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3 Steps to Creating Ongoing Marketing and Sales Alignment for ABM

August 17th, 2022

Account-based marketing is so mainstream that some companies — Iron Horse included — don’t even use the term “ABM” when discussing their marketing strategy. In our survey of U.S. B2B enterprise technology marketing leaders, 73% of respondents identified launching or optimizing ABM as a key initiative for 2022; and more than 80% agreed or strongly agreed that ABM is an important part of their growth strategy.

ABM is how companies sell now. Most marketing leaders accept the notion that good marketing means:

    • Selling to a buying team instead of one prospect in an account
    • Influencing a hierarchy of decision makers, users, and evaluators
    • Connecting with people wherever they may be during the buying process
    • Driving unified account conversations across touchpoints and channels to create a consistent experience for prospects

But these same marketing leaders and companies are falling short.

As the Founder and CEO of a growth marketing agency focused on helping B2B tech companies accelerate growth, we are increasingly doing more ABM strategy work for our clients. One thing we notice across the board is that the sales team is largely left out of the picture.

In other words, companies are not getting the results they expect because they’re implementing these strategies as a marketing initiative — which ABM is not. Neither is it a sales initiative. It’s a growth initiative where marketing and sales are a single team focused on a single outcome. With ABM, either both marketing and sales work together, or the ABM strategy fails.

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Let’s look at why.

Why is marketing and sales alignment so important to ABM?

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Consider this example: A target prospect has done their research on the periphery of XYZ company, through its marketing channels, third-party sites, analyst conversations and other sources. At the last mile, the prospect approaches a sales rep and says, “I’m ready to demo.”

But because the sales team has been siloed from the marketing team, the sales rep isn’t prepared with the right tooling, listening skills or intent signals to recognize that the prospect is ready to buy.

So, the sales rep proceeds to read a script of qualifying questions to the prospect, taking them from the last step in the buying cycle back to step one. The sales rep may even try to make a follow-up appointment for the prospect to meet with an account executive.

The most likely result? The prospect hangs up or leaves and goes to a competitor and the sales rep blames marketing for receiving an unqualified lead.

This scenario is incredibly common. It stems from two organizational challenges:

    1. Marketing and sales work in silos. Sales reps have little to no understanding of the prospect or account engagement that marketing has helped drive, so they don’t know how to leverage it to inform their actions.
    2. There is only superficial buy-in from the sales team. Many sales teams are fearful about integrating ABM into their strategy, either because they think ABM will produce fewer leads, or simply because they are resistant to change itself.

But getting only superficial buy-in from the sales team creates a lack of sustained alignment at all levels, which makes it difficult for the C-suite to implement and maintain a consistent process for marketing and sales to work together to drive growth.

Now consider how this scenario might look if the marketing and sales teams work together as a single unit.

To learn more about the technology used to support an ABM program, download the State of Enterprise B2B Technology Marketing Report from ON24, Iron Horse, and Demandbase.

State of Enterprise B2B Technology Marketing Report 2022

Based on a mutual understanding of their target audience and goals, marketing builds and deploys relevant content that drives unified account conversations across the channels that target prospects use. As the target prospect consumes relevant content, both teams monitor engagement using the same tools.

In this scenario, when the prospect raises their hand, sales already have a strong picture of the prospect’s needs based on the content they’ve been consuming and other intent signals.

With these insights, the salesperson can easily:

    • Meet the prospect where they’re at in the buying cycle rather than starting at square one
    • Answer the prospect’s specific questions quickly
    • Ensure the prospect feels seen and heard and is thus highly motivated to engage in the next step of the purchase process

But for this to happen, there must be a foundation of trust between marketing and sales. There must be a common understanding on both sides of what the ABM strategies are and how they are being implemented. There must be sustained collaboration between the two teams.

When this trust, understanding, and collaboration takes place, magic happens.

3 steps to create sustained alignment between marketing and sales for ABM.

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1. Bring the sales team into the ABM strategy.

The first step to unifying your ABM strategy is to train and support sales so they acquire a comprehensive understanding of effective ABM. This must occur at multiple levels, from the CRO to sales ops, sales managers and sales enablement.

Without sincere buy-in from your sales team leaders, getting the rest of the team on board is impossible. C-Suite or first-line managers must get sales team leaders together to explain effective ABM methodology and how it benefits the team.

At this meeting, or series of meetings, sales team leaders must acquire a top-down understanding of ABM by learning:

    • What is ABM?
    • How does it work?
    • What are the roles and responsibilities of the requisite players—on sales and marketing teams, up and down the hierarchy ladder?
    • What tools are utilized?
    • What are the business benefits?
    • What are the key milestones?
    • What are the KPIs?
    • What are the expected outcomes?
    • What new behavior and process change will be required for sales to achieve these outcomes?

In this first step, sales leaders must see themselves and their team as critical to the success of implementing an ABM strategy. They should understand that when marketing and sales jointly select target accounts, develop personas, create relevant content, build the omnichannel strategy, and define KPIs, sales reps get more appointments via more qualified leads, and are equipped to accelerate the opportunity to a sale faster.

It’s also important that C-suite or first-line managers showcase the ABM initiative as not a race but a marathon, meaning that it will be the key growth initiative moving forward and that this is how the sales team will be expected to sell. ABM is not a short-term solution or a trial run. It’s a new paradigm where marketing and sales will be jointly focused on revenue—permanently.

