According to Frost & Sullivan’s ongoing Marketing Benchmark Survey of hundreds of marketing executives, account-based marketing (ABM) is today’s fastest-growing marketing strategy. Businesses have found that ABM’s targeted approach yields better results and higher return on investment as compared to broader and less targeted marketing strategies. Effectively managing and orchestrating increasing volumes of customer and prospect data will play an ever-growing role in the success of strategies such as ABM. New tools and tactics that harness digital platforms and technologies will be needed. And, as market conditions continue to evolve, so will marketing and sales strategies.
Customers can tire of sales noise disguised as content. And even market leaders can struggle to leverage data that enables them to find or connect with potential customers or assess market readiness. Sales executives and marketers alike must align their strategies and better orchestrate their efforts to address issues like the following:
- Centralizing and sharing customer and prospect data — or creating a unified view across the organization
- Aligning sales and marketing processes and platforms — and cohesively leveraging technology internally, which continues to be a challenge for many organizations
- Defining customer intent — this fast-growing data strategy that can help enterprises target prospects who are ready to buy or close to buying, is under-utilized
Providing a top-tier customer experience has also become increasingly important. More and more, personalization determines whether companies keep, or lose, customers. Understanding the customer—identifying their needs and where they are in their buying journey—is an invaluable tool in a cluttered marketplace, especially online. As Roberta Gamble, partner and vice president, Frost & Sullivan stated, “Getting the customer journey right, using data to get there and understand it, and having sales and marketing on the same page in the process is needed to push the ball forward and really be competitive.”
Kimberly Boyd, global head of customer marketing and insights at ThoughtWorks, a global technology company, elaborated:
“We are leveraging technology for customer engagement data, to help us better understand our customers and where we can use automation, for example. Next, we’ll be examining data to better understand our clients’ biggest pain points.”
Identifying Customer Intent
In Frost & Sullivan’s recent conversations with senior sales and marketing executives, “defining our target account list” was cited as their biggest challenge. This was a surprising finding, indicating the need for more market analysis. “Defining intent,” a growing industry focal point, came in second. Tracking intent data can help companies identify when prospects are doing research or getting ready to make buying decisions. Understanding customer intent can be difficult to assess, but digital tools can help with this. Jon Miller, chief marketing officer, Demandbase, told Frost & Sullivan that his company helps businesses answer the critical question of intent. “We can say, we think this company is researching new legal services, or new pension plans, based on online clues and the behaviors they’re showing and the articles people from that company are reading…so [we might conclude] the intent has become very high,” Miller stated.
Aligning Data Internally
A more basic challenge many companies face is aligning sales and marketing systems and processes within the organization. Many lack a global view of their target accounts. Customer and prospect databases are frequently housed in a multitude of systems across the organization, which can lead to a duplication of efforts and missed opportunities. All too often, sales and customer data are not shared within the organization, resulting in inefficiencies and lost revenue.
This lack of alignment is particularly problematic in today’s downturn economy. Miller summarized:
“When resources have been slashed, you need to be relentlessly efficient. You can’t afford to be misaligned or miss a single opportunity. Aligning your marketing and sales teams around smart account intelligence—from a single platform, integrated into your CRM—focuses your resources on the same, ideal targets to reduce waste and prevent missed opportunities.”
Jeffrey Eades, vice president, Clean Energy Group at Key Bank Commercial, agreed that cost-effective data strategies are more critical than ever: “It’s important to filter all the data, to reduce [unnecessary] expenses and to use data to provide more services.” Another marketing executive told Frost & Sullivan:
“I find that the problem with aligning sales and marketing is that often they are not looking at the same data. You have examples where marketing is logging into this system looking at it this way and sales is logging into the system and looking at it that way. And I can say that they are literally not on the same page, not looking at the same data. Just get the data so that you are looking at it from a common point.”
Account intelligence and sales and marketing teams’ ability to make sense of all the data points is a competitive advantage for business-to-business (B2B) organizations. Allison Metcalf, chief revenue officer, Demandbase, emphasized the importance of operationalizing data:
“When you can’t see your targets clearly, or know what they need, you can’t hit your number. You need to have a clear picture to know to engage the right accounts when they’re in-market, to tailor your messaging to fit their needs and where they are in the buyer journey, to accelerate deals and drive more revenue.”
