How Marketers Can Turbo-Charge Key Account Programs

Fifteen years ago, I was the first Global Account Team leader in Siebel’s history to develop a written plan to expand the Microsoft account.   

Our customer data for this key account resided partially in Lotus Notes (remember that product?) and spreadsheets. The planning process lasted 8 weeks, culminating in two intensive team planning days at a fancy London hotel. Our laminated account plan poster occupied a 4 foot by 7 foot space on the wall. We assigned regional account managers, secured executive level sponsorship, and plotted our upcoming customer visits. Within two years, we grew annual account revenues from $2M to $11M.

Key account program planning can be complex!

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In today’s customer-driven climate, this planning approach would simply fail. The new rules of strategic account marketing require a new level of customer intelligence and interdependence between sales, marketing, and a multitude of other stakeholders. Furthermore, B2B sales now involve multiple decision makers and influencers, making it fruitless to focus on a single buyer. The tribal knowledge of the account team, once sufficient, must be supplemented by data-driven research and systematic planning.

Today, key account programs have turned over a new leaf. They must change to accommodate today’s web-savvy buyers. The process now incorporates account-based marketing (ABM). This is a strategic approach to generate net new leads and increase engagement with a specific set of accounts using web-based tools. The selected accounts may include named (large) accounts within your existing customer base that have a high propensity to purchase more, a new vertical or audience you want to reach, or important customers who may be at the risk of defecting.

While attending Demandbase’s annual B2B Innovation Summit last week, I learned the nuances of ABM, and how it can accelerate traditional account management approaches. (full disclosure: they invited me as a guest).

Here are what today’s successful key account programs share in common:

1. Strong web and content personalization.

Web personalization presents content so that it matches the individual’s preferences, and enables the seller to identify segments of ideal buyers. Top accounts are typically the first place to focus your personalization efforts, because the returns can be significant.

Some analysts are touting personalization as a necessity, not a luxury. For example, Gartner predicts that by 2018, organizations that have fully invested in personalization will outsell those that haven’t by 20%.

When online interactions are personalized based on a person’s activity and past visits, their chances of returning or spending more time on your site increases significantly. Think how we have been conditioned to interacting with Amazon’s site. When we then visit a site or get an email that’s highly generic, we are disappointed and abandon or delete it.

Meagen Eisenberg has been a true believer in content personalization at several companies, including DocuSign, ArcSight-HP, and MongoDB, where she’s currently a CMO.  During our conversation, she said “at MongoDB, our goal is to have 50% of net new logo revenue sourced from Marketing. After a one-quarter analysis, we discovered some middle of the funnel opportunities and realized we didn’t have all the right marketing systems.” She immediately deployed Demandbase and Eloqua.

Much like her previous marketing cloud initiatives, her efforts have paid off. Demandbase helps her team reduce the number of form fields and optimize how and where they publish customer content, such as case studies. It’s not unusual to see conversion rates increase by 7%-10% as a result.

Karl Wirth, CEO of Evergage, shared similar experiences. “We’re seeing a massive marketing spend on trying to get people into a conversation. Yet we see a very low conversion rate once they are on a site. 98% end up doing nothing when they visit the site. If this happened in a typical store, it would be unacceptable.” Wirth blames this abandon rate to a lack of relevancy to the person visiting the site.

Any key account marketing initiative that incorporates web personalization must answer these questions:

  • What is the visitor’s behavior? For example, what pages are they visiting, for how long, and how often?
  • Based on that behavior, what is their intent for visiting the site? How would you best segment or describe the traits of that person? Are they strictly looking for some free content, or are they currently evaluating products?
  • How ready is your website to respond with content or a call to action that is highly relevant to them at that moment in their evaluation cycle? Alternatively, what is the best conversation for your salesperson to pursue with them?

Using this systematic approach, Wirth has seen customers such as Brainshark and Percussion grow website conversion rates from 2% to as much as 6%-20%.

2. The “filter-free marketing zone.”

In order to be true peers to their sales counterparts, marketers need to balance data-driven decisions with wisdom. The only way this can happen is by investing regularly in empathic, direct conversations with customers.

Modern marketers need to ask every top customer how much and what type of personalization they prefer. It is a marketer’s duty to ensure the personalized content stays out of the “creepy zone.”

Susan Ganeshan, CMO of Clarabridge, requires her team members to build direct relationships with Customer Experience Managers within Fortune 1000 companies. These individuals become litmus testers for marketing initiatives prior to program deployment.

I also worked diligently to stay connected to customers while I was a Marketing Programs Manager at BMC Software. I regularly attended every executive briefing in our headquarters location. I also quietly listened to the inside sales teams’ customer calls. I wanted to be certain that our marketing messages reflected the vernacular that our customers were using, not what salespeople or analysts told me.

These practices ensure two outcomes: a higher probability that salespeople could use our marketing materials to create demand, faster time to market, and higher credibility with our sales peers.

Your top accounts will welcome the direct attention because you are one of their preferred brands. When they witness your commitment to their success, they will sing your praises to prospective customers.

3. Avoiding “tail wagging the dog planning.”

The written strategic or vertical market plan should guide your ABM program, not the reverse. For some sales organizations, this requires new levels discipline and accountability.

 Ensure these areas are covered in the plan:

  • Long term goals for the customer relationship or market initiative
  • A named executive sponsor from your organization
  • Top (or common) customer business initiatives
  • Products and services you will potentially provide for each initiative
  • Customer’s organization structure
  • Key customer champions and non-supporters
  • Customer culture
  • Economic buyer for each top customer initiative
  • The level of personalization the customer has agreed to accept (without feeling as if their privacy is compromised)
  • Customer’s (or targeted vertical’s) preferred methods of learning, networking, and collaborating
  • Key partners to help you deploy/support customers (internal and external)
  • Competitive considerations

During the Demandbase B2B Innovation Summit, seasoned software CEO Chris Golec emphasized that we live in a new era of web-based marketing. “It is no longer about page views…it’s about higher close rates and loyalty.” Account planning, combined with a dash of data-driven conversations, could be the much-needed rocket fuel to help your important customers soar above the clouds.

How are you nurturing your key customers, or untapped market segments? 

Copyright 2015, Lisa Nirell. All rights reserved.

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