A few top sales leaders might groan and protest, so it’s crucial to communicate how ABM helps them by enabling their teams to sell smarter, sell faster, and sell more — with a lot less elbow grease than their current strategies require.

2. Train sales teams on the new ABM sales playbook.

Deliver a clear message to your audience.

Once you have buy-in from your sales leaders, the next step is to meet with the sales team and outline how ABM strategies will be implemented.

Sales leaders shouldn’t just tell their team “you need to pursue this initiative — or else.” Instead, they should consistently illustrate why ABM is important for organizational goals, how it will help them sell more, and what the strategy looks like.

At a minimum, you should introduce a new ABM sales playbook that answers these questions:

    • What weekly reports will the CRO, CMO, and sales and marketing managers analyze to evaluate engagement for key accounts?
    • What tools will be used to inform the outreach strategy?
    • How will intent data be used to see which companies are surging so that sales can drive the outbound strategy and sequence strategy, and execute sales plays?
    • What single set of KPIs and growth dashboards will be utilized that are common to marketing and sales?
    • Which metrics will be measured on a weekly, monthly, and quarterly basis?

One thing that should be made clear to the sales team during this step is that these KPIs and dashboards are not solely for marketing or for sales. Rather, they are growth KPIs and dashboards, and both teams will use them to view and track the account journey and to adjust and refine their overall tactics so they can maximize the impact of the ABM strategy.

It’s important that the sales team understand that ABM is not a lead scoring approach but a sales influence methodology. It’s about nurturing prospect behavior through brand engagement while tracking sales intent.

A key goal here is to shift the sales team from outdated, lead-gen thinking toward a tech-driven approach that uses combined sales and marketing data to influence accounts, not just leads. Make sure your sales team understands that being data-driven helps them shorten the sales cycle by uncovering:

    • Which target accounts are moving from awareness to appointments to opportunities to sell, and which strategies are sustaining that movement
    • Who is on the buying team at target accounts, and which stakeholders are most active in the purchasing process
    • How ABM tech platforms are being used to drive and capture prospects’ interest and nurture them through the buying journey
    • How many and which sales reps are accelerating appointment velocity due to marketing outreach

It’s also important for sales team leaders to clarify the roles and responsibilities of everyone, at all levels of the hierarchy, from the CRO to the VP to the sales training person.

3. Execute the ABM strategy collaboratively.

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Integrating the sales team into your ABM strategy is not a “set it and forget it” approach. Top-line managers must facilitate and support continuous improvement among the sales team as they adapt to the ABM strategy.

I’ll briefly cover two top considerations for how to execute the ABM strategy collaboratively with your sales team successfully.

Gamification.

The hardest part about getting people to change their behavior is helping them really understand that it will be worth it. Most people have to see the effectiveness for themselves before they’ll believe it — but they have to try it before that can happen.

Tapping into sales reps’ competitive nature is a great way to persuade them to overcome their initial resistance and try ABM. Once they start seeing success, it will be easier to keep up momentum around the change.

Feeling high up on the sales team status ladder, getting recognition from peers, or receiving feedback from the C-suite can all motivate sales reps, instilling a sense of achievement and value. And of course, sales team leaders can trigger rep interest in the competition by offering incentives.

Here some tried and true approaches to excite and motivate sales reps to give their best effort to ABM:

    • Issue fun challenges to your team, offering rewards or prizes for first, second, and third place.
    • Use sales leaderboards to track individual and whole team performance against the ABM strategy’s goals and objectives.
    • Showcase high-volume closers to motivate and educate the rest of the team about the strategies that work.

Coaching.

A good coach instills good habits in their team. Sales team leaders should be consistent in motivating sales reps to perform the right actions while inspiring them to keep improving.

Praising people for their accomplishments is very motivating because it makes them feel valued by their company and peers. And it stokes healthy competition among the sales team because many of them will try to outdo or at least get on equal footing with top performers.

On the flipside, calling out non-compliant sales reps, as uncomfortable as it may be, is a requirement of sustained change management. Often, sales leaders are reluctant to call out a non-compliant rep, especially when they are a high performer.

Here, a top sales performer or a sales manager utilizing ABM should provide one-on-one coaching to the non-compliant rep, walking them through an analysis of the gap between where they are and where they need to be, and how they can get there.

The top sales performer should also demonstrate how they are achieving success using ABM and hold frequent check-ins with the non-compliant rep to monitor their progress. This coaching should be data-driven so the noncompliant rep’s performance can be quantified and tracked.

Executing the ABM strategy collaboratively with your team is only effective when a plan accounts for how the adjustments to ABM will impact processes, systems and salespeople. There must be a process for implementing, tracking and testing changes. And those changes must be communicated and demonstrated often. Documenting change and evaluating its effects is also crucial, not only to compile data, but also to ensure that everyone is compliant and effective.

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Regardless of the tactics a B2B organization uses for motivating the sales team, one factor is universal to any business: time must be allocated to ensure that this new way of doing things is adapting and evolving. Consistent collaboration between sales leaders and the rest of the sales team is required to ensure long-lasting success.

ABM is a growth initiative because it puts your targeted accounts at the center of your combined marketing and sales activities. It enables your marketing and sales teams to deliver personalized experiences across every touchpoint and interaction. It is data-driven and measurable, which delivers a higher ROI than any other B2B marketing approach. And it builds trust between your business and your target audience, increasing the value of your brand. But a high level of orchestration and alignment between marketing and sales is the required stepping stone to reaping the tremendous rewards that effective ABM can deliver.