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Quotable Podcast Episode #56: “Are You Ready for Account-Based Selling?” with Andrew Sinclair

Host: Kevin Micalizzi, Nate Skinner
Today, account-based selling is more exciting than ever because of rapid advances in account-based marketing and new ways to connect with customers. But tightly aligning sales and marketing still takes knowledge and skill, as do finding the right accounts and properly measuring your success. Join Andrew Sinclair, Founder and Salesforce Consultant at Lane Four Data, as he shares what works and what doesn’t for successful account-based selling.

Account-based selling is really being strategic and saying, ‘These are the 5,000 organizations that we think will actually buy our product.”

Andrew Sinclair | Founder and Salesforce Consultant at Lane Four Data

Episode Transcript

Kevin Micalizzi: We've seen significant advances in marketing and sales technology, including a recent shift toward account-based marketing. Today's guest, Andrew Sinclair, Founder and Salesforce Consultant at Lane Four Data, has extensive experience helping companies better leverage an account-based strategy. Join us as Andrew shares how to take the complexity out of finding the right accounts to target, tightly aligning sales and marketing, and properly measuring the effectiveness of your efforts. Welcome, Andrew.

Andrew Sinclair: Thanks for having me.

Micalizzi: Andrew, would you share a little bit about yourself for our listeners?

Sinclair: Sure. So I've been working in strategic sales operations for going on eight years or so now. I've been in Salesforce community for about that long. I've worked with the intersection of marketing operations and sales operations at Eloqua for a little while I was working there. And then moved on to a lot of other Salesforce development shops. Then in the last several years, started Lane Four where we look to help organizations move to account-based strategies.

Micalizzi: Very excited to dive in. Before we do, you're listening to the Quotable podcast. Quotable is a digital magazine featuring proven selling advice to inspire and empower sales leaders, managers, reps, and even those who support them. It's created by Salesforce. I'm your host, Kevin Micalizzi. I'm a Senior Product Marketing Manager at Salesforce and the executive producer of the podcast. I'm joined today by my co-host, Nate Skinner. Nate is a VP of Product Marketing at Salesforce, and he's focused on the Einstein account-based marketing solutions. Welcome, Nate.

Nate Skinner: Hey, thanks for having us, Kevin. Appreciate it. Nice to meet you, Andrew.

Sinclair: Great to be here.

Micalizzi: First thing I want to ask you, Andrew, is what do we mean when we talk about account-based marketing or account-based selling?

Sinclair: Sure. In my mind, it's really getting back to the traditional notion of sales where you treat the account as the fundamental entity that you go and attack. You put a plan around it. You identify who those strategic accounts might be for you. Underneath those, you're going to say, "These are the ones that actually might buy our product," which is sort of an obvious place to start.

So it's really thinking in terms of the organization versus some of the inbound strategies that were really based on this idea of prospecting the universe and hoping. "Shake the tree and see what falls down." It's really being strategic and saying, "These are the 5,000 organizations that we think will actually buy our product."

Micalizzi: I've talked to a number of people, and I hate to say it, but the prevailing approach I'm hearing is people are taking their broad-based strategy process and just trying to focus on accounts and somehow make that process work. How does it differ in terms of going after a whole account-based model versus that broad-based approach we've always used?

Sinclair: I think that it's useful to understand that it's being called account-based marketing. It seems to have come up from the marketing side of the world, and has really impacted and hit how sales does things. I think sales, in my mind, has really been account-based for a very long time. Right? You're assigned a whole bunch of accounts. You're given a patch; you're given a territory. You already know who your target demographic looks like. You're expected to go and come up with names, these sorts of things. These have been disciplines within the sales side for a long time.

I think it's really butted up against marketing's idea of saying — The criticisms are just that MQLs, grabbing names and try to qualify names, and these sorts of things, and then seeing how that relates against some idea that these organizations are actually going to buy something from you.

