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Why ABM and Challenger Complement Each Other

Many marketing and sales teams use account-based marketing, or are considering doing so, and many also use the Challenger methodology; it's worth exploring how the two mesh together

Account-based marketing may be approaching the peak of its hype as the must-have strategy for B2B marketers. Engagio’s, “The Clear & Complete Guide to Account Based Marketing” is a good resource for those seeking a foundation in what ABM is – and isn’t – and how to get started.

ABM essentially requires sales and marketing teams to treat each business account as its own individual market opportunity, rather than sending more generalized communications to many customers at once. Many of the B2B firms that are considering ABM also use CEB’s Challenger™ sales model as well, so it’s worth showing how the two complement each other.

One could put a Challenger spin on an ABM strategy or an ABM spin on a Challenger strategy. This is because both understand that, for B2B sellers, it’s groups of people they need to convince to make a collective buying decision on behalf of their company, and it’s not about convincing individuals – within a company and across different companies – by assuming they will respond in similar ways to the same messages.

Six Ways ABM and Challenger Align Together

According to Engagio’s guide, there are six processes behind ABM, all of which share some alignment with Challenger.

  1. Select Accounts – Align sales and marketing around a list of target accounts and existing customers that are most likely to deliver revenue: Challenger and ABM are very much aligned here. The only refinement is that Challenger prioritizes accounts which are likely to be hotbeds of what CEB calls “emerging demand” — those going through changes that naturally creates demand for the supplier’s solutions.

    These accounts are more likely to be open to the kind of commercial teaching and reframing that are Challenger hallmarks. As opposed to “established demand,” in which customers at a particular account have already put suppliers and their solutions in a defined box (rightly or wrongly), which then leads to heavy price-based competition and commoditization.

  2. Discover Contacts and Map Your Accounts – Fill out these accounts and buying centers with specific contacts based on your ideal buyer profile: As already mentioned, both ABM and Challenger hold at their very center the notion that B2B decisions are made by groups of people inside an account. And, those group dynamics are terribly important for suppliers who hope to land high-quality (larger or more profitable) deals.

    CEB’s extensive B2B buyer research offers additional texture here on the kinds of contacts to focus your targeting efforts on. The conventional approach for mapping contacts is heavily dependent on title/role/function. However, data from thousands of B2B customer survey respondents shows that this is a poor predictor of who is actually going to “mobilize” (drive change and build consensus) for a purchase.

    Unsurprisingly, CEB calls customer stakeholders who do this well “mobilizers” and they can be anywhere – up, down or sideways – in a customer org chart. If you take an approach that is strictly about title/role/function in your ABM efforts, you’re just as likely to engage profiles who will either waste your time or actually block a deal.

    At a minimum, efforts to engage those individual contacts in target accounts should be organized to quickly suss out which contacts are mobilizers, and which aren’t. It’s a task especially suited to sales development reps (SDRs), but so few SDR programs actually do a good job of this.

  3. Develop Account Insights – Learn as much as you can about each account so that your interactions are always relevant and resonant: One of the key components of Challenger is that the supplier consistently delivers commercial insights to customers that change the way they view their business, in a way that leads uniquely back to you as a supplier.

    However, what CEB considers to be “insight” differs from ABM. The guide’s use of “insight” mainly refers to account-level information, or visibility into what is going on inside target accounts. While this is of course necessary to do ABM well, it isn’t what we would call insight. What it boils down to is this: Much of what the guide speaks to is the “sight” part of insight — that which can be observed in contact-level or account-level behavior. But, it largely ignores the “in”—what’s going on in the mind of the contact(s) at the account.

    From a Challenger standpoint, the guide gets at what is necessary to do ABM, but it doesn’t touch on what is sufficient to boost your odds of winning high-quality deals. And this is where Challenger comes in: to win higher-quality deals consistently requires the “in.”

  4. Generate Account-level Messages and Content – Create or adapt content and messaging that reflects your account insight and is targeted specifically at the buying teams in each account: Rather than personalizing content to individual customers, sellers should think about content and messages that build consensus across a diverse buying group. There are a lot of important implications here, but this post, “Why B2B Demand Generation Managers Might Be Doing More Harm than Good” has more on that.

    The punchline to that post is that getting a Collection of “yes’s” from each of those individual account contacts is not the same as securing a collective “yes” from the group. In fact, CEB quantitative analysis of thousands of B2B purchases suggests that pursuing the collection of yes’s harms a rep’s ability to land a high-quality deal. So be careful how you do personalization; savvy commercial teams organize marketing and sales efforts to create a collective yes.

  5. Deliver Account-specific Interactions – Manage targeted interactions that are personalized for each account: See point 4 above. Marketers should be careful that their personalization isn’t unwittingly making it harder for key stakeholders in the customer buying group to land on a common point of consensus, and that collective yes as a result.

  6. Orchestrate Account-focused Plays – Synchronize interactions into coordinated activities that align to account plans and goals: The guide includes some good advice here on orchestrating multi-touchpoint “account plays”. One refinement that the Challenger model would offer is to focus on the customer’s buying journey, not your own sales process.

    Essentially, sales teams should flip the model of classic “sales enablement” to be focus on customer “purchase enablement.” ADP has had great success with this, in what Engagio calls the “Buying Made Easy” process. The model maps distinct, objectively verifiable customer steps through the journey. They then incorporate those steps into their purchase enablement approach.

    It’s about mapping all marketing content you create, SDR engagement and seller engagement to those objectively verifiable customer steps.

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