Account-based marketing is a huge trend in the B2B software world right now, but sales leaders and experts on sales methodology are starting to ask—how does it fit into the overall scalable revenue machine? The account strategies underpinning ABM are drawn from fairly traditional Sales tactics (which are being adopted by Marketers), and, after all, ABM cannot produce its celebrated benefits without the help of Sales. So what is the role of Sales in ABM, and how can companies organize around a unified account-based strategy?
At their recent Sales Summit conference, TOPO proposed a framework to establish how the relationship between Sales, Marketing, and customers should work with an account-based strategy. TOPO calls their framework Account-based Everything—in summary: target high-value accounts; be data and intelligence-driven; organize around account strategy; make interactions valuable for the buyer; and use the appropriate number of touches. To find out what these account-based strategies look like in practice, I interviewed practitioners Ted Purcell (Marketo), Doug Landis (Box), Lars Nilsson (Cloudera), Jeff Imm (When I Work), and Chris Albro (Zendesk). Here are the big takeaways:
- The right approach depends on your product and the business model. An account-based strategy looks different for companies that are targeting a narrow market vs. a diverse, horizontal set of customers.
- A better understanding of customer use cases can help businesses figure out which accounts to target, and who specifically at the account to target.
- Use case campaigns are effective both for expanding within an account, and for selling to net new accounts. They’re a prime example of the “personalized, relevant content” piece of account targeting.
- Advocacy and use case campaigns revolve around whether prospects personally identify with existing customers, and how companies are able to leverage that.
- Sales leaders at high growth companies are prioritizing interdepartmental collaboration this year, as part of their goal to become more account-based and customer-focused.
- Marketing, Sales, and Customer Success teams can increase net new revenue and reduce churn by working together to coordinate around accounts and use cases.
Account Targeting with Use Case Campaigns
What’s a use campaign, and why is it important for sales?
“I’m focused on selling value at scale, and how to move from volume-velocity to value-based selling. One of my goals as a sales leader is to drive use case-based environment. The purpose of use cases is to drive credibility and alignment with customers. I do that around four pillars: industry, line of business, role and responsibilities, and segment (company size). With use case campaigns, I’m trying to put the right content in the right context around the right people at the right time. When I’m driving a real value-based, referral-based, use-cased focused sales strategy, those four things help surface value for the customer, so that reps don’t get caught up in features and functions.”
– Ted Purcell, VP of Sales at Marketo
At an abstract level, a use case campaign involves providing prospects with details about existing customers who are very similar to them, in terms of the pain points they face, industry, role, company size, and technology stack. Using a success story from within the same company is an ideal version of the strategy—it’s the most similar, most relevant use case available. In other situations, such as for smaller accounts or when trying to break into net new enterprise accounts, campaigns can be based on customer use cases that share key similarities.
“To me, an ABM attitude is all about those four pillars. Whether it’s a marketing interaction, a sales interaction, or a personal interaction, if we get these things right the connection is going to be more successful. Now, if the play is to land and expand, and you’re trying to connect with a new area within the same account, industry and segment are already established—it’s really role and LOB you need to be aware of. With a net new account, the most successful use cases are going to line up on all four pillars.”
– Ted Purcell, VP of Sales at Marketo
Marketing use case campaigns and Sales use case campaigns will be different, due to the one-to-many versus one-to-one modes of interaction. A Marketing use case campaign might be based on a broad similarity, shared by a certain segment of the company’s customer base and prospective buyers. For example, Marketo targets their SMB prospects with a use case product report from TrustRadius that is based on in-depth user reviews written by their current SMB customers (find that report here). By contrast, Sales use case campaigns tend to be even more highly targeted, so that messages resonate with the individual person reading the email. Salespeople may offer up a use case that is relevant not only in terms of company size, but also in terms of industry, specific pain points, and/or user role.
