By September 20, 2013 1 Comments

Go to Market Strategy – Target Account Selling

When building out your go to market strategy, organizations typically choose between two sales strategies to penetrate the market that are diametrically opposed to each.  One sales strategy, target account selling, is to simply focus the sales organization on a few targeted accounts per sales rep. The other is opportunistic selling based on turning over as many rocks as fast as possible to find someone ready, able and willing to purchase—general territory.

It is vital that the marketing objectives and strategies an organization employs precisely map to whether a targeted account or general territory focus is adopted – otherwise, the Go-to-Market strategy will be inefficient and less effective.

Today, nearly all marketing organizations have embraced the concept of the demand generation waterfall. They also understand the importance of reverse engineering leads to map directly to closed/won deals.  But there is still a ways to go. For example, some organizations still struggle with the concept of phase shifting the waterfall to accommodate the average sales cycle, resulting in demand generation efforts that are out of sync with sales efforts. Also, some companies are still confused about utilizing an average sales cycle estimate. They believe the cycle only starts when sales qualifies a lead, and do not account for the time it takes to cultivate an initial lead into a sales-qualified lead.  This is disruptive to the pipeline.  However, while many companies do include some level of demand generation planning, typically a broad-brush approach is used.

Understanding Total Available and Target Markets

The lynch pin to a successful Go-to-Market strategy is a having a clear definition by the sales and marketing organizations of the total available market and the target market. In addition, it is critical to understand the alignment of value in the customers’ and vendors’ mind.  Most sales organizations have evolved to a point where all or at least a portion of the direct sales reps are focused on a limited set of accounts ranging from one to 25 accounts per sales rep.  In this model, the concept is to place all the sales and marketing efforts into winning the business best aligned with use cases, differentiation and successes.  Here, the idea is not to stimulate the masses and have prospects raise their hand. When this strategy is employed, the rep approaches the prospect in a reactive manner and then discovers whether they are a fit via the target account profile.  The optimal approach should be exactly the opposite from this “Marco Polo” approach. A sales rep should know the account (as they only have a few) through extensive account, market and competitive research and a strategic account plan template is a great document to consolidate this information. Only then should the rep proactively seek out the titles and roles in the prospect’s organization that are key to the selection of solutions.

To complicate matters further, research reveals that up to 80% of buyers will compile information about a prospective buyer (and in some cases disqualify a vendor) before a sales rep is ever aware of the expression of interest.  This is in stark contrast to when sales reps held all the information and pricing about a solution and acted like a gatekeeper that prospects had to approach.  With social media and SaaS, the tables turned and the prospect leap frogged the sales rep—bypassing them for information about products, pricing, satisfaction levels, etc.  In a target account selling model, the sales rep has the opportunity to jump back in front of prospects by conducting due diligence on each opportunity.  This is what the market now demands so reps better get good at it or wait for commoditized deals to appear in their pipeline where they then compete on price.—low prices.

Five Steps that Support the Go to Market Strategy – Target Account Selling

There are five key steps every organization should take to successfully support a target account based selling model:

Account Selection (Criteria to evaluate)

Fishing in a stocked pond or a barrel is a pretty good way to increase the probability that one will catch a fish.  So, how can we apply this concept to sales?  When establishing the target set of accounts to penetrate, many organizations pull a list from Hoover’s or Dun & Bradstreet. Or, they allow the sales reps to pick their list of accounts. Or, there may be some other selection process.  In most cases, the organization just made a huge mistake that will take months, quarters and a huge amount of resources to correct—in the form of selecting new accounts, firing unproductive sales reps or experiencing below quota performance as an organization.

What if some intelligence was applied to the account selection process upfront?  It might be fine to start with a list from a data source or a rep, but that is only a start.  Intelligence needs to be applied at the beginning of the selection process to find prospects that have business problems aligned to the use cases for which the organizations’ solution was built to solve.  This can only be accomplished through account research which requires a sales rep and/or marketing resource to roll-up their sleeves to create a process to systematically find prospects that have a high propensity to purchase. Otherwise, an organization is applying a very expensive prospecting model—i.e. a B2B direct sales rep in a rock turning over exercise—which can cost about $2,000 per day.