It's useful to think about the marketing prefix to account-based marketing. It's really about marketing and trying to say how do we do this at scale, how do we do this where we can take some of these approaches we've done with inbound marketing and apply it to these more targeted approaches. I think that's — not to get ahead of ourselves in the challenges — but that's where some of those butting-up challenges of marketing and trying to be the leader in these things and being forced to align to sales within these traditional strategies. Micalizzi: How about from your world, Nate?

Skinner: Yeah, I was just actually going to double click on that, Andrew. It sounds like you're right. A lot of account-based strategies seem to start with the marketing organization, and often leave out the entire point you mentioned earlier, which is salespeople have accounts and they're assigned accounts. And so, how have you seen customers succeed bringing the sales model into this account-based approach, and what are some tips you have for the listeners?

Sinclair: I think it has to start with sales. Right? It fundamentally needs to be in their neighborhood. I've always said, prototypically, the sales team, sales operation, etcetera, owns the account. If anyone thinks otherwise, it's probably not true.

So you need to start there. You need to start by liaising with the sales folks and saying, "Okay, who are these actual strategic accounts? What do they look like? What are their actual names?" Not just profiles and demographics, but who actually physically are your target accounts? And identifying those physical account names, because then as a marketing team you can start saying, "Okay, we now know our profile is not just this demographic, but it's actually these 2,000 organizations that are out there," and that has been validated by the actual salespeople themselves.

Skinner: It's an interesting conundrum that a lot of folks face around identifying a strategy or thinking through a strategy like you've described. And then, "Okay, we know we want to do this. We know the sales team is already aboard. How do we go forward?" I've met with an analyst from Constellation Research. Her name was Cindy Zhou; you may know her. She takes quite a few inquiries from customers around this topic of ABM.

She published some research. I encourage listeners to go find it. It's on Constellation's website. Cindy Zhou is the analyst. She said that 92% of the folks that are contacting her have a plan to start an ABM program in 2017, but only 19% of them are confident in their ability to execute on that. Do you think that has to do with the challenge of I'm over here in marketing trying to execute this thing called ABM, but I really don't know where to even begin?

Sinclair: I think certainly where to begin. I think it's because marketers are thinking in terms of scale, and how do I do things at scale. Because it's very easy to think about ABM from a one-sy, two-sy model. I know I do really well selling at ACME Inc. As a marketer, maybe I can facilitate that by shipping out some welcome packages to them and trying to get them on the phone.

I understand how to do that at a one-to-one level, which is really why it's a sales methodology. Right? Salespeople will get the premeeting package, they know how to target the people, they know how to go at the organization, etcetera, etcetera. So I think the challenge is trying to conceptualize how do we do these types of things at scale and how do we know that we're actually generating, say, a qualified account within our CRM. Micalizzi: Do you typically encourage people to start defining certain profiles or determining what the best-looking accounts are? How do you usually approach it?

Sinclair: I think it's simple. What I've been seeing happen for years is some phase — and this is really the key to aligning sales and marketing — is you're saying, "Let's go through our database. Let's get our sales involved. Let's go understand these are the 49 A accounts, these are the 75 B accents, these are the 2,000 C accounts." Using some of the data that you already have, which is already in typically a CRM system, like who do you actually sell to, what type of industries and demographics of the organizations actually buy your product.

It's not that dissimilar from looking at target buyer personas and applying that to the organization and then saying, "Okay, what are the profiles, employee counts, revenue numbers, and regionality-type information do we have within our target accounts that let us go and identify some other ones that might be out there?"

Skinner: One of the things we're also noticing as we talk to customers about account-based marketing, and really account-based anything, it's a sales-aligned strategy. Maybe more so than any other B2B marketing strategy, especially broad-based approaches, that are thinking about generating leads but not so much thinking about the selling motion, and ABM very much does. Have you engaged with customers who are thinking about how AI, specifically Einstein technology, can help them approach this problem or this opportunity?

Sinclair: I think that's where you get the idea of scale. Right? We can conceptually understand how these things work from a one-to-one perspective. But how do I go out there and say, "How do you bridge the gap between knowing who your target account is and being able to identify people that actually work at accounts that look like that?"

