'Productivity is never an accident. It is always the result of a commitment to excellence, intelligent planning, and focused effort' —Paul J. Meyer, founder of the Success Motivation Institute
Account-based sales is a hot topic just now. Many sales blogs are heralding it as though sales development teams are rubbing their eyes and wondering why they’d never thought of it before.
'At one time,' says Steve Olenski in Forbes, 'sales and marketing teams identified one key contact at each organization and focused their efforts on that person. Unfortunately, all too often this meant that an additional decision-maker in the organization might have completely missed out on that…message.'
This makes for a nice dichotomy: the backwards-thinking, ye olde sales technique versus the sales method for the Internet age. Good copy. But it’s just not true. Account-based sales has been around for a long time, as Sean Kester notes in Sales Hacker:
'Account-based sales development is not a new concept. Working within target accounts as a strategy is as old as cold calling.'
The problem with this older form of account-based sales, as Kester points out, is not the concept, rather its execution. A salesperson would often be assigned accounts arbitrarily and only find out that the accounts were irrelevant after wasting time working through them. Kester identified three main problems:
- Leads being assigned without data to support the ideal customer profile
- Salespeople going into outreach cold, with little or no insight into buyers
- Accounts being assigned purely based on territory or size
In short, account-based sales was unfocused and seriously lacking in relevant information. The reason account-based sales is now becoming so popular is because technology is allowing sales teams to zero in on the right customers and to approach those customers with a wealth of information.
Account-Based Sales: A Fresh Take on a Classic
The shift we’re currently seeing is not so much a new method as an old method being utterly revamped. The problems highlighted by Kester are being ironed out by new technology that lets salespeople find the ideal customer profile and arm themselves with knowledge of the customer so that they don’t have to go to outreach cold.
Perhaps it’s better to think of ‘account-based intelligence,’ suggests Falon Fatemi:
'The shift won’t be fully realized without a strong foundation to provide on-demand and meaningful insights, [indicate] which prospects to focus on, and [show us] how to engage with them. I call this foundation account-based intelligence (ABI) and it’s poised to transform relationships between businesses and their future customers.'
Do Teams That Are Already Hitting Numbers Need Account-Based Sales?
Your sales team is performing well and everyone knows their job. The conversion rate is steady and you’ve built a reputation for reliability. In short, everything is ticking along nicely. In this scenario, why would you consider changing to an account-based method?
If your team is ticking over and not increasing its conversion rate, this should be taken as a negative rather than a positive: your team has plateaued. When this happens, it’s often very difficult to find a way to push on to the next level. 'You know the breakthrough won’t happen by sending more sales emails or spending more time on the sales dialer,' writes Kevin OMalley in SalesLoft.
A shift to account-based sales can also root out another common sales-team malaise: the prioritization of quantity over quality. We know how valuable referrals are to a sales team, but targeting referrals also requires extra care. 'Since referrals take longer to target and require more personalization to the message, SDRs tend to ignore them to continue to beef up their lists,' notes OMalley.
A third reason to switch to account-based sales is the unpredictability of the pipeline that occurs when sales teams are struggling to find their ideal client profile (ICP). Instead of being able to target clients who are most likely to be interested in your product, sales agents adopt a scattergun approach designed simply to meet their daily targets. This might leave you with a lot of leads, but precious few will be turned into meetings. When reps are running to keep up, quality suffers.
OK, You’ve Convinced Me. But How Do I Implement Account-Based Sales?
The simple mantra to keep at the forefront of your mind when switching to account-based sales is this: Quality over quantity. As we’ve noted, account-based sales is nothing new. To make it work, we need to take a new approach that embraces technology to improve the quality of our leads: in other words, we need to use account-based intelligence. Without that, numbers won’t improve.
'Without an ABI, an account-based strategy is still based on guesswork—and the ROI is commensurate with that,' says Falon Fatemi. 'Account-based strategy is facilitating focus, a healthy alignment between marketing and sales, and constant strategic discussion between these functions to identify the right ideal customer profile that will drive higher sales velocity.'