How to Select Target Accounts

Accounts should be selected because they have a common denominator – i.e. that the solution has been designed to solve their business problem.   While sales reps can be responsible for the entire account selection process, they are expensive resources. Also, it is likely that no two sales reps will follow the same process which can lead to inefficiencies.  Obviously some qualitative assumptions should be made, but at the end of the day the sales rep or sales manager should make the final call on an account. There are many opportunities to quantify and systematize the account selection process – for example, marketing can do a lot of heavy lifting to jumpstart the account selection process.

I know, it all sounds easy but how exactly does one uncover that information in an account?

Start by drafting a Target Account Profile.  A Target Account Profile is analogous to a victim sitting down with a police sketch artist.  Instead of the sketch artist, revisit the market backgrounder and MRD created when the organization made the decision to invest development resources to bring a product to market.  These documents should contain the fundamental business problems and specific use cases as well as the personas of the individuals involved in the buying process.  These business problems and use cases should serve as the blueprint that a sales rep uses to select his or her target accounts. By doing this, the propensity for value to be communicated and received is greatest.

Unfortunately, most companies do not employ ideal processes to build products, Apple being a notable exception.  If one is not at Apple, a great tool to use is cluster analysis.  Cluster analysis groups similar objects together.  It is for statistical data analysis and pattern recognition.  Cluster analysis as such is not one concrete, automated process, but rather an iterative process of discovery that involves trial and error.  By analyzing the customer base for the last 6, 12 or 18 months it will become more obvious as to the key variables that should be used to assess a prospect. The data will tend to fall into place and patterns will prevail that can be used to build the Target Account Profile.

Account Intelligence (What’s going on in an account?)

Unfortunately, prospective customers do not place ads disclosing their business problems — or do they?

Triggers are what I refer to as things that reveal what’s going on either directly or indirectly inside a company.  For instance,

  • Does the proposed solution require that certain hardware or software be present within an organization?
  • Does a change in the management team set off an alarm?
  • Does a certain quantity or type of job posting signify anything?
  • What about positive or negative financials?
  • Is there relevant background information in the annual report or 10K?
  • What about information in the last earnings call?
  • Content in profiles on LinkedIn?

Depending on the trigger (the symptom that will lead one to the root problem) identifying indicators that are publicly available will be straightforward, as will harnessing them to get to the relevant opportunity.  Yes, it’s work but assigning an account to a rep to figure it out comes to about $2,000 a day in costs and $7 or $8,000 a day in lost revenue. Plus, it will probably take a rep at least a month or two to “figure out” if there may be a value match.

Market Intelligence (What’s going on in the market?)

Once a sales rep has developed a credible list of target accounts that have a high propensity to purchase based on the target Account Profile, it’s time to get personal.  In short, why will these companies want to talk to your organization?  Remember, this is a target account model and there are only a few opportunities to make a first impression. Wasting time at bat is not a wise choice.  Go back to the target account selection process, revisit the business problems and use cases that were identified and leverage those to create some market intelligence.

By clustering the target accounts, themes should appear in terms of the business problems that are being faced.  These business problems can then be elevated to tie back into trends in the industry. And, there should be a plethora of research (some free and some paid) available for consumption.  Again, it’s work that has to be done and can be done by marketing or marketing and sales.  The goal is to connect to those themes or “waves” being discussed by analysts, influencers, customers and competitors that tap into the hot buttons or triggers of one’s prospects.  This is the content to offer a prospect – i.e. that has value to them – insights into the market, technology, competitive aspects and knowledge of what is going on right inside a prospect’s organization.  If sales reps can deliver these messages, then prospects will value those conversations and allow access to the impacted players.  It’s important to ensure that while these macro, non-company or product discussions are happening, the sales rep is planting hooks, subtly, that tie back to the organization’s unique selling proposition (and core differentiation).  Down the road, if done correctly and when the time is right, these seeds will form the basis for the selection process.

Buyers, the type that are upward climbers and impact players, are almost always willing to talk to someone that can bring value to them.  Value can be defined as looking at a problem from a new perspective, technology advancements, competitor insights, market insights and knowledge of what’s going on inside the prospects account.  The issue is that the sales rep has to arm his or herself with this knowledge and use a systematic process to gather, synthesize and internalize this information.  The presentation and delivery of this information is key, but content is king. Once a prospect knows you have it, there will be a willingness to make time for you.  However, it’s critical to avoid discussions about product, solution and your organization as these come after the hook is placed and is secure in the prospect’s mouth.  Otherwise, the fish will get away and the sales rep is back to “rinse and repeat” with nothing to show other than the pump was primed for a competitor.

