Solutions marketing and ABM: Recommendations for making them work well together

For companies that are committed to building and selling solutions, understanding how to adapt marketing tools and activities to support the more complex and higher value solutions offerings is critical.  One area of B2B marketing where solutions go-to-market principles need to be applied is account planning and management.  The methodology that a lot of our clients have used very successfully is often referred to as Account-Based Marketing (ABM).  ABM is perfectly tailored to a customer-centric solutions model.  It is generally defined as treating individual accounts as a market in their own right.  The implications of this definition is that a solutions company applies its sales and marketing resources to understanding a key account’s business challenges,  which often then results in adapting existing assets and resources to resolve the account’s most pressing problems.

The Three Main Phases of an ABM Program

In the course of our work with a wide range of B2B companies, we’ve seen what it takes to have a successful ABM program.  It’s not easy.  Designing and implementing an ABM program that will target and support a large number of key accounts is in fact very difficult.  Companies like Accenture, IBM, Xerox and HP are poster children for how to do it the right way.  Unfortunately, there are just as many companies with programs that are just limping along or have been curtailed.

Our work over the years with ABM programs has helped us to determine not only what is critical for success but also when it needs to be done.  We suggest you look at it in 3 distinct phases:

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  • Design & develop the program – How to ensure you have the resources and support you need to implement a program that can accommodate a range of accounts and fits your business model and culture.
  • Create account-specific solutions strategies –Supplementing the existing planning process for each key account with ABM-based tools and methods.
  • Implement the account-specific ABM strategies – Having sales and marketing join forces to address the unique business model and challenges of the key accounts.

How to Ensure Success at Each Phase

The companies that have reaped the benefits from their ABM programs understood what it took to succeed during each of the three phases.  After reviewing over a dozen of these initiatives, we have identified 11 key success factors, broken down by the three core phases.

Phase 1:  Designing & Developing the Program

  • Gain a strong commitment from the top sales and marketing executives; program buy-in should also include BU Heads and Sales Directors since they will be the ones who will most directly be involved and accountable.
  • Tie the program into existing account planning processes; make it easy for the sales and marketing staff to engage in the program.
  • Ensure that Marketing is assigning its  “A” team to the program;  ABM requires senior level marketers who can think and act strategically, and work effectively with sales leaders.
  • Set up systems to collect insightful account information; either selling existing solutions or creating new ones for a key account Is dependent upon the quality of information that can be collected about the account.  This can only be effective is there are formal systems in place.
  • Ensure that both sales and marketing are equal partners, and often investors, in the program;  doing the forensics on programs that have foundered has shown that quite often either sales or marketing wasn’t fully committed to the program.

Phase 2: Creating Account-Specific Solutions Strategies

  • Conduct live face-to-face account planning sessions that involve sales, marketing, and solutions specialists; while this can prove difficult in companies with widely dispersed global account teams, the benefits of getting everyone together to craft the account plans have been compelling.
  • Involve the customer in the “discovery” portion of the planning sessions;this, in our view, is non-negotiable.  One or more senior level executives from the key account needs to be part of the process.
  • Focus on creativity and innovation as the basis for bringing new solutions and greater value to the account; the ABM process shouldn’t focus on the existing account sales strategy, including standard offerings – this is a chance to come up with breakthrough thinking about the account and how you can help them.  In essence, it allows a shift from selling to partnering.

Phase 3: Implementing the Account-Specific Strategies

  • Develop account-specific marketing campaigns; this is the crux of the entire program.  Campaigns that are designed for each account have proven to be the “secret sauce” that makes ABM successful.
  • Be realistic in terms of the budgets and resources required for implementation;  ABM doesn’t just happen by itself – it takes dedicated marketers, and enough budget to implement the ABM campaigns.  Planning and strategizing by itself won’t get you there – successful implementation takes real time, budget and resources.
  • Create processes and tools that will allow for project and program evaluation; as with everything that marketing does, metrics will allow the program director to adjust the dials and increase effectiveness.

The Takeaway:  Approach Key Accounts as a Problem Solver, not a Vendor

If you’re interested in selling real solutions to your key accounts, an ABM initiative should be considered.  The complexity of the problems that your customer face requires creative, complex solutions offerings from you.  This means that Sales needs to make room for Solutions Marketers to be part of the planning equation.   We’ve seen companies that understand this and have successfully implemented an ABM program that has uncovered new value for the customer.  Unfortunately, we’ve also seen companies that stick to an underfunded, inside-out approach, leading to the inevitable, disappointing results.   So…which type of company do you want to be?

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