Firstly, identify your ICP using the customer data you have accumulated. Find out which customers have been most loyal, paid you the most money and have gotten the most out of your services.
'Defining your ICP allows you to create a list of target accounts,' says Kester. 'Use data to estimate the opportunity value of each account. Segment these accounts based on the opportunity size, allowing for predictable pipeline forecasting.'
A list of, say, 20 target accounts is a good amount to start off with. Pick 20 with whom you prefer to do business, assign these to your team and have them research the accounts. Create a number of dials and emails aimed at the ICP and measure the number of appointments coming from referrals.
By doing this, you should be improving the quality of your leads and reducing the quantity, allowing you to achieve a far higher conversion rate. 'Aim for a 60-70% improvement on the number of leads created to set one appointment,' says OMalley. High as it sounds, with your lead requirements reduced to 5-10% of previous levels, this kind of conversion rate is attainable.
Does Account-Based Sales Deliver?
The results of switching to an intelligent account-based method can be radical - even mind-blowing. Writing in The Funnelholic, Lars Nilsson, Cloudera’s VP of field operations, explains how Cloudera used account-based intelligence to trim leads and create target accounts:
'When I first arrived at Cloudera, I faced a “problem” unlike any other in my career: we had too many leads,' writes Nilsson. 'The SDR team has refined its approach to outbound prospecting into the enterprise with the help of two cutting-edge technology vendors: Outreach.io and LeanData…’
According to Nilsson, this new strategy yielded astonishing results:
'Instead of beating on the empty phone doors we’ve seen as [being the] industry standard, we have changed our approach to rely on technology to help us understand those that would be more willing to take and accept our calls. Since implementing our ABSD [account-based sales development] strategy just three months ago, we have seen unprecedented results and responses.'
Aside from the pure statistics, account-based sales should have a positive effect on team morale and performance, too. Dealing with specific accounts rather than simply attempting to generate as many leads as possible means that reps often feel more invested in what they are doing—and can lead to them going above and beyond.
'SDRs can feel like they’re stuck in a hamster wheel at times, particularly if they get comfortable with a consistent performance level,' says OMalley. 'When you give them a specific account to own, however, they are going to have a higher sense of ownership overall.'
If implemented correctly, account-based sales should bring a heightened focus to all aspects of the sales process. Reps are more focused as they have specific accounts to deal with and fewer leads to sift through. The focus on the customer is improved because they fit your ICP and you are able to tailor your services to their needs in a much more accurate way.
Account-Based Sales And The Future
Account-based intelligence is still in its infancy. While personal data is still stuck in online siloes like LinkedIn and Facebook, it is difficult to create an accurate picture of a specific person’s likes and dislikes. 'There’s no one platform out there collecting and analyzing siloed data,' writes Falon Fatemi in TechCrunch, 'and this leads to a less comprehensive understanding of one’s connections.'
However, Fatemi believes this will change—and soon. 'Imagine you have [an] analyst sitting next to each sales rep and account executive, providing them with ABI that’s personalized for each prospect they’re about to pick up the phone and call. Someone who knows the right talking points to share with each prospect, at exactly the right time. This analyst exists, but it’s not a person—it’s a data platform.'
The upshot of this will be a world where customers can be targeted so specifically that they receive adverts online for products that interest them—but which they’d never previously considered buying. The ad will be able to present to them something they didn’t know existed but that solves a problem or satisfies a need they didn’t know they had.
'Imagine getting a call from a salesperson for a product you are already in the market to buy,' says Fatemi. 'Imagine a world where your next customer comes to you.'
It’s a dream world for salespeople, but it could all be facilitated by embracing change just now and converting your team to account-based sales. Increase your focus, trim away the unlikely leads and reap the rewards of a streamlined, targeted, intelligent sales method.
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About the Author
A serial entrepreneur and digital nomad, Geoffrey has been running his own marketing consultancy for the past year.More Content by Geoffrey Walters