Account Based Marketing, or what we like to call ABX, is a topic we spend many hours advising our portfolio companies on. In these engagements, we always mention the benefits of using ABX to drive cross-sell and up-sell within existing customers. With customers, you have better access to the insights that power an effective ABX strategy and (hopefully) the relationship and credibility. Cross-sell and up-sell are also critically important in this current environment as companies look to create pipeline and bookings.
To help our portfolio companies and the broader B2B tech community better understand how this works, we reached out to Amy Millard, CMO at VTS. VTS is a sales and marketing platform for large commercial real estate landlords (who, as you may imagine, are not having the best of times). With a market that was disproportionately impacted by COVID, Amy and the team at VTS quickly shifted their efforts from new business acquisition to focus on customers – which in turn helped VTS exceed their Q2 targets.
When we chatted back in March at the beginning of COVID, I was struck by your focus on helping customers get through, as you described, the war they were in. I often reference this as an example of the extreme customer centricity of organizations using account-based. Can you talk a bit about this?
When COVID started, my Q2 marketing plan went out the window. We quickly pivoted from 60% new and 40% up-sell to 80% up-sell. One of the things we realized is that in our vertical of commercial real estate, all leasing stopped nearly instantaneously. We have 80% of the leasing market managed on VTS, and we could see in our product that leasing had dropped to nearly zero. Because it all went off a cliff in an unprecedented manner – not even the recession of 2008 dropped leasing that quickly – there was a need from our customers to understand “What are other landlords doing?” How are they addressing “What’s going on in my portfolio?” We started to host sector-based roundtables so they could talk to each other. We also built COVID-specific dashboards in our BI module and gave those for free. We offered it to everyone, but the people who took advantage of it tended to be the largest customers. That has turned into an ABM play.
We didn’t do it to make a lot of money – we did it to help and support our customers. Prior to COVID, only 15% of our customers had it. When the market is going so well, the need to understand what happened yesterday isn’t as urgent. With COVID, what happened yesterday is important. Is the market back? What is my exposure to these companies going bankrupt? What is my exposure to co-working? We also built new functionality that we rolled out for a new type of request – “rent relief.” This let them track which customers were asking for it, something there was never a need for before COVID.
By April when we had our panel, Learn from the Experts: Account Based (ABX) in This New World, VTS had already taken several steps to help customers. How were you able to act so quickly?
We are intimately familiar with our market, always. During COVID, we are even more proactive in listening to, and partnering with, our customers. Our priority was to do everything in our power to help our customers be successful. So, we built a task force that sat down once a week – product, customer success, marketing, sales – that shared insights from customers and the market. We focused on answering the question “What do our customers need to get through this?” And we created a newsletter from Nick, our CEO – these are my commitments to you, our customers, and the things we’ll do. Then every week, we did one of those things. Some were webinars, others were new functionality or exposing existing functionality for free.
Despite the entire commercial real estate market melting down and having to come up with your marketing plan on the fly, VTS had a great quarter. Can you share what drove your success?
We set out to help our customers and provide value. This was our focus, and our hope was that it would translate to pipeline. And it did. Also, a big contributor to our success was our new VTS Market product. This is our product that allows landlords to market spaces online and provide virtual tours – filmed by VTS. We launched it in June, and it’s already the fastest selling product in property tech history. We ran a specific ABM play targeting 30 priority accounts. We selected these accounts verrrry strategically, based on their ability to influence others in the industry, our ability to execute against them, and their size. We focused on setting up C-level meetings with our CEO and founders, followed by coordinated marketing and sales activities. Because of where we sit in the market, we get a better 30,000-foot view than most of our customers. People wanted to meet with our founders for their insights on what’s happening in the market. We saw 75% conversion rates out of these early meetings, and we used them to refine messaging and pricing for the broader rollout.
Those are great conversion rates – can you talk about what made this play so successful?
We really understood what motivates our buyers – the fear of missing out. Our buyers aren’t necessarily technology forward, but they don’t want to be the last to adopt. After the meetings, we would market to these accounts to create urgency. When a local landlord signed on, we’d run ads to celebrate their joining the VTS digital market and show what their page looks like. Our strategy was to get the top 10 national landlords that would motivate everyone else. We also created an influencer strategy where we worked with the top 2-3 brokers so that if they got a call from a landlord, the broker would say positive things about the product. In Q2, we blew through our numbers because of the urgency created, the urgency to go digital.