Many of the Sales practitioners I interviewed at the Summit said use case campaigns are intrinsic to their high-growth Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success strategies. Depending on the business model and the type of account they target, their use case campaign goals differ in terms of who researches the use cases, who owns the campaigns, and how targeted they are. Doug Landis (Box), Lars Nilsson (Cloudera), Jeff Imm (When I Work), and Chris Albro (Zendesk) each shared a different perspective on leveraging use cases for sales. Here I’ve summarized their insights about how account-based strategies and use-case campaigns work in different business contexts.
1. Understanding Who to Sell to:
Box’s Transformation Toward Customer-Centricity in Sales and Marketing
Doug Landis is the VP of Sales Productivity at Box, but he thinks of himself as one of the “Chief Storytellers.” He says that as Box reaches new stages of maturity, the mission of Sales is to become more focused on the customer. Box is an online file sharing, storage, and collaboration tool. It is frequently cited as one of the most innovative and highest growth companies in Silicon Valley.
“My job is to transform how we talk to and about our customers. In many cases, that means figuring out how to tell the story of our use cases. We see a ton of great use cases among our customer base, but one of our challenges is that we’re a horizontal solution, so everyone is a potential customer. So who should we actually sell to—IT? The VP of Sales? The VP of HR? The VP of Finance? They’re all users, and in many cases they’re all knowledge-workers. But are they really buying the product? We’ve sold to all of them in the past. But we have a lot of questions to answer in that regard moving forward.”
Landis sees this as a key part of refining Box’s sales strategy at this stage of their growth and expansion, post-IPO. The shift starts with training Sales to think more specifically about accounts and individuals at those accounts. As a foundation, Box reformulated its value statements to be from the customer perspective, but the exercise proved difficult. Landis described how his team restructured this year’s sales kickoff so that reps could rally around customer use cases:
“I run our worldwide Sales kickoff, and 2016 is the year of the customer. We retooled everything—from keynotes to breakout sessions—to be from the customer’s point of view. We had a really hard time doing that. We’re all so comfortable with our own language. But this year we stopped and said, ‘No, wait. What does the customer care about first? Who are we actually selling to? What’s a day in their job like? What do they care about, and why would Box resonate with them?’ For our customers the value proposition is about their current state vs. their future state using Box. We need to lead with that.”
As Landis explained, the change is difficult to make because it requires speaking and writing from a new perspective, and truly understanding the customer perspective.
“We have a ton of insight in our organization, all over our organization, that never circulates back into Marketing or Sales. Especially in our Customer Success and our Product teams, we have a wealth of information about who our customers, users, and buyers are, and what they’re doing on a day-to-day basis. That tells us what real transformation should look like. This source of insight needs to be bubbled up.”
Landis says right now they are working on opening interdepartmental streams of communication. Not only do salespeople and marketers need to empathize with customers for their own frame of reference, according to Landis, they also need to send emails, write white papers, and craft all assets around the customer point of view. This is a huge goal for Box; it’s a crucial part of their transition toward customer-centricity.
“The other part of this process is looking at all of our assets, and asking where our customers’ point of view is involved. Which parts of this message are about us, and which parts are about them—how do we make that switch? Otherwise, prospects don’t quite ‘get’ it. If I want to sell somebody the idea of our governance product, or our platform, what do I actually say? I believe fundamentally that selling is just a series of conversations. We’re in the business of figuring out whether it makes sense for us to have another conversation, and if so, with whom? In our everyday conversations, we don’t use words and language that other people don’t understand, because that’s not a productive way to communicate.”
Landis believes that focusing on use cases, rather than feature/function innovation, will help Box continue to grow and gain more widespread adoption, especially outside of the tech bubble. He sees use case campaigns and customer-centric messaging as a way to be more transparent and authentic, which he sees as an upcoming trend for the software business world generally.
“We fundamentally as a company need to become more customer-centric. We realized that our current assets, our content and websites and messaging, are not about our customers—they’re all about us. That’s prevalent in the Bay Area in general, because we all feed off each other and all of this new technology. I’m a salesperson at heart, but at the end of the day, I’ve got to ask what our positioning statement really means. Officially, we’re a ‘modern content management platform,’ but I never say that when I’m talking about who we are and what we do with customers. I think we have a really interesting opportunity here. I have a strange feeling that a lot of other companies are going to go through this transformation as well—they’re going to morph into something more honest and real.”
