The Marketing Strategist:

Starting a Successful ABM Program Is Not about Earning a Certificate

January 20, 2014

Account Based Marketing (ABM) is something you learn best by doing. You can learn the concepts behind ABM online or in a classroom, take a test, and get a certificate. It’s more useful to build credibility with sales and other decision-makers by starting a pilot. The concepts are the easy part with the smallest rewards; better to start with the hard part with the biggest rewards. Especially since learning in the abstract isn’t real learning. It’s like learning to dance by sitting in a class. All you learn is the words for things. Educators use the term “transfer of learning” to describe what all teachers hope: that what’s taught in class will lead to winning behavior in life. The record for transfer isn’t good. Most research has found that it doesn’t happen often. The less like the job the classroom experience is, the less likely transfer is to occur. A running joke in the training business is people who can’t perform a job yet proudly display certificates attesting to their expertise in it. The solution is to make the instruction like the job itself. That’s the rationale behind case studies, in-class teams, sharing experiences among peers, and role playing. Take it a step further: The instruction and the job are one, with the teacher—or better, the mentor—providing advice, support, and structure. We’ve all had teachers who personified the cliché “Those who can’t do, teach.” Mentors are different. The best have seen it all before. They know which ABM initiatives have succeeded and which have gone off the tracks – and why. They’re also dogged taskmasters. A scheduled weekly conference to check on progress can do wonders for keeping a process on track. The problems with starting and sustaining an ABM program don’t usually arise from getting the words or concepts wrong. Generalities are easy. Problems arise from the specifics of real-world personalities, attitudes, and uncertainties, specifics that no test can address. For instance:
  • How to persuade sales. Salespeople may think that marketing doesn’t understand them and has little to offer. For marketers, the question is how to explain the benefits of ABM in terms that sales understands. No script can capture the nuances of every organization, but mentors can offer advice on what to say, the words to use, and which approaches have worked in the past at other organizations.
  • How to create peer relationships. Earning credibility from sales requires creating a strategic role for marketing in the sales account plan. It’s not about asking sales to change; it’s about adapting what you do to what sales does already and helping them to do it better. What questions should marketers be asking about the account plan? How can ABM metrics be integrated with the metrics used by sales? Ultimately, the key is building sufficient credibility to be treated as a valued and essential peer.
  • How to adapt to unique verticals. How do you modify ABM so that it will work well in a different vertical market? Every salesperson will say that their customer is unique—and there’s an element of truth in that. When selling to the public sector, for instance, the customer’s stakeholders and incentives are quite different. You need different terminology, but that’s the least of it.
  • How to start in the middle. If you’re starting at the beginning of the account planning process, you can co-create a plan. But how do you kick off a useful ABM initiative when the sales team is in the midst of pursuing an opportunity? Tailor a plan to the existing pursuit, making sure that it’s sales-ready, and be ready to implement.
To create our ABM Certification Program, we looked at the certification industry, talked to our members, and devised a process that instills knowledge students can actually transfer to the job. It starts with a two-day introduction with instruction, discussion, role-playing, and group work. There’s pressure, but it’s in a safe environment of peers sharing experiences and hopes. Students go back to their jobs, apply what they’ve learned, and check in regularly with an assigned ABM expert and mentor for progress and project reviews. They start a pilot, enlisting others and building momentum. They help their organizations and their own careers. You don’t learn by taking a multiple choice test. On a test you can get the jargon, principles, and rationale. You can get that from Google. True learning comes from building experience, overcoming obstacles, finding allies, forming teams, working towards a common goal, persevering, and applying the lessons of small victories and failures. Doing it on your own is possible. Getting a test-based certification doesn’t hurt. But learning in the company of peers and a mentor has a higher likelihood of success. It’s more fun, too. For more information on a roadmap to full ABM adoption, go to Learn more about ITSMA’s ABM Certification Program.

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