B2B Modern Sales, Account-Based Marketing

An Interview with Irene Sandler, AVP and CMO, Cognizant Accelerator

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Irene Sandler shares her perspective on the modern buying journey and the organizational change required for marketing and sales to adjust and adapt to this new reality.

 

I recently had the opportunity to speak with Irene Sandler, AVP and CMO, Emerging Business Accelerator at Cognizant Technology Solutions. I was prompted to reach out to Irene when I came across one of her LinkedIn Posts: Here's Why I Deleted Your Email without Reading It. The post currently has almost 24,000 views, 1367 likes and over 150 comments: no wonder it ended up in my LinkedIn feed!

Irene’s content and message clearly resonated with a significant number of B2B marketing and sales professionals. Why? Because buying and selling have changed, and it is clear sales has some work to do to change their approach to reach and engage with buyers.

Irene is a highly experienced B2B marketer in the technology space and also a buyer. She shared some great insights from both perspectives, with some important considerations for B2B sales and marketers alike:

  • Respect your buyer: Respect their time, social norms and what is important to them, not you. When you do reach out, add value, share something that is useful, helpful and highly relevant to them. Demonstrate that you understand their business problems and show how you can help.

  • The B2B buying journey has changed: There are more decision makers, and their titles are in flux. (ex. Chief Digital Officer means something different at different organizations). Marketing technology solutions are proliferating, leading to noise and confusion. Buyers are more knowledgeable than ever before, they research, ask their peers.

  • Organizational change is needed:  Alignment of sales and marketing is needed and that requires a cultural change, but changing culture is hard. What is important is there is now a recognition of the need for change and that will prove to be an important driver.

How do marketing and sales approach this new reality?

  • Sales must find a way to share insights, educate buyers and articulate their unique value proposition to multiple decision makers.

  • Marketing should move from personas to “problem-based marketing,” focus on what problems a company needs to solve vs. an individual buyer’s needs.

  • Account-based marketing may make sense for organizations targeting fewer, larger organizations. Sellers need to take the time to build trust and meaningful relationships to in order to deeply understand an account’s business problems.

 

Here’s a lightly edited Q and A from our conversation.

 

Q: What prompted you to write your LinkedIn post? Were you surprised at the response?

As with many LinkedIn members, I start every workday by opening up my email Inbox, the current currency of how corporations get things done. One day, I opened an email with the subject line “Re: urgent, please respond” with the gnawing thought that I had somehow let something important fall through the cracks. When I realized it was a cold product pitch for “thousands of qualified leads,” something inside me snapped: I felt duped, done-in by my own conscientiousness. So, I scribbled down an outline of what became that post.

I was absolutely floored by the response. But in retrospect, I’m not that surprised: no one likes to be manipulated, and these types of emails are preying on positive social norms.

 

Q: What do you think are the biggest challenges facing B2B tech marketers today?

Advances like the cloud, smartphones, data analytics have all created profound change in the market landscape. Within about 15 years, we’ve gone from technology oligarchies to thousands and thousands of smaller companies, each representing a “best-of-breed” for a particular part of a value chain. In marketing, this has led to thousands and thousands of companies that have each atomized a certain part of the marketing value chain.

This makes it hard for both buyers and sellers. While “choice” is often viewed as a benefit, too much of it can be painful and paralyzing. The lack of big, convenient buckets leads to cognitive overload for buyers, as well as a persistent fear that a choice will be wrong. Sellers have to explain their value proposition to far more decision makers, and oftentimes their offering is so specific, they need to partner with other companies to create a “whole product.” It’s the same reason that hiring a general contractor to manage a remodel is far less painful than being your own general contractor.

 

Q: You spoke about the significant change, mash-up of roles, different functions struggling to work together. If organizations are confused, it is certainly a real challenge trying to market and sell to this audience. You wrote, “This is another reason why I think persona-based marketing is useless -- and why targeting by role title is equally useless -- but that's a post for another day.” So how would you recommend approaching B2B targeting given how the buyer journey and buying dynamic has changed?

