisions, challenged the popular advice that the first step towards ABM is developing a list of target accounts. “I can’t tell you how many vendors or subject-matter experts are saying that account prioritization is the first step. It’s not. There is preparation that needs to happen organizationally first, in terms of the alignment that needs to be there, the education around why we’re changing—what is this new go-to-market approach of ABM, and how is it different than the tradition of broad-based—and making sure we have organizational alignment on how to do that. We need to have that before we sit in a room and say Sales and Marketing are going to go work on these accounts,” said Senatore.

What makes account prioritization attractive as a first step? It’s tactical, it’s something that sales is probably already doing with tiers and stages, and it’s something that vendors (predictive analytics solutions in particular) can automate. So, it’s an easy thing for conference attendees to hear and take back to their companies, because it’s exciting but actionable, and it’s a desirable message for vendors to spread because it moves companies closer to wanting or needing their products. Creating a target account list is something that does need to happen as one of the first pieces of an ABM program. The problem, which Senatore and others pointed out during the event, is that ABM is at its core not a tactical program, but a strategic one.

Craig Rosenberg, Co-founder and Chief Analyst at TOPO, thinks a name-change from account-based marketing to account-based everything will help this ontological dilemma. His presentation (which brought Marketers into the thread of the keynote speech from the TOPO Sales Summit earlier this spring) explained how ABE lays the groundwork for an interdepartmental strategy, reminding companies that the first step is not a Marketing tactic. “It’s a mistake for any account-based program to reside in any of the silos without engagement from the other sides. Certainly, a lot of account-based marketing best practices already involve looping in other groups. But from what I’ve seen, the most successful companies lift it up so that it’s not a tactic, it’s the strategy of the organization. By calling it account-based everything, it speaks to the entire organization and becomes a much more coherent point of view. That’s when this stuff really works,” Rosenberg said. He thinks the term ‘account-based everything’ is also more inclusive of post-customer acquisition teams, like Customer Success: “For example, for key accounts, you should be thinking beyond Sales and Marketing, down to how to onboard an account and how to make them happy. I think Customer Success can also play a role early on, in planning the target list.”

Tonni Bennett, Director of Sales at Terminus, a provider of account-based ad-serving & retargeting software, agrees that the term ‘account-based marketing’ is limiting. She says her team plays a foundational role in Terminus’s own account-based strategy, since they’ve been account-focused all along. Bennett likes the way ABE ties together the departments at a conceptual level: “From the sales perspective, ABM truly is a misnomer. It’s really about sales and marketing working together towards a common goal. Sales is already really account focused and has been. But I think the biggest thing we’ve learned doing this ourselves so far is that Sales and Marketing have so much to learn from each other.”

Jason Jue, CMO at Triblio, a web personalization platform that supports ABM, hosted a panel with marketers from Dell and Rackspace to discuss Sales and Marketing alignment. Both of those companies have been marketing across the customer lifecycle for a while, rather than just gathering leads at the top of the funnel. Jue explained that, at a basic level, this type of marketing relies on a shared vision across departments. “If you’re in marketing and your primary mission is to take the stories of how people have experienced customer success or fanatical support and find other people who are similar and can understand that story, that requires you to be aligned with Sales and Customer Success,” Jue said. This approach is effective in an ABM context because, according to Jue and his panelists, best-fit target accounts (that look like your best customers) are likely to respond to information about other accounts similar to themselves.

As many presenters and attendees discussed, this full-funnel, customer-lifecycle view is not the status quo. Moving away from a short-term, siloed mentality can be difficult, not only for Marketing but also for Sales. (Practitioners say it’s easier—and comes as somewhat of a relief—for Customer Success teams, who have already been thinking about things from an account perspective.)

What Does Alignment for ABM Look Like in Practice?

