I recently participated in the Solutions Insights research on Key Account Marketing Programs. The research project made me think of my own experiences designing and implementing a Strategic Account Marketing Program for a Big 4 global consulting firm. Our research showed that we were not being considered for large sales opportunities--which we were qualified for--within our key accounts. Many times, we became aware of large projects after they had been awarded. This finding was particularly troubling since our success rate, when invited to compete, was extremely high. In baseball terms, we had a great batting average once we were allowed to swing the bat; we just needed to get into the batters box more often.
To address the issue, we created a Strategic Account Marketing Program that assigned a senior marketing resource to selected account teams. We believed the addition of a marketing resource would increase our visibility within key accounts. Based on my experiences, here are 4 recommendations to help make your Account Marketing Program a success:
1. Pilot a Proof-of-Concept
Before you begin, you must ensure that you have the support of the executive team. Strategic Account Marketing Programs can be complex with a lot of variables to control. Determine the most likely source of long-term funding up front to ensure the program has time to reach its full potential. Depending on the size of your organization, a 2 year funding commitment is not unreasonable. In our case, we had global funding for an initial 12-month, six-account global pilot. After that period, we needed buy-in from the line profit-and-loss leaders to provide longer-term management and funding. In hindsight, twelve months was too short a period to prove the impact of the program and secure a long-term funding source.
2. Create an Integrated Account Team
The sales and marketing organizations should work hand-in-hand to build a strategic plan that unifies your brand and strategizes your account as a “market of one”. All account messaging and activities should adhere to the strategic sales and marketing account plan. This may require controlling or restricting account access to the primary account team. This may also mean respectfully declining to respond to RFP’s deemed to be slightly off the market of the One Brand message. As importantly, select the key account leader wisely. Whether it be a Client Service Executive, an Account Relationship Manager, an Industry Partner, or a Country Manager-- seamless linkage with, and buy-in from, the global sales organization, and as in our case--the Lead Partner--was essential. Teaming and cooperation from all sales stakeholders is critical. Even with minimal cost to the sales department, it will be impossible to effectively embed a senior marketing resource into any key account team without agreement from the sales function. Early involvement of the sales team leadership will help to avoid cultural rejection of the transplanted marketing resource.
3. Assign Your Best Marketing Resources to the Program
Avoid accepting first available or under-performers from other marketing units to staff the newly created key marketer role. The success of the pilot, and the longer term program, is dependent upon the quality of the assigned marketing resources. A senior marketer with industry and relevant experience will quickly demonstrate their value. In our pilot, we enlisted senior marketers who could strategically position our firm verses our competitors. They were also able to discuss future industry trends. We labeled this capability “Big M” marketing skills. Previous face-to-face selling or delivery experience also increased their credibility with the account team.
4. Tailor Thought Leadership and Points-of-View Marketing Materials
Too often, sales organizations print generic marketing materials that can be given to all clients, regardless of business problems or industry. To be effective, materials must be tailored to the concerns of the client and their industry. Thought leadership documents and whitepapers, that specifically address critical client issues, will help you gain credibility faster and get you invited to compete more often. Your goal is to position your organization as the one which is best suited to help solve their specific business issues-- as a “market of one”. In order to save time and effort, attempt to re-purpose existing materials rather than creating totally new content. In addition, marketers must now control their messaging across all the various online channels. Your website, blog, and social media presence should all have consistent messaging that reinforces your brand and is tailored to the client’s industry and business issues.
Understanding your key account’s industry and business issues are paramount to the success of any Strategic Account Marketing Program. Aligning your marketing messages with the account’s strategic direction will make you eligible to compete more often. Allocating the right marketing resources to the sales team is often the key variable in the program’s success.
I was recently scanning some research from CSO Insights that discussed sales management priorities. One particular research finding caught my eye: 57.8% of sales managers planned on investing non-selling time to create account plans for their second-tier of accounts. The managers felt that additional planning (and training) was necessary in order to effectively influence the myriad of cross-functional stakeholders now commonly involved in the buying process.
