Account-Based Selling (ABS) is not new, it has been employed by enlightened B2B organisations for decades. But what has changed is technology and the intimacy of the relationship between customer and supplier. That brings with it a new set of challenges. These, we outline below.
What Is ABS.
As the name suggests, B2B account-based selling (ABS) focuses on the customer (the account) rather than an individual. It aims to influence the buying committee. That is all those who can influence the placement of a contract (order).
ABS is a multi-touch, long term process that continues after the sale. Its objective is to build relationships with key decision-makers within an account then develop those relationships over time. The aim is to become a trusted partner rather than just another supplier.
ABS vs ABM
Many use ABS and ABM interchangeably. This is understandable but there are subtle differences.
ABS is revenue focussed whereas Account Based Marketing (ABM) is lead focussed. ABM is about identifying targets and raising awareness. ABS is more focused on taking a target forward to closure once they have broken cover.
Of course, to succeed ABM and ABS teams must cooperate closely. So what are the main obstacles to successful account-based selling.
Marketing and Sales Alignment
As touched on above, marketing must be aligned with sales for the process to work. Sales and marketing need to work together to define targets. Together, they need to define messages for different elements of the customer decision-making team. Those messages will change as the sales process progresses.
Once the process is running sales must have an intimate understanding of what marketing is doing and vice versa. It all sounds so easy in theory.
In practice, personalities and agendas tend to get in the way. Leadership is key but often the leader can lean towards one side or the other based on their background.
Short-termism is a major issue and that is understandable to a point. The business needs to survive today. There are targets to hit, bonuses to make.
That means securing the major order on the horizon at the potential expense of everything else. As a result, the long term account-based selling process can stall.
Targeting The Right Customers
Account-based selling is resource-intensive. To work it must have the support of the full organisation. To be blunt, any customer subject to an account-based selling process must be worth the time and effort.
Deciding which customers are part of the process is key. As is how the sales organisation will deal with a much larger set of customers who are excluded.
Sales, marketing and often operations and higher management must all align on who is part of the process and who is not. They must all be clear on the reasons behind those decisions.
As discussed below, ABS takes time to deliver results but the allocated time cannot be infinite. The process must deliver an acceptable return within an agreed period of time.
Again, the difficulty can be short-termism. Just because orders from customer ‘X’ have been high over the past year it should not guarantee their inclusion. Everyone has their favourite customer.
A brutal, criteria driven selection process is difficult to achieve
However professional anyone may claim to be in their decision-making process they are also human. People deal with people
Just as suppliers can have favourite customers, then customers can have favourite suppliers. That favouritism can have very little to do with how well that supplier performs.
Inertia and fear of change is another major obstacle. Those making purchasing decisions may decide although supplier ‘X’ has regular problems nobody has seen their promotion prospects (or job prospects) suffer as a result.
A new supplier ‘Y’ is always a risk. All the available data may show they are a better option but if something goes wrong who takes the blame. When trying to win over competitors accounts don’t underestimate the impact of fear of change.
Any argument for change has to be convincing. The process of convincing all those with input to a purchasing decision takes time.
Time to deliver
This is perhaps the most critical issue. As mentioned above the support of senior management and operations is essential if ABS is to work. Installing an account-based Selling process usually involves changes to existing ways of doing things and that always generates resistance.
All B2B organisations are results-driven. The time may not be available for a new account-based selling process to develop before events overtake it. This can lead to some cut-down or hybrid approach or cancellation of the process.
There may be plenty of support initially but that support may wane over time. ABS (and ABM) take time to deliver results. To maintain support some quick wins can help.
Delivering a Personalised Experience
Personalisation is a major challenge to Account-Based Marketers (as discussed elsewhere on this blog). It is less of a challenge in account-based selling but it remains a hurdle to be overcome.
Sales need to work with marketing to deliver on the unique needs of each sales target. There must be some platform available to track those needs and the next action item.
Building a platform (stack) that delivers on the needs of both sales and marketing is a major challenge. If systems are clunky and time-consuming they are normally avoided by those who they could benefit the most.
Although necessary systems can detract from the core of account-based selling human to human interface.
The ROI Calculation
In principle, this should be easy. If we take all the target accounts, what were their total sales over a period? Over an equivalent period since starting ABS has the number increased?
If it has that’s great but in a project-driven environment, it is important to check if one or more major contract placements have skewed the result. There may be those that argue those orders would have arrived with a conventional approach.
Remember the value in ABS is often the after-sale work in the customer. Bringing them closer so the next order is easier to win. How do you pin an ROI on that activity?
How do you measure the resource inputs? Given that the whole organisation puts effort into securing a sale.
There is little doubt installation and maintenance of an account-based selling process is challenging. It is resource-intensive as it needs the active involvement of the entire organisation. It requires the correct structure to ensure smaller customers are not discarded
That said if implemented correctly it delivers improved focus on key customers and contracts, improved sales and marketing alignment and the potential to steal competitor key accounts.
ABS is certainly not the best approach for all B2B sales organisations. But in a project-driven environment where order values exceed £50K, it is at least worth consideration.
You can read about potential solutions to the challenges listed above in the following posts:
Or if you would like to talk through the issues you face in your organisation please give us a call on. We will do all we can to help.