The account-centric enterprise: ABM’s evolution is predicated on thinking differently, both inwards-facing and outwards-looking

Customers, especially within B2B, expect personalised experiences from the businesses they buy from. After all, with elongated sales cycles and an expanded cohort of decision-makers involved throughout the process, B2B folk need to feel utterly confident in their purchasing decision – and that starts and ends with relationships.

Marketing departments have undergone a dramatic evolution in recent years in pursuit of perfecting the B2B relationship equation. Marketing’s transformed from  being a broadcast function (you know the spray and pray drill, spread your net as far and wide as possible, see what you catch) to becoming an account-focused, growth-catalysing machine. Marketing has gone from being viewed by their sales counterparts as tactical and reactive, to instead earning a seat at the table as strategic and proactive partners mutually shaping the engagement dynamic with key accounts.

The merits of greater marketing and sales alignment have been much vaunted as a pay-off of ABM programmes. But a B2B organisation’s customer, prospect, and partner accounts aren’t only important to sales and marketing leaders – and nor are they the responsibility of these two functions alone.

Enter the account-centric enterprise

Imagine a world where every customer-facing aspect of the organisation revolves around the needs, demands, and requirements of your most important accounts. That, in a nutshell, is what an account-centric enterprise looks like.

An account-based approach simply can’t be driven by the ‘m’ of marketing any more: It must involve every team associated with the customer account, drawing on the full power of the whole enterprise to create relationships that deliver mutual value, that grow, and that last.

It’s too simplistic to hope that this evolution is inevitable or inherent. Instead, organisations need to make a series of philosophical and practical changes: both internally-facing, in terms of how they structure and measure the success of their teams; and externally-facing, in terms of how they maximise two-way value throughout the full lifecycle of any given account relationship.    

First, look inwards: Redesign your teams and internal operating mechanics to place key accounts front-and-centre, rather than languishing in the gaps between erstwhile siloed functions

Of course, account-centricity isn’t anything new for successful enterprise sales functions, where organising teams (and their compensation plans…) around a tiered model of ‘global’, ‘strategic’, ‘enterprise’, and ‘growth’ accounts is common practice. 

By contrast, many marketing departments have been designed around a navel-gazing focus on delivery channels, manifested as mini-teams owning fiefdoms around events, websites, email, search, social media, etc. 

Applying a sense of account-centricity within these out-dated marketing structures makes for ABM-ers who spend an awful lot of their time begging, borrowing, and stealing input from counterparts otherwise operating with a siloed, output-first mentality. At best, this is ineffective and unproductive. At worst, it creates inter-department territorialism which hinders the chances of collectively delivering a great account experience. 

Instead, CMOs can increasingly structure their reporting lines around the customer outcome; effectively shifting from ‘what they do’ to ‘what they achieve’. By more prominently structuring their reporting lines with the buyers’ journey - initiating awareness with future customers, accelerating deal cycles, maximising post-purchase value, etc. - CMOs can resolve the organisational tensions that hold back their transition to an account-centric mindset.

And these structural changes shouldn’t stop with the sales and marketing teams. Adopting a cultural, strategic, and tactical mindset of account-centricity should just as well be taken by all teams engaging the customer, incorporating both those with relative proximity (support, customer success, etc.) and those a step removed (engineering, research and development, etc.). By reworking resourcing models, KPIs, incentives, and evaluation criteria with key customers in mind, the entire organisation can come together to improve customer relationships and accelerate competitive differentiation.

Second, look outwards: Think holistically about what the old adage of ‘right message, at the right time, to the right person’ means in the context of a genuinely world-class customer experience

As B2B marketers, we’ve had it drummed into us that good engagement is all about relevance: understanding our target audience, then creating an environment which influences what they think, feel, and do in a direction that is beneficial for all parties.

In an account-centric enterprise context, this means going one step further-  applying those principles to the entire customer committee of buyers, users, and beneficiaries (not just one key decision-maker) through their entire lifecycle, both at a forensic-level depth but also at a widescreen level as well.