Bennett explained that Terminus built organizational processes as well as structure to drive alignment. They implemented regular Sales/Marketing leadership meetings and created a role dedicated to facilitating alignment. “There’s been a lot of Smarketing, or teamwork, that’s happened on both sides that’s helped to make a big impact,” said Bennett. “It’s constant communications, through two main channels: 1) quarterly offsite Smarketing meetings, where Sales and Marketing get together, mostly with an agenda and a plan, but also with some freeform time to come up with new ideas; 2) a product marketing/sales enablement guy who’s really an in-between and can figure out how we can maximize our efforts. He comes up with a joint plan for Sales and Marketing, and then gets suggestion, alters the plan, gets buy-in from both teams, and makes sure it actually happens (i.e. as a project manager). It’s a lot of meetings and conversations, but this system ensures that no team is ever doing something the other team doesn’t know about or isn’t onboard with.”  Though the process of collaboration/review is mostly manual and in-person, an analyst we interviewed pointed out that it is much more tangible than the vague, ‘alignment’ initiatives at many companies.

Keenan, CEO and President at A Sales Guy, Inc. and author of Not Taught, says that changing organizational structure—mainly by creating cross-functional roles like the one at Terminus—is one of the biggest factors that can help companies maintain alignment. Otherwise, no one owns these processes, which, as Bennett described them, can be inconvenient and require extra effort from both teams. Keenan affirms that “there needs to be a structural overlap between Marketing and Sales. Too often, organizationally it’s just the VP of Sales and the sales reps over here, and the VP of Marketing and the marketers over there. There needs to be a job embedded within the two teams, an element of structural design. There are a million ways to build that design, but you’ve got to take the step and figure out what works best for your organization.” According to Keenan, these deep changes in structure will help to drive process.

Alignment Around Account Selection

After adopting ABM as an organizational strategy, whether or not this involves modifying your role hierarchy, the first process you should work together on is developing a list of target accounts. Joe Chernov, VP of Marketing at InsightSquared, shared the details of their cross-functional panel, including who sits at the table, which teams are responsible for which pieces, and which technologies they use to automate some of this process. “Developing the list of named accounts is collaborative. It involves Marketing Ops, Sales Ops, Marketing leadership, and Sales leadership—those are the decision makers. We agree on the attributes of target accounts up front, and then Marketing runs a play to clean all of those accounts up to figure out who we cannot disqualify (for example, if we know they don’t use Salesforce, we disqualify them), then we rank them and assign the highest ones. We use Node, an account identification technology, and Infer, to look for digital signals for accounts that are likely to buy,” said Chernov.

He also explained how predictive analytics signals and more traditional Marketing and Sales methods of predicting best-fit customers play into account prioritization. While algorithmic intelligence gets the first bid, Sales prospecting intuition determines the next set of priority accounts, and Marketing engagement metrics qualify the third. “Those accounts that have a high match score and look like buyers in Node and Infer are the first batch that get assigned. The next basket are accounts that reps have been working and want to keep working. When other accounts show signs of engagement, they get assigned too. That group of accounts make up the pool the reps are going to fish in,” he said. Chernov thinks this collaboration system ensures everyone gets heard and can agree on the list of targets. Because it is a standardized process, InsightSquared can also test how well each type of input predicts the likelihood to close/value of the accounts in that batch.

In an interview, Craig Rosenberg, TOPO, acknowledged that it’s important for Sales and Marketing to communicate about the account plan, but added that including Customer Success in this discussion is a golden opportunity. “What I’ve learned through helping people identify their ideal customer profile is that usually, the CS team already knows,” explained Rosenberg. He sees CS as a key player in alignment for ABM—according to Rosenberg, incorporating intelligence from farther down the funnel within early Marketing planning stages can save a lot of time and expenses later on. In his opinion, “the main thing is as much up-front communication as possible about the ideal customer profile and who the accounts are. We’re seeing joint account planning between Sales and Marketing, sometimes with input from Customer Success. That’s manual, but it solves a lot of the downstream problems, because essentially you’re coordinating how to go to market before you go to market. I’m not sure anything can replace that.” Rosenberg, whose presentation was entitled, ‘Hello, Account-Based Everything,’ incorporates the idea that ABM should extend beyond Marketing, and even beyond Sales, into his sales consulting practice.