Deriving Insights from Data
In addition to targeting or tracking customers, companies can also use data to analyze internal processes and improve them. In a recent discussion, Metcalf described how her organization’s data mining indicated that many of their salespeople stopped communicating with prospects after four to six touches, although it typically takes 10 to 12 touches for prospects to be operationalized or converted. This is particularly true for big or complex sales. Organizations can also leverage data for more granular, operational applications like predicting a customer’s power and utility needs. They can use it to prioritize sales and marketing strategies, to manage risk and outcomes, and to identify great sales opportunities.
Improving Pipeline Issues
Getting in front of quality leads is an ongoing challenge for sales pros, especially in the B2B arena. Creating targeted and compelling messaging can lead to more opportunities but is difficult to accomplish, especially online. There is often a new marketing template or tactic, but once newness wears off, response declines. Leveraging data and other key indicators to provide the right message to the right prospect at the right time is, in many ways, still in its infancy.
Another pipeline challenge lies in identifying who the true decision-makers or buying influencers are. Doing so can be difficult, presenting a stumbling block that many salespeople never overcome. This challenge can result in a “batch and blast” approach, which is like fishing with a large net: You cast it broadly and hopefully pull in some good fish, but you also gather a lot of garbage that needs to be thrown out. In the same way, targeting leads is a waste unless they are tied to accounts you care about and are part of the buying committee.
In the complex, anonymous world of B2B buying, it’s imperative that leads, contacts, data, behaviors, and activities are seen through an account lens, so organizations know if they are spending their time and precious budget on the accounts and decision-makers that matter.
Engaging prospects with relevant, authentic thought leadership, quality research, or informed questions can help win their attention. Relevance is a key component of account-based marketing. Account intelligence from intent data, techno-graphics, news, and social insights helps sellers and marketers know what matters, so they can target the right people at the best-fit accounts, effectively tailor messaging and improve the timing of their outreach. For larger sales, a consultative approach based on sharing information or new developments in the field is a time-proven strategy.
Implementing Technology for Sales and Marketing Alignment
When a group of marketing executives in the financial industry was asked about leveraging technology to optimize sales and marketing, the results were somewhat surprising: Approximately 20% saw the value in doing so, but had yet to begin; 40% had begun evaluating or implementing tech solutions for greater efficiencies; and the remaining 40% had technology solutions but were looking for ways to improve them. Their responses highlight the fact that many organizations are on the early side of the learning curve in successfully implementing technology for sales and marketing alignment. Combatting ineffective yet entrenched organizational siloes, processes, and ways of thinking can be daunting, even for well-respected brands. As a sales executive told Frost & Sullivan, “I’ve tried to start with the technology and reverse engineer [it], but we are very risk averse, so I would run into hurdles getting it approved.”
Other sales and marketing leaders are making bigger strides. They are using tools like ABM platforms and the data that underpins them to better focus their efforts and prioritize accounts. They have discovered that when ABM technology works well, sales and marketing are in lockstep alignment, with the progress and the results to prove it. In addition to helping outbound marketing efforts, ABM is also an excellent customer retention strategy.
In the not-too-distant future, unified data, supported by the right software technologies, will be the connector that truly aligns sales and marketing functions. Further out, some in the industry predict that sales and marketing departments will gradually merge into one re-configured revenue function, with data driving strategy and roles.1
Smart organizations will adopt and embrace the use of data and the sophisticated sales technology tools that are now available. The early majority who are not afraid to experiment are likely to lead the way in the changing of the old sales guard. It’s important to ask, “Are your sales executives using any these technologies? Is it a good tool that will help the sales process?” as Metcalf stated.
Ultimately, the human touch, embodied in leadership and relationship-building, for example, will never disappear. Combining that with good first- and third-party data will be a critical differentiator, distinguishing companies that succeed from those that fall behind.
1 “What Will the Evolution of Sales and Marketing Alignment Look Like in the Next Year?” Marketing Charts. June 29, 2020.
Content Strategist, Marketing
Frost & Sullivan