We also provided compelling data. One of the things about change is that the pain of change needs to be less than the pain of staying with the status quo. We did a survey of tenants across the U.S.: Are you comfortable doing in-person tours? In NYC, 82% said no, they aren’t. People aren’t comfortable with just walking around. That’s the status quo of how searches are done. This further validates the need to have a digital solution.
Why focus on customers in this current environment?
With customers, you can get a meeting. Your job at the meeting is to move customers from A to B. And the better you know them, the more insights you can provide them, the more trusted of a partner you become. Another thing is that your customers have already gone through the pain and cost of implementation – most up-sell products have a much shorter time to value.
Prior to COVID, did you have other ABM/ABX plays targeting customers? What made these plays successful?
Given our position in the market, we realized last year that our customers really looked to us as advisors. So, we sat down a year ago, well before COVID, and created a play called Executive Business Review (EBR) – which was an update on the standard QBR. Instead of just talking about product utilization, we came with thought leadership and recommendations. This let us get meetings 1-click above our champion buyer. Oftentimes, once they buy the software, you don’t see the CEO or the C-suite again – but they are the decision maker on up-sell and cross-sell.
So, in our EBR, we showed them incredibly valuable information about their business and the market, insights that would help them be successful. We were providing this information to them as part of the EBR, but they would also have access to it all the time with these other modules. We really focused the EBRs on delivering value, because at the end of the day, if you lose sight of this goal of delivering value, you won’t get that next meeting.
As with many things in ABM, this was a team effort. Marketing helped design the meeting content and overall program, but sales set up the meetings, customer success wrote the reports, there was joint delivery from customer success and sales, and marketing followed up.
One of the key challenges companies face with ABM/ABX is measuring success. How did you measure success?
We had a systematic approach to testing our EBR strategy. We tested different ways to set up the meetings, different content for the meetings, different attendees. We used SDRs to set up the meetings, we did pre-briefs, we tracked these meetings and measured pipeline after. And no surprise, yes – they did lead to pipeline. So, then we rolled it out to every major customer.
For specific measurement, it can be hard: Inferring marketing influence vs. proving it. I used what information I had to decide if this program was effective or not. The primary measures are both pipeline creation and pipeline conversion. I have enough information for that. Also, never underestimate sales feedback. When you start hearing “Why can’t my customer be in the play?” you also know that it’s working. As we scale, though, we need to make sure the wheels stay on the bus. I need to say this program was 3x more effective than the other programs.
What would be your number one tip for success when executing ABM/ABX?
Without a doubt, alignment and ensuring that everyone in the organization is on the same page. It’s important to note that for every customer, we have a specific thing we are trying to up-sell them to. The head of sales and I don’t want spaghetti – throwing things at the wall and hoping something will stick. This makes sure that the sales team isn’t confused about what the objective is.
It also never works for marketing to come up with an idea and force it onto sales. In ABM, for every step of the way you need to accept ideas from sales and understand that if they aren’t willing to do something, there’s a reason. Marketing is often like “arghhhh, sales!” – and it’s not right. Your peers in sales have to be completely bought in. I know why it’s hard. People in marketing are in marketing for a reason and people in sales are in sales for a reason. It’s really hard. You have to be super intentional about it.
Bottom Line: 5 Key Takeaways for Customer Focused ABM/ABX
A customer-focused ABM/ABX strategy will be a critical lever for driving pipeline and bookings in the coming year. From our conversation with Amy and other ABM/ABX thought leaders, our top 5 success factors for executing customer focused programs are:
- Be Customer-Centric: Ensure that you are regularly communicating and listening to your customers and the market. This allows you to be agile and anticipate needs.
- Engage with Insights: All engagements should be informed by customer insights – what do they care about, how are they influenced, where do they find their information? This increases engagement and conversion.
- Provide Value: Always be on the lookout for ways to provide value to customers. This positions you as a partner and ensures you get the next meeting.
- Test, Iterate, Scale: Systematically test, measure, and iterate your strategy before you scale.
- Partner with Sales and Customer Success: Alignment across marketing, sales, and customer success is critical. Sales needs to be brought in as an equal partner (not kicking and screaming).