The Way It Used To Be
Roughly 20 years ago I worked for a manufacturer of specialised components. The company had several key UK customers each with several divisions/locations, ten or so other key accounts and a large number (and variety) of smaller customers.
Area sales managers were employed across the U.K with distributors in Europe. The sales managers spent most of their time with the key UK customers. Projects were tracked as were the key individuals in customer decision making teams.
The Sales Role
Nothing unusual about the above. There were many companies at the time following a similar process. The sales managers were responsible for staying close to the individuals in a decision making team and making sure their needs were met. The sales managers also dealt with all post sales issues that may arise.
Ultimately, projects drove revenue. Several key accounts across several locations could be involved in a single project. Project leaders could be at one site with engineering teams at another. Purchasing might be centralised or it could be spread across divisions.
Influencing across the entire decision making team was crucial. On any project purchasing may be happy, engineering may be happy, project engineering may be happy but if quality said no then the whole process could grind to a halt.
Marketing worked closely (it wasn’t perfect – there were conflicts) with sales to provide the information required.
They could work with engineering to provide qualification reports. This information may be delivered to a single individual or used for a range of quality/project people. They might generate white papers on upcoming new products or presentation material. They could work on guides or brochures. Of course, they were also responsible for awareness and brand activity and guiding the new product process.
Information Distribution Methods – Outbound Marketing
Sales-people stayed close to their customers. They supplied datasheets on products that could meet the requirements of an upcoming project. They requested their organisation to produce qualification, test or quality information to support the demands of their customer project teams.
Existing or new product information was pushed out by the marketing department. This could be via exhibitions, press releases, advertising or direct mail. It may sound quaint now but customers would read the trade press, spot a product of interest and complete a bingo card. On receipt of the bingo card the supplier would post out the requested information and the sales-person would follow up.
How do you define the above sales and marketing activity? Was it key account selling, key account management or Account Based Marketing? I suggest it was all three
Account Based Marketing. Like so many other things it is just a current buzz word for what has been happening for decades.
One thing has changed and that is the growth of the world wide web. This has changed delivery methods and so much more.
In the situation I have described above customers would call on sales when they needed information. Sales had some grip on the information flow. With the growth of the world wide web that all changed.
Customers have access to a vast amount of information. They tend (not always – but often enough to make it an issue) to satisfy their own information needs and call on sales or other company contacts only when they are ready.
There are academic papers on striving for a close, mutually beneficial, relationship between customer and supplier. Some larger businesses may have achieved this but for most it is just not possible. Most markets are highly competitive and the customer holds all the aces. Generally, that does not lead to a situation that benefits both parties.
Where in the past it was relatively easy to satisfy needs as they arose there is more guesswork involved now. Of course, sales still build relationships, that remains vital. I simply suggest those relationships are not as close as they were in the past.
Sales still need to manage a process to a conclusion that has not changed but they have lost a level of control.
The Role of Content
So now information (content in all its various forms) is vital. If customers are not going to reach out to request the information they want then that information needs to be available to them as and when they need it via whatever medium they prefer.
The information needed by different members of the decision making team can vary significantly as can the content needed at various stages in the sales process.
So the situation has changed from this is what the customer needs if we are to progress them from point A to point B (it’s pretty obvious really, it’s what they asked for) to we think this is what the customer needs but we are not sure how to to reach them. B2B key account marketing and sales has not changed but technology has.