Because ultimately on the marketing side, you have to actually target and interact with a single individual. You can't send an email to an organization. Right? You can assign organizations to salespeople, and it's their job to go research them, find them, dig them up, etcetera. But marketing needs to be predictive in some respects of saying these are the types of people that actually work at the organizations we want to tackle, and then figure out how to go find them and bring them into the actual database.

Micalizzi: I want to talk a little bit about alignment just because to really succeed in that space, you've got to have such a tight integration between sales and marketing. Here at Quotable, we talk to so many folks, primarily on the sales side, who talk about the lack of alignment between sales and marketing. I know Trish Bertuzzi calls it account-based revenue in an attempt to get people to think beyond, "Okay, this is a marketing function," because it has to be a collaborative affair. How have you encouraged your clients and the folks you've worked with to really bring that super-tight alignment that's required?

Sinclair: Again, it goes back to the marketing side and this term is a marketing-led idea. If you look back to the early days of marketing automation with Eloqua, the Marketos, and those of the world, that were really pushing the idea of these platforms are really going to create sales and marketing alignment. That was the idea. They were going to generate all these great names, these leads. They're going to hand it off to sales. Sales was going to work them, and they were going to go sell and all these types of things.

On came things like the SiriusDecisions Demand Waterfall and these terms like MQL, SALs, SOQOs, etcetera, etcetera. These permeated systems all over the place and became ubiquitous. But it doesn't take a lot to realize that those models weren't all that sophisticated when you're starting to say, "We could generate 50 MQLs at the same account," but you've only generated one qualified account. It didn't really stand the test of time. I think this is a reinvention of some of those philosophies.

There is one big benefit that could come out of an ABM strategy — it's fundamentally forced to be aligned with sales. Because the best approaches that I've seen have said, "These are our target accounts and they are immutable." Right? They don't really change. Let's not kid ourselves. This tends to be a B2B larger sales cycle type of play here. You want to have a nice, key set of target accounts that are now not going to change.

And then marketing, you can be measured and scored on how many names you're bringing in from those organizations. So now the metric is going to be a lot clearer. But those metrics only come because sales has essentially said, "These are our target 5,000 or 10,000 or 20,000 names." When we have those in the system, we understand who they are, marketing, it's real easy to score and identify that they're actually being successful because they're using a metric basically defined by sales.

Skinner: Andrew, you just made a point I wanted to double click on for a second, which is around the immutable accounts that you identified. We have customers I talk to that say, "We know who our target accounts are. We've done the ideal customer profile exercise. We have a target list we have identified and aligned with our sales counterparts, if I'm coming from marketing, on this key account list."

But oftentimes the question back from the sales leader is, "Yeah, but what if there are accounts we don't know about?" I'll use an example. You also made the point around the segments that this is most applicable to are typically larger organizations. We see that time and time again as well.

For instance, I'm in Atlanta. If I'm a business that sells office furniture, and my sales team is looking to find companies that are in the market to buy office furniture, I may have identified the top 100 companies in the Atlanta area that are reasonably expected to buy office furniture. But what about the new company that just got into the Tech Village that got a bunch of funding and has a new space and they're on my list? How do I think about that and what would your advice be to your listeners?

Sinclair: Sure. I think that it's useful to understand that this is a new strategy and shouldn't be the only strategy. There are obvious use cases in this. Right? If someone shows up at your door and wants to buy your product, you're not going to go check your account list and say, "Sorry, I can't sell to you." Right?

I think one of the biggest challenges that people are having is they're getting so hell-bent on the idea of these account-based strategies that we're starting to forget — at least in these types of conversations — we're starting to forget the idea of the value that inbound marketing activity has generated. Right? If you have an inbound machine and you're generating all these great names and they're turning into business, why would you ever want to change that?

I think that if you're not an organization that can literally only sell to the Fortune 500 because, for whatever reason, that's what your product is tailored to. If you expand anywhere beyond that, you really need to start understanding that you need to do a blend of inbound as well as your account-based strategies.