2. SDR Emails to Net New Enterprises:
Cloudera’s Account-based Sales Development Methodology
Lars Nilsson is VP of Global Inside Sales at Cloudera, a unified platform for big data built on Apache Hadoop. Nilsson developed a methodology for Account-based Sales Development (ABSD) that has helped Cloudera speed up the process of prospecting into new enterprise accounts. It involves a three-email drip sequence of use case and title-specific emails. Each SDR works with three Account Executives in a focused region, as well as a subject matter expert (SME). They compose messages targeted to many different roles within an account; the email sequences are then automatically sent en masse through Outreach, a sales email tool.
Nilsson described the follow-up process:
“Usually all the activity happens 12-36 hours after an email goes out—the prospect will either reply, open, or ignore. If we have a low reply rate, we will augment the campaign with calls into the email opens. The call that we make isn’t going to be as cold, because they read (or at least saw) our email, which was designed specifically for their role and their use case. We can at least ask for their thoughts on our technology, try to get them engaged and talking.”
Nilsson explained that because the emails are interesting and relevant to the specific goals and pain points of a person in that role and industry, his team sees a much higher reply and open rate than before ABSD. According to Nilsson, it’s effective for reps to reference their emails when they make calls, because they have high confidence that the opened message was relevant to the prospect. The personalized messaging in conjunction with the four-touch sequence to set up a meeting (3 emails, one potential call) are designed to help SDRs connect with a maximum number of roles at an account. He also explained why it’s important for SDRs to connect with many individuals at an account:
“We will often set up three to ten meetings at one account. Before ABSD, as soon as an SDR set up the first meeting at an account, they would move on to the next account. In a lot of cases, we’re helping the sales rep get to know the account much better, because they are getting to know more people across more departments. Our stickiness inside that account grows.”
Nilsson thinks this strategy works especially well for Cloudera because the SDR team is prospecting into so many large accounts. The broadness of the enterprise allows them to be successful with many touches at one time. But intelligent role targeting is also a factor, says Nilsson.
“We’re targeting people that we know, or are fairly sure, will be interested, based on our existing customers. In the example of a healthcare provider that took twelve months to sell, we probably touched 15-20 people at that account before it closed. We can look into our CRM and see the titles of those 15 people, including the economic buyers, the influencers, the decision makers, and the primary support contact. We use that information to make smart decisions about who to target at new accounts. When we prospect into an account that we’ve never penetrated, where we don’t have any names in our database, we search on LinkedIn for the right roles at that account. We might target the Director of Data Architecture, for example, or anyone who has “data architecture” in their title—35 people might show up. So why does the message that we’re sending out get such high reply and open rates? Because we’re sending it to people that we know have this certain pain around big data. We talk about it in a very relevant fashion to them, and discuss where we’ve solved that pain for other similar companies. We’re using their language.”
Cloudera’s SDRs are able to gain traction with a range of people at each account because they customize their Sales emails to a personalized use case, based on the type of company and the role of the person. Nilsson’s advice for other Sales organizations that want to utilize an ABSD methodology is to keep clean data records about all engaged POCs, and use role analysis to make an educated guess about the right people at target accounts:
“I think the best companies start doing this analysis with their very first customer. From the beginning, you should be indexing and cataloging your contacts’ titles in your CRM.”
3. Free Trials, Viral Advocacy, and the Franchise Channel:
When I Work’s Great Pyramid Experiment
Jeff Imm is the President and COO at When I Work, a self-service employee scheduling application. Imm explained that When I Work has a unique hyper-growth challenge. Rather than needing to grow their pipeline and find best-fit targets somewhere out there in the business-sphere, the company has an excess of inbound leads. Many of these people self-qualify into opportunities by engaging in a free trial. Still, Imm says, some need help making the commitment to convert to a paid account.