Battle of the Metrics: Marketing vs. Sales vs. Customer Success

Why The Units of ABM Help Align Marketing & Sales

David Raab, MarTech Thought Leader, thinks that the different units of ABM—i.e. accounts—are pushing marketers to become more aligned with Sales, which he sees as more feasible than previous approaches to alignment. “The thing about ABM is that it gets marketers thinking about accounts, which they traditionally have not done. They were traditionally all about leads. If you asked any B2B marketer was their job was, it was to generate leads. And with ABM, their job is not to generate leads, it’s to grow accounts and grow account relationships. That’s a very different perspective, and it’s the way that salespeople have always thought,” Raab explained.

Although this means marketers need to adjust to new terms and new objects, Raab says it will be easier and more beneficial for marketers to get away from leads than for salespeople to start thinking like traditional marketers, who focus on submitters, click-throughs, MQLs, or brand awareness. The trend towards account-based marketing is “really putting Marketing and Sales in alignment, which we’ve always tried to do, but traditionally it was marketers trying to get Sales to think the way marketers thought. Now, instead of Marketing pushing their perspective on Sales, which was never going to work, we have Marketing accepting the Sales perspective, which I think is a good thing,” said Raab.

Simon Spencer, Director of Marketing Operations at SheerID, a discount verification software for large retailers, also sees ABM as a forcing factor that will help align Marketing and Sales. Spencer agrees that ABM can help to correct a broken design that has long lead to misalignment: “When you think about the traditions of B2B businesses and how they’ve set up their Marketing and Sales departments, it was set up to be a battle of the metrics. The story is you generate all these leads for Sales, but the Sales team doesn’t close them or they don’t respond to them. Or Sales might say, ‘you’re only sending me crap leads; give me something better to work with here.’ So that traditional model set up those two departments to butt heads.” Based on his experience shifting to ABM, Spencer says “the ABM model allows us to work together, whereas the traditional model makes us think about things differently. Now we talk about accounts, targets, and how we’re working together, and that makes a lot more sense.” According to Spencer, common metrics and shared terminology make it easier for departments to see eye to eye and communicate about sticking points in the customer acquisition flow.

Julia Stead, Director of Demand Generation at Invoca, a provider of inbound call tracking and analytics software, gave some practical insight into how ABM has changed her metrics, forecasts, and goal setting. In the past, Stead said, her goal was a certain number of SQLs, so she would “look at the conversion rate from MQL, and then look at the conversion rate from lead, and come up with a lead number every month that we needed to hit.” With their ABM program, the set of leading indicators has changed. Now, she explained, “it’s less about the number of leads, and more about engaging with people. We created new leading indicators, which for us are the number of engaged accounts, and looked at historical data to see the opportunity conversion rate for an account that has been engaged with Marketing over the past 30, 60, 90 days versus one that hasn’t. We layered in things like: does it make a difference if we engage with two or three people versus just one? We looked at all of that, and then determined our benchmarks for number of accounts engaged at any given time, and number of contacts within an account that we want to have engaged. Then we think about how many campaigns we need to do to get that level of engagement.” Looking at how ABM has changed the conversation between Marketing and Sales at Invoca, conversion to opportunity, traditionally a Sales benchmark, is now one of the key metrics Stead uses to assess and predict Marketing performance.

Unlike some other presenters and attendees, Stead went on to highlight the consistency between measuring ABM and measuring previous efforts, in terms of ROI. From Stead’s perspective, ABM metrics can help demand gen teams do a better job of what they aimed to do all along: “Our top-level KPIs didn’t really change. As a marketing and demand gen organization, our goals are still to create X amount of pipeline every quarter, and get a certain pipe-to-spend ratio for our Marketing dollars. That didn’t change—the idea was just that ABM will help us do that more effectively.”

Why Account-based Metrics Need to Go Beyond Marketing & Sales

Lincoln Murphy, Growth Architect at Winning by Design, spoke to the general #FlipMyFunnel assembly before attendees split into tracks. Murphy believes it’s vital for companies to go beyond syncing up Marketing and Sales metrics. In an interview, he identified churn as a key metric for account-based strategies that is in danger of being overlooked: “Generally speaking, Sales and Marketing folks are not measured in any way on churn, unfortunately. Because of that, it’s completely out of their mind. But the seeds of churn are planted early, meaning that when accounts churn they often cite reasons very early on in the deal process, including interactions with Marketing and Sales. It usually has to do with overselling—not nefarious, but inadvertently selling to a customer that didn’t have success potential.” Murphy told us that because of this, Marketing and Sales have a responsibility to identify not only best-fit but also bad-fit customers, who will otherwise eat up Customer Success resources before eventually churning anyway.