That's one of the biggest challenges. And I think that's where a lot of the friction has come in is you've got marketing teams that are still set up around inbound models with tools like Pardot and these sorts of things of trying to generate names and bring them into the system with this idea of like, "No, let's just throw all that out. Let's just focus on these 5,000 accounts. That that's all that matters." Because you do lose that ubiquity that comes on from stuff that you just don't plan, but happens to sit on your doorstep.

Skinner: I think what you're saying is it's not a one thing or the other. It's an all-of-the-above approach. What makes sense for customers is something they need to consider based on where they're trying to go and what their objectives are. Right?

At the end of the day, your comment about Pardot. Using Pardot to go find leads and bring them in with landing pages or whatever is a great thing for inbound activity. But you can also turn Pardot over as part of our account-based marketing launch we did in June. We released [unintelligible] account-based marketing.

Ideally, the point there is if you apply some leverage around what the Sales Cloud can give you in identifying the right accounts, set up your campaigns with accounts as the thing you're going after, then that broad-based approach now becomes an account-based approach if you set the system up. Unfortunately, technology isn't the answer by itself. Right? You have to have a strategy, you have to define the process, and people have to know what they're trying to do. Otherwise you just spin.

Sinclair: Exactly. I think it's about taking that name that just shows up on your doorstep through some kind of inbound marketing strategy. It's about then applying the same metrics that you've just identified to what are your target and your qualified accounts. You made all those determinations: It's got to be this many employees, this size, this revenue, this this, this that. And saying, "That lead that just showed up at the door, do they fit that model?" Right?

In inbound marketing automation, we used to say things like, "They visit a lot of landing pages. They did this. They clicked on a lot of your emails." They're personally quite qualified as long as we can layer on top the ABM metrics that we just identified. Now we have another qualification criteria that we can apply to these names that just show up. And then we can give them to the salesperson very, very quickly, or we can just punt them out and say, "Thanks for downloading our white paper. You're kind of a student, and let's just let you go on your way."

Micalizzi: You talked a little bit about approaching things at scale. On the personalization side, I've actually had a couple conversations recently about how a number of organizations are essentially taking their same email tactics and trying to send those same emails to a larger number of people. They're not really tapping that personalization at a level that they need to. What advice do you have for how to really personalize the communications that you have going outbound?

Sinclair: Sure. I think that there's some very obvious table stakes that still give people headaches and give people problems. You've got these really giant lead lists that a lot of people still don't even understand that their customers happen to be sitting in. You really got to start at a very fundamental point in saying —

We worked with a client once where they didn't even have a very large customer list. They had something, 80 or 90 very large customers. They had a hard time getting an email out the door just because every single time they had to go through that list and say, "Let's just make sure we don't send this heavily prospect-y type email to those people that are actually our customers."

I think that those type of problems still permeate. And I think there are still these fundamental table stake things that need to happen. These are things that keep marketers up at night, that their lists are still really quite ugly looking. Once you can get past those type of problems, then you can start getting into the hyperlocalization of these things and making sure that you've got regional-type messaging, messaging by persona, messaging by organization, and these sorts of things. And then that really falls into the traditional segmentation-type work that a lot of marketers do anyways.

Micalizzi: Is it just a data capture or data-cleaning problem? Is it how they're looking at it?

Sinclair: I think that there's a slow movement afoot. Not to get too into the tactical side of things. But there's a slow movement in this idea of saying, "Accounts are everything. Because if we have all these lead pools, our data is going to be very messy and ugly." This is where there is a tools and technology and strategy-type play here where you do need a decent-looking data architecture. You do need a strategy on top of these things. You do need to know what to do with this information.

Because case in point, I've dealt with these type of philosophies where "We just want to create accounts." Organizations will say, "All we want to do is create accounts because we need better data." And then I remind them that they've got 400,000 leads, and if we wanted to create accounts, you're about to create 100,000 accounts in your system and you only currently have, let's say, 10,000. So you're just moving your data problem around. Right? You haven't really solved any problems. You haven't solved it by being account-based just because you created a whole bunch of accounts. Right?

