ABM in the time of Covid-19

One of the central tenets of ABM is to act as a partner, rather than someone who’s selling to somebody in a transactional way.

It’s been 7 weeks since we went into lockdown and we’ve been working closely with our clients to pivot and adjust their ABM strategies to best support them and their customers. But what role does ABM play in the wider marketing mix in these unprecedented times and what action should you take if you’re an ABM-er? I recently chatted to Bev Burgess, SVP and Global ABM Practice lead, ITSMA and Greg Salmon, General Manager, North America, Agent3 to get their perspectives.

 In the current climate, due to the uncertainty, many marketing budgets have been cut.  Where would you advise B2B organisations to prioritise their marketing spend and where do you see ABM featuring within this?

Bev: I should say that we’ve spoken to lots of ITSMA members about how they’re pivoting and what they’re doing in the pandemic and the thing that’s clear is that they’re prioritising anything that demonstrates commitment to their customers.  That can be as simple as spending time talking to them and listening to understand how the pandemic is affecting them.  They’re also pivoting their messaging, so as not to look tone deaf in the current environment, being careful about what they say and what they reach out with.  Then it’s all about enabling people to connect; perhaps on social media or encouraging account directors to just call their customers and just check in with them, or provide ways to get face-to-face virtually. So, getting a better understanding of how the pandemic’s impacting the customers, changing the messaging so it’s useful and then enabling account directors, execs and everybody else to connect.

Greg: I’d completely agree with Bev’s point about arming sales teams to connect with their most important customer contacts – and to do so in a meaningful, credible way. In terms of what that means for marketing spend, I think a little can go a very long way. There isn’t necessarily the immediate need for complex, multi-touch engagements, since the situation is still pretty fluid, and it’s perhaps too early to know how your message is going to evolve over the coming weeks and months. Instead, I’m seeing our customers focus their budget on content which celebrates the historical partnership between their organization and the account in question, or perhaps on insights which arm their sales teams with a point of view on the immediate challenges any given contact is facing from a professional or personal perspective.

 And have any conversations changed just recently vs a month ago? 

Bev: I think most people have come out with some form of three phase model, which is usually something around (i) stabilising (ii) making sure you’re resilient, and then (iii) being able to thrive afterwards.  The first thought is obviously ‘we need to make sure we’re safe, our people are safe, our cash flow is safe, our customers are safe.’ Then I think it’s more about ‘ok, well how do we adapt to this environment, however long it’s going to go on for?’ Then, I think people are then thinking ‘ok, what will things look like in 3, 6, 9 months’ time?’  What will stay the same, what will revert to how it was before, and what new things will emerge and how do we make sure we’re OK in that new world? Some of our members are starting scenario planning exercises to look at the possibilities.

 All marketing leaders have had to reassess their plans and no doubt ask themselves ‘what should I be doing to have the greatest impact?’ I’d expect they are working with their sales colleagues to focus on their key customers and adopting those approaches already mentioned: being human, listening, adjusting messaging, enabling and supporting, connecting to the folks where it counts – would you agree?

Bev: Yes, absolutely, and I think it’s focusing on those really important customers and doing much more about orchestrating senior exec meetings, subject matter experts, other experts, whether it’s the finance director on how to make the most of Government loans, or the HR director on maintaining employee wellbeing while working remotely. Just orchestrating whatever we can do for those important customers.  And, by the way, that might mean getting a group of those important customers on a call to share with each other.

Greg: We’re hearing a lot of our customers asking how do they help their sales teams not seem too salesy, or inappropriate in the current environment and actually be human.  And in a funny way, people who’ve got a head start have been practitioners around ABM for a couple of years, because that’s kind of baked into the way they’re running their programs already – one of the central tenets of ABM is to act as a partner, rather than someone who’s selling to somebody in a transactional way.

Bev: Several of the companies that I work with have the principle of ‘service, not sales’ and I love that because I think it just sums it up. Obviously the rules of engagement have changed in terms of virtual vs face-to-face, that’s blindingly obvious, but perhaps the more subtle and, kind of more exciting, shift is ‘ok, let’s take this more disinterested view.  Let’s look at how we can help these people.’  And it brings out the humanity in us all.  Even simple things like the fact that I can see into your home and you’re looking into mine on this web call, and we couldn’t or we didn’t do that before in the same way before, has brought about a much more personal way of working together.

