What has fundamentally changed in the key account sales and marketing process over the last 25 years? Very little, I suggest, except content delivery methods.

There are many buzzwords (including Account Based Marketing and Enterprise sales), but they describe a process that goes back decades. Taking a cynical view: give something a new name, create a buzz, make it seem like something new and exciting (when it’s not!) and it is easier to sell.

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, less than fifty other key accounts and a large number (and variety) of smaller customers.

Area sales managers worked 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 Key Account Sales Role

Nothing unusual about the above. Many companies at the time followed a similar key account sales and marketing process. The sales managers were responsible for staying close to the key individuals in a decision-making team. The sales managers also dealt with all post-sales issues that may arise. Today their role is often split into Account Managers and Sales (or business development) managers.

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 spread across divisions.

Influencing the entire decision-making team was crucial. On any project purchasing may be happy, engineering may be happy, project may be happy, but if quality said no, then the whole process could grind to a halt.

Marketing Support

Marketing worked (it wasn’t perfect – there were conflicts) with sales to provide the information required.

They could work with engineering to provide qualification reports. They might generate white papers on upcoming new products or presentation material. They worked on guides or brochures. Of course, marketing was also responsible for awareness and brand activity and guiding the new product process.

So What’s Changed?

Fundamentally, only technology. Key customers may keep their distance from suppliers, but that was already a trend 20 years ago. The rise of the internet made it easier for customers to take a step back.

Traditionally, Sales-people stayed close to their key account. 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 key account project teams. They understood their customer and their market and tried to deliver value at an early stage

As customers became more remote, sales started to lose control. Where in the past it was relatively easy to satisfy needs as they arose, there is more guesswork involved now.

There are many 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 impossible. Most markets are competitive and the customer holds all the aces. Generally, that does not lead to a situation that benefits the supplier.

Information Distribution Methods

In the distant past existing or new product data 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. Upon receipt of the bingo card, marketing posted the requested data and the salesperson followed up.

In the situation I have described above a key account 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 content. They tend (not always – but often enough to make it an issue) to satisfy their own needs and call on sales or other company contacts only when they are ready.

The Role of Content

So now content in all its various forms is vital. If customers will not reach out to request information, then that content needs to be available to them as and when they need it.

The information needed by different members of the decision-making team can vary. Needs change at various stages in the sales process.

So the situation has changed from this is what our key account needs if we are to progress them from point A to point B (it’s pretty obvious; it’s what they asked for) to we think this is what they need, but we are not sure how to reach them. B2B key account sales and marketing have not changed, but technology has.

Can Sales and Marketing Regain Control?

I am old enough to remember the rise of the internet. I remember the headlong drive to what became known as content marketing. Let’s give our key account access to all the content they could ever need online! All our competitors are doing it; we will be left behind!

There was no other realistic choice at the time. But perhaps sales and marketing should have taken time to reflect on a fundamental shift of control to the customer. They could have protected some content. Delivering it only to specific contacts in a designated key account, at the appropriate time.

So what about the future? There are no easy answers. One possible way forward is communities that deliver real ongoing value to existing and potential key accounts. Communities that are moderated and not allowed to degenerate into pushy sales tools. Access to those communities could be by invitation only, returning at least some level of understanding of customer needs to sales and marketing.

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