Planning this next tier of accounts can be a good investment, assuming you have the budget, the executive commitment, and the support resources necessary to execute against the plans created. But before you invest the additional time in the second-tier, you need to honestly assess whether or not you are maximizing the revenue opportunities in your top-tier accounts. One way we have successfully generated additional top-tier revenues is by creating a Strategic Account Executive Sponsorship Program.
What is a Strategic Account Executive Sponsorship Program?
A Strategic Account Executive Sponsorship Program assigns company executives to top-tier accounts (those with the greatest current or future revenue potential). The sponsoring executive then becomes a member of the account sales and marketing team targeted with growing the account and defending against competition. The theory is that with executive sponsorship, the account's revenues will grow incrementally at a faster rate than without sponsorship. Our experience with these programs shows good results when they are designed correctly--with the appropriate level of the assigned executive’s time and effort.
Key Attributes to a Successful Strategic Account Executive Sponsorship Program
To follow are the attributes needed for a successful program:
1. Executives are assigned to strategic accounts based on their domain knowledge, comfort level, and past industry experience. For example, you may decide to assign your VP of Manufacturing to an account who prides itself on their leading-edge supply chain efficiency; your CFO to an account with the most state-of-the-art financial systems; your Chief of HR to an account that runs an HR system from the same vendor as you do. This may seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how often companies fail to map their executive strengths to the account. Also consider inviting any willing (and qualified) board members to join the program to help cover additional accounts.
2. The executive is formally integrated with the sales account team and support resources assigned to the account. The sponsorship program should be integrated and complementary (rather than separate) to the sales team’s efforts. This includes executive involvement in the account planning process and the providing of status updates to the sales leader(s)--which will be needed for periodic entry into any CRM system used.
3. Executives receive a thorough account briefing prior to account contact. Provide executives with points-of-view, position papers and market forecasts. A thorough understanding of the account and their industry will help drive discussions. Your executives should also be armed with relevant historical account revenue, relationship data and a picture of the competitive landscape. Any past relationship problems should also be made known to any executive visits. This is not the time to minimize any past relationship problems--no executive likes being blind-sided.
The goal of the program is to build additional executive-to-executive relationships. Traditional sales skills are not paramount here. The executive’s focus should be on the customer’s industry, market dynamics and big-picture business issues. Once credibility and mutual respect are established at the executive level, incremental sales opportunities can be pursued by the account team.
4. Sales and marketing work together to prepare executives for the calls. Create appointment-setting phone scripts and, if necessary, one-on-one executive coaching sessions. Many of these early appointment-setting phone calls will be cold calls, which are not easy to make for even the most experienced sales people. A short refresher course, phone script, and a rehearsal will go a long way to helping executives be successful. Don’t be afraid to use an executive “administrator to administrator” approach for appointment scheduling. I’ve often found that a well-prepared executive administrator, armed with a brief topical agenda, can be highly effective scheduling appointments with their counterparts.
5. The time and funds necessary have been budgeted to successfully make the required number of executive “touches” at the account. These program costs are not insignificant, when done correctly. Time and travel quickly add up. How many new executives should be targeted? How often should the executives meet (in-person and via phone)? What incremental sales can be expected? Make sure you’ve allocated the additional expenses required to expand the relationship. More importantly, make sure there is the potential for incremental account growth to justify the added costs.
6. Scheduled periodic executive reviews. Schedule one account for a brief status overview (10-15 minutes) at each executive team meeting. All sponsoring executives participating in the program should be in attendance. The updates should give the executive team a snapshot of the account, the relationship and the latest activities. It also provides a forum for the management team to share ideas, make recommendations, and show executive commitment.
Under the right circumstances, assigning teams and planning additional large accounts can be a wise investment. However, the next tier must warrant the additional planning and overhead costs. Before you move to the second-tier, make sure you are optimizing your efforts in the top-tier by instituting a Strategic Account Executive Sponsorship Program. An effective executive sponsorship program, deployed at your most strategic accounts, can have a greater return on your investment. The sooner you start building lasting, executive relationships, the sooner you'll build a barrier to entry for your competitors.
Mike Peters is the managing director of the Whitespace Consulting Group, a global business development strategy firm. The Whitespace Consulting Group has been helping multi-cultural clients optimize their business development strategy since 2005. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.