And it takes constant evolution – continuous refinement to how you engineer your purpose, value, strategy, differentiation, delivery, purpose, and ongoing support at every level, and with every relevant stakeholder. Clearly, this entails thinking about every intersection that the people within your target accounts have with your organisation - and that goes way beyond the realms of sales and marketing. 

Insights and perspectives from key accounts can instead be baked into workflows entailing every team from product and service inception through to post-sale success - and, done right, form a self-fulfilling, virtuous account-centric ‘loop’, rather than playing out as the work of standalone, parallel functions.

Why now? Why is true account-centricity finally within our grasp?

If we're being brutally honest with ourselves, it's only now that we can realistically start getting this approach right almost every time. It’s only now that the account-centric enterprise is truly an achievable height we can reach.

Why then, isn't everyone doing exactly that? What’s changed that we can say, with some confidence, that adopting an account-centric approach is finally a viable aspiration?
To put it simply, we have the tools at our disposal to do this now.

Technology has evolved to a point where we can communicate in a targeted, specific, and responsive manner across the entire customer account. With levels of precision and scale that border on the extreme, we have the ability to unite rich messaging and creative content with precise data models, through endlessly flexible technology platforms.

And, even more importantly, for our various team members to be genuinely connected around the customer, as opposed to spiralling into a state where the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing - since under-delivering on an interconnected relationship is arguably worse-still than the former state of siloed, scattered comms.

Technology is also playing a role in democratising the way our teams go about their business. Returning to our earlier point about marketing functions shifting away from navel-gazing, output-centric team structures: it’s not to say that there isn’t any role for people with deep experience in historically-siloed practices, but rather that these mini-teams needn’t be shrouded in mystery; that marketers can more-readily attain a higher level of familiarity across multiple competencies thanks to advances in technology, rather than pigeon-holed into one or two narrow capabilities. 

Many will cite their data, content, or technology as the primary hurdles to achieving this account-centric vision. While that’s true to an extent, blame can’t be placed at the door of each of these individual components. Rather, it’s the inability to combine these aspects in a modern way across a modern platform that’s holding us back from achieving true account-centricity. 

Ultimately, the entire business has to unify the way it delivers and brings together technology, data, and content. Technology to derive data into usable and rapidly applicable insight, which you can use to deliver your creative content and messages to your audiences.

So, how do I become an account-centric enterprise?

Achieving this combination of inwards- and outwards-facing changes is dependent on the right mix of insight, knowledge, skills, and data.  

But, who should drive this change, and how? 

As you may have guessed, inspiring this cultural shift can ultimately start with marketing. After all, we are its staunchest advocates. We’ve stayed up late obsessing over key accounts, poring over the best ways to engage and nurture them along the end-to-end ABM premise and promise.

But, to change the whole organisation’s mindset, we must first elevate marketing’s reputation within the business, from the colouring-in department to a strategic driver of growth.

Next, the skillset of employees across the business needs to change, not just in marketing and sales, but almost all major business functions – and that includes a mixture of soft and hard skills.

Finally, our toolset must evolve beyond the marketing tech stack. Changes should also include a much broader set of revenue technology and all the various demand gen platforms in play.

The dawn of B2B marketing’s golden age

If we're really serious about becoming account-centric, then we need to build almost every one of our activities around the needs of an individual account, not just marketing. 

It's a layered approach that needs to bleed across the entirety of the business. There’s no place for silos here, with a marketing department that entertains the occasional agile relationships with sales.

As an industry, it’s our responsibility to stop basing all our activity on the normal confines of marketing. Attach what we’re doing at a marketing level to business mechanics and business metrics, not just marketing metrics.

We’re on the cusp of something special in B2B marketing, the dawn of its golden age. Where we can finally do what we wanted to do all along – good B2B engagement that builds mutually-valuable relationships with people.

The time for talk and theory is over. We possess the tools, insights, and creativity to truly drive an account-centric approach across the entire organisation – and it starts with us, marketing, to make sure it happens.

Want to learn more about improving your ABM strategy?

Why not check out Propolis, our exclusive community for B2B marketers to share insights, learn from industry leading marketers, and access our best content. Propolis includes a Hive (group) specially dedicated to Growth on all things ABM.

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