I think there's still a lot of traditional models that need to be put on top of these things, which is understanding your data, having good data hygiene, applying various tools and technologies on top of it, enriching your data through the tools that are out there, so you can achieve some of those segments that we need.

Skinner: I 100% agree, Andrew. Part of the challenge we're hearing from customers as we engage in this account-based marketing conversation with our launch in June was around this issue of data quality and data residency. In other words, not like where is it, but what system of record is the true system of record or the single source of truth?

What we've found in most of our customers. You have your accounts, and the account record is in CRM and Salesforce. Then you have these folks in the marketing organization that are over here doing things to identify accounts and identify key accounts or metrics around those accounts or lead scores for people that are at those accounts, but they're doing that in some separate system. And then, to your point, you end up with lead lists that are not connected back to the fact that, "Hey, somebody already owns our stuff. We have that data in Salesforce."

What we find is that connecting them to each other actually can help get you down the road. On the other hand, your point is a great one, which is if you connect data source A from some system to data source B — and let's call that Salesforce — and they're both data dirty, you're going to multiply your problem. Right? This goes back to the strategy and the process versus the technology being the answer.

Sinclair: I think these are the problems of doing it at scale. This is where people are looking for shiny objects. They're looking for tools. Some of them are doing a good job. There's a lot of [certainly the] data enrichment partners, some of the AI tools that are out there that are helping with some of these things. It's making it easier, but these problems have been around for a long time.

Micalizzi: If we shift the focus away from, let's say, sales operations and those on the sales and marketing side who are owning the system and trying to drive that model. We talk about reps and sales managers. What can they be doing to contribute to this shift and helping to make it clean and more effective?

Sinclair: In some respects, they're not shifting a ton, in my mind. Because if you look at the way a lot of sales organizations have already established themselves, you're either territory-based or you're essentially account-based. You've been very, very traditional. You're assigned a whole slew of accounts, and those are the ones you're going after. It's the sort of Mad Men style of sales. Right? They all wanted car companies and they were targeting car companies. These are sales strategies that have been around for a long time.

I think the difference is it's about accepting some of the information as it comes from marketing. It's about aligning the actual structure of some of the teams. The rise of the SDR that started to come up that didn't necessarily exist when you're just doing it in very, very enterprise-y sales.

You've got junior people that maybe take on some of this data and some of these qualification efforts, and then structuring your teams to say, "Okay, we're still going to do inbound. We're still going to get all these names." They're going to show up, and then they're going to funnel through, and then they're going to get to the next step. All of a sudden it's going to go to the account executive, and they're going to work only on accounts that are actually qualified. Right?

It's about believing in those types of strategies and saying as a manager, you want to make sure you're only assigning [the] most qualified accounts to people. Because if you're going to pay the more expensive salespeople out there, make sure they're only working on accounts that actually meet some of those identification criteria that we just talked about. And then you do have a better chance of them being successful, rather than the whole.

Sales has also suffered from that territory in the patch model, which is just, "Hey, here's California, go nuts." I think that that's not a very sophisticated strategy. They should be thinking about these types of things as well: data acquisition, bringing in good information versus just being, "Here's California, go nuts."

Skinner: That raises another really good topic, and it's about measurement. Let's assume that if we take Cindy Zhou from Constellation Research as a guiding light — and I'm not saying that she's got the world's only purview into the success or failure of ABM strategies in the world — but she has a good indicator of what's happening, which is lots of interest, lots of plans, not a lot of confidence.

For that audience that really wants to go here, how often should they look at what's working and what's not working? How often should they try to tune the knobs of the metrics and the analysis that they're applying to optimize account-based performance from both the marketing side and the sales side? Would you recommend that something be more often revisited, or don't break something too quickly because you won't know if it's working? How are you seeing that working?

Sinclair: Yeah, it's a great question. I think startup culture has made this challenging. Because we embrace this idea of changing early, changing often, etcetera, etcetera. But from the sales leaders in these sort of things that I've talked to, the types of metrics that they're interested in aren't that complicated, typically. It's usually, "How many qualified accounts have we identified? How many of those are turning into [play]? What's the conversion rate of our target accounts?” What are some of those really, really fundamental, important metrics?

