Where Sales Meets Marketing – Account Based Marketing For Professional Service Firms

At a fundamental level, Account Based Marketing (ABM) is nothing new, but the term itself has been on the rise in a big way over the last 10 years. ABM involves the targeting of high value or strategic accounts so that marketing and sales can work together to convert them at a far higher rate than conventional marketing methods would allow.

A great BD expert would argue this has always been the foundation of their work, but the change is in how sales and marketing are now integrating so that there is a single view of the customer journey, both online and offline.

For example, a professional service firm may believe that their perfect customer sits in the technology and innovation space, so they can begin by drawing up a hitlist of prospects within that “customer universe”. The more specific the better – name, job title, background, key drivers, etc… This can take a lot of research so it’s usually something that develops over time as you work towards building a 360 view of each target.

Over time, as sales and marketing collaborate to achieve a variety of touchpoints via an array of channels and media, these prospects should feel like they are developing an almost intimate relationship with your business, culminating in bottom-of-the-funnel activity such as events or webinars.

As with any extreme form of marketing, it comes with some big pros and big cons, so it’s critical to be aware of both sides of the coin before a professional service company leaps into an ABM strategy. That way, you can employ it where most applicable whilst avoiding the challenges and pitfalls.

So, what do some of the pros look like:

  • Big impact – The fact you go to extraordinary lengths to establish relationships with individual human beings means that an extraordinary amount of meaning is communicated. There is a direct correlation between effort and impact. This is the paradox of the internet – while it may appear infinitely efficient, this efficiency actually undermines a great deal of messaging. An account based approach can help redress this balance.
  • Hyper targeting – this one is so obvious that it’s almost not worth saying; an ABM approach is by definition the most laser targeted you can ever be. You can refine absolutely every aspect of your proposition and messaging around the distinct requirements of this one individual, much in the same way that a great sales person will adjust their approach as they navigate a complex sales meeting.
  • Uncovering surprising opportunities – ABM will force you to experiment with channels that you might otherwise neglect. When we’re in a conventional digital mindset, it’s easy to end up in all the usual places – LinkedIn, PPC, email, webinars, etc, and that’s all important stuff, but the trouble is that our messaging is easily lost among a sea of competition. However, when we start to think about that prospect as one single individual, we can’t help but act a little laterally. Could we send them a thoughtful gift that would mean something specifically to them? Should we write them a handwritten letter? Are they active on a digital channel that we wouldn’t usually use for business purposes, such as Instagram or TikTok, and if so, can we reach them via that channel? By designing the experience around them as a single human being, accounting for all their unique idiosyncrasies, it forces us to think a little more creatively in both our messaging and our mediums, the result of which is the experimentation of ideas that at scale would make little sense, but on a micro-level may allow you to have almost complete monopoly over that individual’s attention.
  • Sales and marketing alignment – historically there has been a false distinction made between sales and marketing. Ultimately, the questions of brand, customer experience, growth and profitability are the only ones that matter, and sales and marketing are two sides of the same coin that should be perfectly aligned to the attainment of those goals. The notion that somehow marketing is just there to act as “air cover” for sales, or that sales is just there to close the leads that marketing have generated, is both culturally toxic and operationally counterproductive. In fact I would personally advocate the complete removal of any barrier between these functions. Your salespeople and marketing people are merely different resources with varying skillsets (although incidentally, the best salespeople tend to make pretty good marketers and vice versa!) within one single arsenal. Account Based Marketing ensures professional service firms actually start behaving that way, as the very philosophy behind ABM cannot exist without both sales and marketing joining forces towards the same end. Sales will manage some touch points and marketing will manage others, but the one cannot do their job without the other.
  • A beautiful start to their customer journey – we often talk about magic moments within the customer journey. After all, if we can nail their experience then retention and referrals will follow, and when we have a finite customer universe those things are usually the difference between success and failure. In fact even with large consumer markets it tends to be retention and referral that ultimately determine whether a brand can successfully “jump the shark”, so the importance of this stuff cannot be overstated. By taking an ABM approach to your marketing it will ensure you start as you mean to go on, but building a remarkable experience for that one individual.

And what about the cons:

  • It’s seriously expensive – or to be more specific, it’s seriously time-consuming. When you fully account for your time you may find that each prospect is costing you thousands of pounds to nurture, so the question is – is the increased conversion rate justifying that and does your average customer lifetime profit value mean this is a viable and scalable methodology for your business?
  • It assumes you are talking to the right people – laser targeting sounds brilliant, until you get 6 months into your campaign and then realise that actually it’s not the CIO you should be speaking to but the COO, or the sector you thought represented your quickest win was actually a giant red herring, at which point you realise that the extremely targeted nature of your messaging means there is zero peripheral value. No silver lining to the cloud of disappointment – that time has been wasted and you’re not getting it back!
  • It assumes a very particular skill set – ABM is where marketing meets sales. When done well, there is often a strong direct communication element to Account Based Marketing, which can take a lot of digital marketers out of their comfort zone, but on the other hand an out and out sales person is unlikely to appreciate the broader marketing context and the interaction. The task of finding the team of unicorns to drive this activity is not to be underestimated. Ideally they would be able to marry superb people skills and commerciality with an appreciation for brand and customer journey.

To be clear, the purpose of identifying the pros and cons is not to determine whether or not ABM is right for your professional service firm – it absolutely is right. But rather it’s to help determine how best to employ it and on which accounts. You cannot afford to take this approach to every prospect in your customer universe – there simply aren’t enough hours in the day – but for those accounts that either represent key strategic milestones or significant revenue generators, this is the only way to think.

Dan