“We generate 10-15K trials of When I Work every month. We’re at a 10% conversion rate just from trials, and a 33% conversion rate when we know the pain point they’re trying to solve. Our biggest challenge is figuring out where to focus because we don’t have enough reps to sell to everyone. To keep churn low, we’re very up-front and transparent during trials. If someone comes in and asks for a new feature that’s really important for their use case, but it’s not on our roadmap, we’ll be honest with them and say, ‘If that one thing is really what you need, and you don’t like the way we’re addressing it today, then there are better options out there.’ With that discretion and the overall ease of use, we end up seeing only a 1.1% churn MoM (and 60% of our business is monthly), when the usual for SaaS is between 5-10%.”
The platform is designed to be useful for a variety of industries without much training, even for non-technical users at small businesses. Therefore, Imm said, “everyone makes concessions; there’s never a perfect fit.” When I Work avoids adding industry-specific features, which some of the solutions they replace do have. This means it’s vital for When I Work to present buyers, many of whom have a small budget and are risk-adverse, with social proof about the use case and clear evidence showing the value of committing to a change.
“I’m hearing a lot about building a user community and the importance of value creation here at this conference. We’ve been doing that since the beginning, because with scheduling it’s hard to change a behavior and it’s hard to solve everyone’s pain points. We’re serving a broad audience—we’re going for mass adoption and there needs to be low friction to get in, low risk.”
Imm explained that some customers start the trial three or four times before converting. Figuring out which leads to focus on—with educational materials and value-creation statements—versus which leads to let go has been the Sales team’s primary issue. Imm defined “cognitive simplicity” as When I Work’s guiding philosophy, and said it has greatly shaped their strategy around sales and marketing, in addition to product design. Marketing generates inbound leads that initiate trials, which trigger sales that are largely self-service, except in the case of higher value accounts and those who need help setting up. Imm sees When I Work’s growth so far as the result of the platform being easy to deploy for administrators and easy to use for end-users, with little to no training.
Now, as the user base expands, advocacy is fueling the company’s momentum. Imm said almost half of new accounts are the result of successful customers recommending the product to other similar businesses in their network. He sees When I Work’s ability to scale and grow revenue as largely due to the combination of advocacy, free trials, and low churn.
“Our sales engine is marketing-led and community oriented. We’ve recently passed the 100-employee milestone, and most of that has been done without a traditional Sales organization. Whenever we can, we utilize automation and a community strategy instead of an outbound sales strategy. 40% of our business comes from advocacy. With referrals, the friction to get started is very low because we offer the free trial, and we provide full support even to trial users. We’re also doing some incentive campaigns, like the Golden Ticket—we let customers give away X amount of months free to other businesses they think could really benefit from the platform.”
Similar to referrals are franchises, another strategic channel for When I Work sales. Both plays rely on a common network and shared use case to open the door at a new account and reduce issues with adoption. Franchise selling is somewhere in-between the two ABM approaches described by Ted Purcell—it’s sort of like selling to another arm of the same enterprise, but also sort of like selling to a new best-fit account because the buyers operate as small business owners. When I Work creates co-branded websites with the parent corporation that features content such as success stories and case studies from that particular use case.
“For example, 1-800-Got-Junk has selected us as the primary scheduling tool for their franchises. Franchise owners can download a case study specifically about a 1-800-Got-Junk franchise in Minneapolis, and then start scheduling from the website. They aren’t obligated to purchase When I Work, but the parent brand recommends it because we’ve worked it out and already know the ins and outs of their business. We’re doing that over and over again.”
With a freemium/free-trial business model and a product that serves horizontal use cases, Imm says this kind of advocacy is “the key” to sustaining high growth because communities of successful customers become “the greatest pyramid experiment ever.”