Competitive Intelligence (What are my competitors doing?)

Fortunately or unfortunately, it is a global and competitive market place, meaning there are alternatives to any company’s solution – i.e. building it in-house, a competitor’s solution (regardless of anyone in the organization’s opinion of them) or choosing not to make a purchase. These are all alternatives.  As Ben Affleck states in Boiler Room, “a sale is made on every call you make.  Either you sell the client or he sells you on a reason he can’t.  Either way, a sale is made on every call.  The only question is who is gonna close, you or him?”

This highlights the importance of account preparation.  It is extremely important to identify the differentiation in one’s solution and to ensure that there is a critical need within the target accounts selected. It’s also key to have insight as to who makes things happen inside an organization.

One way to establish credibility and motivate is to bring competitive knowledge to the prospect.  This should be financial insights — not the cut and paste from a financial report — but some insight derived from the information or a new approach to looking at the same old problem.  Or, it may be insight in terms of the technology a competitor has embraced and that there is now an opportunity to leapfrog them.

Also, if a competitor appears to have a strong presence in a set of accounts that are must wins for one’s organization, then it may make sense to buy an anchor account and build a competitive swap (rip and replace) campaign together.  These rip and replace campaigns can be successful but should be holistic in nature.  Typically these campaigns include the success story of the customer that swapped (directly or indirectly) and the before and after story.  Also required will be an ROI component, a competitive sales guide, collateral, references (direct or vicarious) and a clear path of how to get from there to here.

Primary Research (Creating information)

Target account based selling is really 1:1 selling, elevated to a scalable model.  The cluster analysis will help select accounts with similar business issues.  Account intelligence provides insight into what is happening inside the prospect’s organization based on secondary research. However, there may be key pieces of information that are valuable in determining a prospects’ fit to the solution that can be discovered through primary research.  One approach is to develop the Target Account Profile and collect all the account intelligence possible through secondary sources (information that is available for free or at a price).  From there, conduct an assessment to determine which information is missing.  Next, create a five -ten question survey with closed end responses conducted by a third party “researcher” to uncover information that is required but has not been readily available.

At this point, enough information should be available on the target accounts to know:

  • What is the organization’s current state with respect to the solution offered?
  • Who in the organization is responsible for making decisions related to the solution?
  • Is there a current initiative for which the solution is appropriate?
  • Is the organization currently looking to explore, research, meet or select a vendor?
  • What are the key criteria being discussed in the prospect’s organization regarding any possible solution?
  • Have prior software purchases been made that are in the same price range?
  • Is budget secured, easily secured or nonexistent for these types of solutions?

Final Analysis: Go to Market Strategy – Target Account Selling

When organizations approach target account-based selling in the manner discussed above, it increases the probability that accounts become opportunities within an efficient, effective, well-managed and repeatable process.

Some organizations argue that this is too complicated, too time consuming or too expensive.  Typically, these are the underperforming organizations or those that spend more dollars to attempt to correct haphazard approaches that were not holistic, integrated and/or optimized.  In the end, all of the tasks  discussed above will need to be undertaken for an organization to be successful with its Go-to-Market Strategy. The only question is, will the organization approach it in an ad-hoc process that involves a lot of trial and error or will order and process be introduced.  In terms of cost, it is either pay me now and benefit or pay me later after a lot of frustration and poor results.  The choice is yours.

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VP Marketing on Demand

About the Author:

Peter is a strategic and visionary marketing executive and brand champion who has leveraged his unique combination of classical training and entrepreneurial experience at start-ups and F500 companies to transform technology innovations into multimillion-dollar revenue streams. His experience spans all areas of marketing, including go-to-market strategy and execution; brand identity and brand positioning; product development; sales and marketing leadership; customer acquisition and retention; and influencer and analyst relations. Peter consults with c-level executives, teaches at USF’s EMBA program and serves as an advisor to start-ups.

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