The same title at different companies can mean wildly different things. Take the Chief Digital Officer title, for example. In some companies, it’s all about how to create digital experiences. In others, it’s more like what yet other companies would call a Chief Data Officer — figuring out what data is useful and how to apply it to improve operations, experiences, new market exploration, and more.

But our tools are still so basic. We create the profile of “Sally, the Chief Marketing Officer” in isolation of how a real CMO would interact with her CIO counterpart, in isolation of understanding their particular business, their particular problems. In other words, the assumption that specific roles are charged with solving the exact same specific problems is false: the problems are often common, but the team assembled to solve them may not be.

I’ve been mulling over the idea of flipping the equation with “problem-based marketing.” In other words, what problem is a company trying to solve? Is it a common problem across its industry? If so, what is the web of roles that might be called upon to solve these problems?

 

Q: There is a lot of talk these days about Account-Based Marketing? Can you share your thoughts on this? Does it address the challenges that B2B marketers face?

Account-based marketing directly addresses the weaknesses of persona-based marketing by putting the unique problems of the company at the center. This is great if, like Cognizant, you largely sell to fewer than 2000 companies or so. If you’re trying to address a larger market, you run into the problem of scale. Few companies are very forthcoming about their problems to complete strangers, so it takes time, energy, and consistency to develop meaningful enough relationships to even understand what they’re wrestling with.

 

Q: You articulate the need for change well. You clearly got a lot of response to your post. So why are we not seeing changes? Or put another way, what are the barriers to change?

Culture is always hardest to change: just look at this year’s election cycle for Exhibit A on how difficult it is to shift entrenched perceptions. When I began in tech marketing in 1995, it already seemed antagonistic. Marketing’s job seemed to be solely about sourcing leads and sale’s job seemed to be closing on them (cue Glengarry Glen Ross). We were given goals on those metrics, not on figuring out new approaches or even being empathetic to the challenges each side has. The single most edifying role I had was as an inside sales newbie at a startup that died an ugly death.

As with many things in life, it takes a crisis to change. Each time we go through a tech crash (2000 and 2008), I see fresher perspectives and a far greater willingness to try new things. We’re at the point where most everyone acknowledges there’s an issue, but there’s so far little agreement on how to proceed. People look for panaceas — seems like content marketing is the current trend — but there are none.

 

Q: Can you share any examples, projects or campaigns of your own you can share that embody the right modern B2B thinking?

Cognizant is not a household brand, but our approach to generating revenue combines the “account-based” and “problem-centric” approach. Every client account is headed by client partner, who manages a dotted-line team comprised of a variety of disciplines, whether that’s an account manager for sales, a marketing person, a content provider, a thought leader, a delivery manager, or so on. We’re training these teams not just to solve the problems the client sees, but also to identify problems that they may not have seen. When everyone is working to solve the same problem, the petty differences between “sales” and “marketing” fade.

At the end of the day, it’s about relationships. As another example, a great place to position yourself in an emerging business is as the information broker. I did this at Cisco with the Internet of Things. We created a “steering committee” comprised of the IoT heads of many of our partners and customers. This effort gave us the substance for the brand team to then initiate their “Internet of Everything” brand campaign, and now Cisco is one of the most recognized players in the IoT space.

 

Q: Any B2B organizations you feel are really excelling?

That’s a really broad question! If we’re looking at problem-based marketing, I think both Slack and Cisco’s Collaboration team under Rowan Trollope are doing amazing work in focusing on a problem that bedevils all large organizations: how do you solve the problem of collaboration? The way we work has radically changed. The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently noted that 39 million Americans telecommute at least part of the time. So not only are we distributed across time zones but also across work devices, childcare schedules, and so on. Building a cohesive culture, communicating effectively, those are both problems are as timeless as the human condition.

 

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We live in such an incredibly connected world. I personally love the power and value of coming across meaningful and useful content that moves an audience to engage and learn something. In many cases that content can be the platform for conversation and building relationships. In this case, I thank Irene for her valuable time, sharing these insightful posts, instigating the opportunity for me to reach out and learn more from her. It is a pleasure to share her insights. Thank you Irene!

by Kim Babcock
Nov 28th, 2016