Is ABM on threshold of revolutionizing the B-to-B marketing domain?

By | 17 June 2017

(hier de nederlandse versie)

At the beginning of my career I had the privilege to work for Centraal Beheer. This Dutch insurance company was reputed for its great advertising, that won numerous awards nationally and internationally. Mostly forgotten is, that this ‘direct writer’ regularly would also place full-page ads in the newspapers to efficiently hard-sell its insurance products to consumers and small businesses. Apart from the legendary pay-off ‘Even Apeldoorn bellen’ these ads had no resemblance to the brand campaign. They almost could have come from a different company.

Sales vs. marketing

Why am I mentioning this? Well, as far as I can remember, this was the first time that I was really confronted with the different focuses of marketing (incl. advertising) and sales. A lot of time has passed since then and I left the advertising industry to focus on relationship management and customer-centric entrepreneurship, especially in business-to-business. Still – and perhaps because of this change of focus – my interest in the sometimes awkward relationship between marketing and sales has never decreased.

Where is your company standing?

Even now, so many years later, I still think that a lot remains to be desired in this regard. Having said that, I always hate to generalize and truly think that companies differ in a lot of aspects,  That’s why I rather would like to formulate some questions. Do you sometimes feel that marketing and sales seem to operate in different worlds within your company? Is marketing at the forefront of lead generation only and then completely hands over ownership to sales to close the deals? Do you feel that this sometimes works against a customer-centric perspective that tries to orchestrate all communications and experiences for synergetic effect?

Then you might, like me, be interested in Account-Based Marketing.

Talkin’ bout a revolution?

Early 2017 it was a blog by CRM-guru Paul Greenberg that drew my attention to the concept of Account-Based Marketing. Around the same time a book was published that covers the subject from every angle I considered possible, and more. On its cover emeritus Cranfield professor Malcolm McDonald strongly supports its importance: “It is my view that Account-Based Marketing (ABM) is on the threshold of revolutionizing the marketing domain.” In the USA and UK interest in the concept has grown fast. So what is it about?

Markets of one. One company.

One of the key premises – as I understand the concept – of ABM is that large services businesses cater to clients with revenues that can sometimes match a small country’s gross domestic product and with a complexity that may be even larger. In managing the relationships with these valuable customers, account management is nothing more than the first step. Let’s treat these accounts like we would markets or market segments and add some long-term thinking to the short-term target focus of tactical sales persons. Bring in the marketer’s focus on searching for customer needs and workable insights about the specific account. And make marketers part of the account-team to create well-orchestrated, made-to-measure campaigns based on these insights. All examples of steps in the direction of ABM.

‘A practitioner’s guide to account-based marketing’

The book I was referring to earlier is ‘A practitioner’s guide to account-based marketing’, published by the ITSMA. With strong roots in the ICT-sector in the USA and the UK, this organization has been – according to their own saying – at the forefront of ABM since 2003. Since then it has developed the concept of ABM into a strategic business initiative: a structured approach to develop made-to-measure marketing programs oriented at strategic customers, prospects and partners.

With almost 300 pages this resulted  in what can truly be considered a –probably thé – handbook of ABM of the moment. It’s impossible to summarize the whole book in this blog, but for an introduction to ABM I would like to highlight the underlying principles only. Its writers, ITSMA’s Bev Burgess and Dave Munn, defines four of them.

  • Client centricity and insight. To create propositions that help clients achieve their objectives, businesses should have in-depth understanding of these clients and their organizations.
  • Partnership between sales and marketing. Sales and marketing work hand in hand, as equal partners on the same team.
  • Focus on reputation and relationships, not just revenue. Businesses go beyond lead generation and near-term revenue goals, to drive mindshare and long-term relationships.
  • Tailored programs and campaigns. Marketing and sales craft tailored content to drive interest and engagement, based on a combination of market, account and individual buyer insights.

The book is divided in three. The first part highlights the development of the concept of ABM and how companies are using it to accelerate growth. It distinguishes three gradations of ABM, sort of heavy, medium and light. The second part has a practical focus and describes a step-by-step process to develop and execute a strategic ABM plan for individual accounts. As a pleasantly surprising approach to the third part, the authors focus on the career development of an account-based marketer. I think however that this part is as much of interest to managers setting up an organization within their company to support ABM.

Conclusion

In today’s competitive environment most marketing departments are working extremely hard to be of added value to their company. This includes companies in the b-to-b services industry that cater to a relatively low number of high-value customers. To them ABM can be of great value as it provides an approach that aligns core marketing competencies, like the search for insights and a focus on reputation and relationships, with sales.

As this practitioner’s guide not only covers the theory but the implementation as well, I tend to agree with the before mentioned Michael McDonald: with ABM we may at the moment indeed be on the threshold of a revolution in the B-to-B marketing domain.

P.S.

We’re certainly not there yet, especially in countries other than the USA and UK, where the concept has originated. It is exciting however, to follow its development in the Netherlands and to play an active role in that. I intend to do that with follow-up blogs on this website (registration possible in the right column). To support the Dutch-language discussion, I’ve created a LinkedIn group, which I invite you to join.