Why doesn’t the target list process usually involve agreeing not to sell and market to bad-fit customers? According to Murphy, even in long-term attribution models, revenue is still the major success metric for ABM. “I think this happens because organizations are so sales-oriented, so focused on hitting their numbers. It makes sense how we got here: companies are valued as a multiple of revenue, so what we sell this quarter matters. But what actually goes into that valuation multiple are things that are driven by customer success. Customer lifetime value affects the way that investors and acquirers value a company. So if you are simply making this quarter’s numbers by selling deals, but you’re not taking into account that those deals will eventually churn, you’re actually affecting the value of your company,” said Murphy.

Tonni Bennett recognizes that this is especially important for Terminus, a SaaS startup onboarding new customers at a fast pace. As a salesperson, she says this net new business growth is “exciting, but if they’re going out the back door, that doesn’t help anyone.” In order to balance Sales’ revenue-driven motivation with long-term success, Bennett collaborated with the Director of Customer Success to inspire empathy and reinforce their shared goals: “I had the director of Customer Success sit in on our Sales meeting and explain what they’re going through on a day-to-day basis with new customers. When my reps hear it from her, they see a person who runs a team who is impacted by the way we sell. A good team-driven human takes that into consideration, and is motivated to do the right thing by them.” Bennett thinks giving people the why behind strategies like ABM makes a huge difference in managing the change.

However, Bennett acknowledges that aligning with CS is a major adjustment to the Sales mentality, and says getting buy-in from leadership on how this will affect shorter-term metrics is crucial. At Terminus, they are working on holding back from accounts that don’t yet have “success potential” (as defined by Murphy above). Bennett gave this example: “Once the reps saw that customer success perspective it really changed the way they did things. After that conversation, one of my reps came to me and said, ‘I’ve got this deal, and they really want to buy, but I think I’m going to discourage them from signing up because it would be a huge pain in the ass for Customer Success. It would be a drain on resources, and I don’t think they really get the value prop.’ So we decided not to bring that customer on board yet.” Bennett said that this shift can be confusing–for reps as well as prospective customers. Her advice is for leadership to encourage close communication across departments, and be clear on how to balance interdepartmental priorities. Although Bennett’s team remains focused on scaling the Terminus customer base, she believes their new, more discerning lens will be more profitable long-term.

From a marketing perspective, on a day-to-day basis, this essentially means multi-touch attribution. Craig Rosenberg, TOPO, suggests that “the key is just to reverse your views into the accounts themselves. Don’t think about getting 10K people to a webinar, think about how many channels and how many touches are reaching the target accounts and figure out the best path to turning them into an opportunity. It’s about how many times someone at the target account came to your website, how many stakeholders in that account came to your webinar, etc.” Rosenberg says metrics need to be tracked within accounts, where each account is it’s own market segment so to speak, rather than on the traditional aggregate basis. According to Rosenberg, this is true for engagement metrics as well as churn: “The problem is today we look at everything in aggregate. In account-based, the key is to flip your mindset and look at everything on an account-by-account basis. Likewise, instead of looking at the aggregate churn number, as most SaaS companies are doing, we need to look at the health of each account.” Rosenberg warns that in order for ABM to work, “you basically can’t churn” any of your strategic accounts. Just as you need to plan to engage everyone on your target list, you also need to plan to keep and hopefully expand your key accounts.

The overarching lesson is that measuring account-based marketing requires more coordination than measuring more tactical, short-term marketing programs. Simon Spencer, Sheer ID, says this is a cultural and philosophical issue in addition to a logistical one. Once a company takes an account-based perspective, the purpose of the Marketing department changes, as does the way the department should be evaluated. According to Spencer, the shift goes beyond figuring out how to manage the numbers themselves; it’s just as much about managing your team’s and leadership’s expectations for those numbers. “It’s much easier to point at a bucket of leads and say, ‘Marketing generated 20 leads,’ whereas with accounts it’s all about impressions, how much we influenced that particular account during the sales process, how many marketing touch points it took for those individuals in order to qualify as an opportunity. That is a very different thing to do, not only from a philosophical level, but from a value level where you’re trying to explain the results of what Marketing is doing and the value that we produced using this new model. It’s a hard place to get to, at least initially,” said Spencer.

