As Vice President of Sales at Demandbase, I get a lot of questions on how sales can help make account-based marketing (ABM) successful: What is our role, where to start, what to measure, and how to maintain the program. Like any change management, ABM requires patience, communication, and leadership. But if you stick with it, you will realize tremendous bottom-line gains — as long as sales and marketing work together. Here, I’ll share best practices for ABM implementation from a sales leader perspective, including identifying ABM strategy stakeholders, account segmentation, and marketing and sales planning.

Before actually implementing ABM, it’s very important to identify who will be involved in the project. Without gaining buy-in from the right people, ABM will fail at your company; it requires coordination and cross-functional agreements that simply can’t be put together on an ad hoc basis.

To start, I recommend that the head of sales and the head of marketing own the project, that is, they jointly agree to roll out ABM and hold their teams accountable to carry through the implementation and deliver initial results. Without executive leadership, resources will bottleneck and there will be confusion on the success metrics. Once your ABM strategy is ingrained in your company, there will no longer be the need for an overt owner of the project as discrete elements (which I will detail) will naturally fall to the correct functional group.

After the head of sales and head of marketing are on board, the wider circle of important stakeholders should be brought into the project. The functional leads who need to be included in the ABM implementation are:

  • Demand Generation — allocates spend on activities and develops campaigns based on accounts
  • Field Marketing — creates the field event strategy, optimizing toward accounts
  • Marketing Ops — develops the framework to measure performance based on accounts
  • Digital Marketing/Content Strategy — ensures content is catered to account groups and delivered at the right time
  • Sales Managementcreates sales territories and sales processes to focus on accounts that are prioritized by marketing
  • SDR Management — allocates sales development rep (SDR) resources to creating opportunities within targeted accounts

The initial ABM team should comprise 6–10 people (depending on how your sales and marketing functions are set up) who will commit to work together, operating with an account-centric lens, moving forward.

To solidify the cross-functional bond and make clear what the expectations are, I recommend developing a set of explicit agreements that will operate as meta-rules for the project. Example agreements are:

  • Sales and marketing both agree to dedicate their time and resources to the accounts that are most likely to generate the most revenue.
  • Marketing agrees to focus on buying activity and to include pipeline and revenue goals as a part of its KPIs.
  • Sales agrees to accept a broad attribution to marketing’s contribution in driving buying activity and will coordinate with marketing to act on buying activity, not simply waiting for leads.

Beyond the clarity such agreements provide, they serve an additional important purpose: They break sales and marketing out of the destructive pattern of marketing being measured on lead quantity and sales waiting for leads and or operating in a separate demand silo, not trusting the leads that come from marketing. This disconnect is an important reason to implement ABM and should be addressed head-on prior to implementation.

Segmentation in this context means grouping accounts that will be treated similarly, and it is the heart of your ABM strategy. You need to constantly think in terms of groups of accounts that have commonalities, which will determine how those accounts will be marketed and sold to. The goal is to give different types of accounts different experiences to increase the likelihood of additional sales — to do this you need to segment your accounts.

It will be helpful to provide an example segmentation framework, which can be adjusted based on your business. Start at the most general level of segmentation — the type of account. Account types include prospects, customers, and partners; this is the first level of differentiation. Next, you can sub-segment each group. The most interesting segmentation may be prospects, which you can further group as such (you can easily envision similar subgroups of customer and partner accounts):

  • Priority — strategic, named, “corporate” (widest net)

  • Geography — U.S. territories, international

  • Verticals — tech, manufacturing, healthcare, and so on

  • Revenue — enterprise, mid-market, small and midsize business

  • Funnel Stage — early stage, late stage, closed lost (second and third sales cycles often have the highest win rates)

If you’re just starting this segmentation process, it’s important to start with the “priority” grouping listed above. You need to know, as best as possible, who your most important prospect accounts are and why they’re your most important prospects. This knowledge will come from a combination of your historical customer data, partnering with an account selection vendor, or through working directly with the sales teams.

Once you understand your priority account list, which in total is usually a couple of thousand accounts, you can further segment the list by the other categories mentioned above. The segments you develop inform your marketing and sales plans.

It’s important for sales to understand the planning that marketing undertakes. The goal of this step for marketing is to create a strategy to leverage the account segmentation you’ve developed across content creation, messaging, outbound, and inbound. This results in a better customer experience and greater marketing performance as measured by the revenue metrics (account engagement, conversion rates, average customer value, and so on) you’ve established.

Marketing will lead the process of content creation for the account segments, but it’s crucial that sales be informed and offer feedback to make sure it will resonate with customers. Once the segmented content infrastructure is in place, marketing will develop its ABM approach to inbound and outbound channels to (1) get more accounts to your site, (2) engage them, and (3) convert them more effectively, to show revenue impact.

The final implementation step is to align marketing’s efforts with your sales planning. This, of course, requires direct and consistent marketing and sales communication. Sales planning includes:

  • Territory allocations

  • Territory plans

  • Account mapping

One of the many benefits of ABM is that it gives you a clear basis to distribute fair sales territories. Just as marketing will choose field event locations based on target account saturation, you should outline territories based on even account coverage.

Once territories are established, marketing should be brought back in to jointly develop territory plans for the quarter. The concept is as follows: Assign a demand generation and field marketing contact to meet quarterly with the territory sales development rep, account executive, and front-line manager to discuss territory activities and goals. In the quarterly meeting the account list is validated by all parties and specific events and campaigns are covered, as well as challenges and opportunities across the accounts. Then, weekly or monthly, the team does quicker check-ins to keep on track with the territory plan. The result is that both sales and marketing feel supported in achieving their objectives with specific accounts.

The last step of sales planning is account mapping, which is the identification of functions and influence within each account. Account mapping is a combination of discovery work done on an ongoing basis by the sales team and incorporating third-party data. This traditional “old school” sales work takes on new importance when it augments all the other work that is being done to drive demand within accounts through ABM.

Like any change management, ABM requires patience, communication, and leadership. But if you stick with it, you will realize tremendous bottom-line gains — as long as sales and marketing work together.”

Gabe Rogol | Senior Vice President of Sales, Demandbase