I think that there's a certain utility in locking in those numbers, or at least a quarter or two at a minimum, because you're not giving enough runway for it to bear some fruit or not. Right? You want to have some obvious metrics in there. Like back in my Eloqua days, we talked about things like early, early metrics that say a certain lead source is not turning into a sufficient number of, say, MQLs or something like that, and you can change early.

But I think when we're talking about account-based metrics, we're talking about something that's so much closer and so much more affiliated with sales, which tends to have a longer runway. It needs a longer cycle. If your sales cycle is 6 to 8 weeks or 12 weeks or more, then at a minimum your measurement needs to be relatively static for a sales cycle or two. Otherwise, you're never really going to know if you are successful because you're constantly changing your metrics and your systems aren't going to keep up with how you're measuring.

Micalizzi: Especially when we've had some of the Salesforce sales leaders on the podcast, we'd talk about the different dashboards and metrics they're going after. Would you mind sharing a little more detail for the sales leaders here who may not necessarily be measuring the right things or even may be inspired to find other things they should be measuring?

Sinclair: Sure. Some of the metrics we're starting to get into quite aggressively — and this has really been a phenomenon only in the last 6 to 12 months really with the ABM rise of things — is turning a lot of the metrics that we used to look at people and moving them into the account. Counting qualified names, for example. Now we're trying to count qualified accounts.

But more than that, we're trying to do things like how many of our qualified accounts convert into, say, a sale. Now traditionally, we had been doing that from like a lead level. Right? We've been saying, "How many of our leads from this campaign source decided to convert into an opportunity?" let's say.

A lot of those metrics we're seeing getting rolled up to the account. How many accounts are actually converting, what was a campaign source that the account got established from, these sorts of things. How many accounts did we have meetings at last week? How many accounts did we have meetings at last month? How many of those accounts have actually — the opportunities within those accounts and how are they converting.

These sort of numbers we're starting to see become more prolific, because they're also a better gauge of health. Right? If you're having meetings at 200, 300, 400 broad-based different organizations, then you're probably going to do better than if you realized you're having lots of meetings, but those meetings are all people at only a very small number of organizations.

Micalizzi: Are there any areas people are asking you about that we haven't touched on?

Sinclair: "Why is it hard?" is one of the things I get sometimes. "Why does it feel hard? Why is it really hard?" I think that if you look at — we've been sort of dancing around this subject a little bit. It's really the clash of the inbound model with the ABM model. Right?

It's the fact that a lot of organizations, especially in tech sales and this industry, it's been built on the SiriusDecisions Demand Waterfall where you try to bring in lots of names to the top, you funnel them through, you move them, you got 300,000 names in Pardot, etcetera, etcetera. And we're still built on those models. I think that when we're trying to crunch that down into a target account list, it's really the antithesis of what we've been doing for a long time.

So I think it's those two models clashing into each other very quickly and in a very short period of time that's created a lot of this uneasy feeling that we're seeing in the market of, "It just feels harder than it should be" kind of feelings. That's where we've try to play a lot is just in the tools and technologies of just trying to make that a little bit easier.

Micalizzi: Found your sweet spot in that market. Right?

Sinclair: Yep.

Micalizzi: Excellent. I got to ask you the lightning round question here. If you could take all your current knowledge and experience and go back in time to share one thing with yourself at the start of your career, what advice would you give yourself?

Sinclair: I think it's about being patient. It's about understanding that these sorts of things take longer than any of us really think. Way back when you're young, you think you can stand up a system and you can move a strategy and you can run a thousand miles an hour. Having worked really in the details of a lot of operational things, we have to accept that things, unfortunately, for better or for worse, take longer than any of us really want them to take.

Micalizzi: Definitely truth to that. Andrew, thank you so much for coming in and joining us today.

Sinclair: Perfect. Thanks for having me.

Micalizzi: And Nate, thank you for joining.

Skinner: Thank you, Kevin. It was really nice to meet you, Andrew. Thanks for joining us.

Sinclair: Thank you.

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