Find the Right People & Build a Culture of Communication

Interdepartmental Relationships are Key Skills for ABM Marketers

As ABM becomes a priority for more B2B companies, marketers will need to work on developing and articulating their relevant skills. Plenty of LinkedIn profile overviews contain labels like ‘content marketer’ or even ‘data-driven marketer’—but what defines an ABM marketer? Joe Quinn is head of ABM programs at National Instruments, and presented at FlipMyFunnel about the skills marketers need for ABM. The most important core competencies for an ABM marketer according to Quinn are understanding Sales and understanding the customer.

“First, sales acumen and that Sales relationship is absolutely core to being able to be a true partner with the account manager—so understanding what sellers do, how they’re measured, how they interact with our customers and our accounts, how they manage their quota, how they sell, what conversations they have during the buyer’s journey, etc.,” said Quinn. “The second core competency is customer focus. You really need to understand who the customer is, what challenge are they trying to solve, and what their vetting process is. Understand who the advocates are at the account vs. who could be a blocker, and then ensure that at every interaction you’re thinking about how to add value for them.”

Mike Sanchez, Director of Sales Acquisition, and Chris Long, Director of Marketing Operations from WP Engine, a WordPress hosting tool, presented together at the festival. (They believe that Sales and Marketing should “hold hands” in many endeavors.) Sanchez and Long both focus on hiring the right people to maintain a culture of collaboration, and each is involved in the other’s hiring decisions. “We’re looking for people who are outspoken but humble. We don’t want anybody to hide what their views are, but you have to be humble enough to understand you may be wrong and it’s ok. If everyone can be in that safe environment that we can challenge each other and not get emotional over it—that’s the type of people we target. It just takes one person to add to that team to break the entire culture we built up,” said Sanchez.

In their presentation, Sanchez and Long offered specific tips for achieving Sales and Marketing alignment, whether in the context of an ABM strategy or not, such as: avoid blaming each other; set clear SLAs and expectations with each other (e.g. the number of leads Marketing will send over, how to qualify them, and within what amount of time Sales is responsible for following up with a lead); build the technology stack together; and adopt shared revenue goals and definitions of success.

Tonni Bennett, Terminus, said constant communication and the notion of shared success are difficult for many salespeople because of the competitive, fast-paced culture of most sales teams. She sees it requiring a mix of prior experience, patience, and flexibility–all skills she looks for when selecting reps for her team. “In terms of our sales team, we’re trying to only hire people that have that mature perspective,” said Bennett. She agrees with Craig Rosenberg and Jon Miller, who presented on ‘Account-based Everything’ and ‘Account-based Sales Development,’ respectively, that ABM is an organization-wide strategy; Sales, too, must have certain skill sets related to alignment in order to make it work.

Bennett explained that setting collaborative goals benefits Marketing, Sales, CS teams, and, ultimately, customers. According to her, acknowledging that causality “is the point of ABM. It’s not really about Marketing per se, it’s about all of the departments working together to target the right subset of accounts. And if you’re all working together and you’re truly setting the right expectations for success, it’s going to set your customers up to be way more successful themselves. Sometimes it means things move a little slower than I’d like, but ultimately they’re more impactful. I’m a fast-paced person and I want us to go go go. But, if we wait and we do it the right way, it’s better for our business overall.”

About the Author

Emily Sue Tomac
Emily Sue Tomac is Senior Research Manager at TrustRadius, where she studies reviews, the technology buying and selling process, and buyers and vendors themselves. Her research aims to arm people with the tools and information they need to work better, smarter, and easier. She's on a mission to tell their stories, and drive change in how business technology is bought and sold. Prior to joining TrustRadius, Emily Sue worked on research in linguistics and the digital humanities.

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