4. The Challenge of Scaling a Diverse Customer Base:
Zendesk’s Account-based, Success-based Program, and Big Questions for ABE
According to Chris Albro, Director of Enterprise Account Management at Zendesk, a broad product-market fit presents the opportunity to sell into a huge number of accounts, but also the challenge of coordinating around diverse customer needs at scale.
“We are in the very fortunate position of having extremely wide segments of the business, in terms of number of customers, number of employees per customer, and the range of vertical industries that we support. So everything that we do is at a scale that requires a bit of discipline. That’s a huge driver of how we organize and operate.”
Because Zendesk sells to businesses of radically different sizes, and in different industries, their customers have very different use cases. Under these circumstances, ensuring simplicity and relevance for all of their customers requires specialization around different types of accounts. Albro described why and how customer-centricity works on his team:
“For example, a very large enterprise software company with 2k customers is very, very different than a company that has 40k customers. My Account Managers focus on a certain set of accounts in the customer base—size, type of company, vertical, and how they came into the Zendesk fold are some of the criteria we use to determine account specialization.”
Albro says that Sales, Account Management, and Customer Success together to make Zendesk valuable across their customer base—both through the expertise of individual reps, and through an educational, programmatic approach that is not unlike content marketing. Content marketing involves sharing knowledge that is valuable and relevant to a particular audience, in order to build rapport and help with their own initiatives (rather than directly promote your brand). This part of the strategy has been important for sustaining Zendesk’s high growth sales and customer retention:
“If customer success is just people, it can only scale as fast as those people. Our program allows success to scale in different ways. We’re able to offer value to all segments, in an array of channels that allow people to self-serve. We leverage one-to-many environments for live and pre-recorded content, for example, With a content strategy underneath Customer Success, we can scale much more effectively. We think about what content our customers need first, and then figure out how to distribute it to our customer base in a way that makes sense for them to consume.”
Albro explained that Zendesk’s intelligent distribution of content, like their account specialization strategy, allows the company to scale while still addressing the specific needs of a broad set of customer segments. However, all of these pieces of the program require data about the customer’s use case and their relationship with Zendesk. A unified view of the account is ideal, but often data ownership is distributed. Albro told us that interdepartmental collaboration is a priority this year, so that teams can share knowledge to get a better view of the account.
“We’re geared towards account-based activities and success-based activities and tools. From an account management perspective, all data is good data in my opinion. We’re at a scale where we need to give account managers the capability to know what’s going on across departments—in customer service, and with advocacy and support and finance, as well as in the customer success umbrella.”
Albro thinks that as Zendesk’s account-based, success-based programs mature and the company continues to scale, they will need to think more about how technology can play a role, and where ABM tactics can have the biggest impact. Especially for organizations trying to scale with horizontal solutions, he thinks there are big questions that need to be asked around account-based everything.
“The whole ‘account-based everything’ movement is so hot right now that you start to wonder—how is this different than what we’ve done in the past? I think we all need to pay closer attention to this area. At Zendesk, we’ve seen some success with account-based programs so far, but it’s exciting to see new technology and solutions focused on enabling that strategy. Personally, I have questions about how scale impacts account-based strategies and technologies. When we’re operating at scale, how are we making informed decisions about how to leverage account-based marketing? When and where in a really broad customer base should we use an account-based approach, and who’s making that informed decision?”
High Growth and the Development of the Sales Tech Stack
In his keynote speech, TOPO CEO Scott Albro discussed the importance of smart sales tech investments. In Albro’s experience, “Companies that figure out how to adopt sales technology and mitigate risk grow a hell of a lot faster than those that don’t.” Most of the sales leaders I met at the conference said they are implementing technology to enable their account-targeting, content, and collaboration strategies. Most also said they could be using technology better; either because they’re still getting comfortable with their sales stack, or are working with sales tech vendors to pioneer new use cases. These leaders are early adopters—many organizations are still in the process of building out their sales stack, or wondering where to begin. To help buyers orient themselves in the market, which is crowded and confusing, TrustRadius compiled a report on How to Navigate the Sales Technology Landscape(available to download for free).