 Where are clients looking for advice and support in the current climate?

Greg: An immediate challenge is that it is now really hard to stand out given everyone has pivoted to digital communications, so clients are asking for help to get past that ‘digital fatigue’ challenge.  So coming up with some more lateral thinking and thinking about how to stay ahead of the game on digital engagement is a key requirement.

Another area of concern for clients is how they can be more agile with the structure of their ABM programs because of the internal challenge of matching ‘ABM’s a long term commitment,’ and ‘ABM isn’t an overnight thing’ with the immediate need to be responsive, with a more agile mindset to engage accounts that are going through massive change. For sure it’s a balancing act, but not an insurmountable one.

If true ABM is insight driven, what kind of insights do you feel are of greatest importance at the moment?

Greg: Whenever we talk about insight you’ve really got the tactical and day-to-day and then you have the slightly more grandiose and strategic or structural, and I think that, at both ends of the spectrum, there’s interesting uses of those at the moment. So, at the quite tactical end of the spectrum, understanding people have had job changes, or if organisations are going through changes to their team structures or even using things like social listening tools to have an understanding of, again on a human level, if anyone’s got something terrible, or good, going on in their lives, both professional and personal, and being able to engage credibly as a result of that.  And then, at the more strategic end of the scale, I think arming our customers’ customers with insights, so if we’re going back to this idea of how can organisations act as a partner to people they have historically sold to, in loose terms, if they can help their customer understand how their industry is reacting to Covid, or some of the macro factors driving that, I think that can be really powerful as one of these pillars of what a partnership looks like at the moment. 

Great ABM drives sales and marketing alignment but with sales teams not able to have face time with customers and prospects, how can ABM help with executive engagement? 

Bev: I think there’s a few things marketers can do.  The first thing is to agree which execs are important, so, for example, they might not have done much with HR or the person looking after CSR type programs before, but these execs might be more important to connect with now.  And I think segmenting them is important so, back to Greg’s insight point, if we take a telecoms company like O2, where they’re doing all kinds of stuff like helping get communications up for the Nightingale Hospital, they’re in one mind set, whereas there are other execs in other companies, like construction for example, who are in a completely different survival mindset.  So, I think segmenting the execs we need to engage with and making sure we know what’s going on with them, is critical. 

Then I think it’s about facilitating conversation and I think that’s changing the messaging to something people are interested in.  So it’s not ‘hello, would you like our cloud offer?’ But instead it’s ‘Oh, I see you’re just setting up the Nightingale Hospital, these things might help you.’  So, making it very relevant to what’s going on now.  And then I think some people need a bit of coaching and guidance on how to have these types of conversations, particularly if they don’t feel very confident in terms of approaching very personal subjects with execs.  And some of the best things I’ve seen going on are new content coming out around Covid-19 and how it impacts different sectors being served up for specific accounts for specific execs to try and support them.  

So it’s almost about applying ABM principles in the way that you work and interact and think?

Bev: Exactly.  It’s about focusing on the client and their issues. Whereas the issue before might have been ‘I’ve got to grow in Asia’, the issue now is ‘I’ve got to get through this pandemic and keep my business together and come out the other side.’ 

Greg: Yes.  The only thing I’d add is that Covid-19 feels like a massive pivot where we have everyone working remotely, and it is going to accelerate a sharp focus on keeping customer conversations up to date and being contextually relevant.  And being contextually relevant can literally change day-to-day and week-to-week in the current environment.  So we’re rapidly moving from a mindset of building big programs around these big, chunky more traditional bits of content or assets like long form video, that would be a few months in the planning and creation to a mindset about being quick and nimble, and doing little and often.  And then the challenge with everyone moving digital is how do you stand out and be credible, while remaining very human and no longer having C-level folks go through 18 rounds of communications consultants to deliver a message. 

But if the world has turned digital how do we avoid digital fatigue?

Greg: It’s definitely a challenge!  After all, if you spend all week on video meetings, then to spend all weekend on video calls with friends or family feels like quite a chore sometimes!  And likewise, everyone seems to be thinking ‘great, we’ll do hour-long webinars’ and ‘great, we’ll do all these kind of eBooks’ and so people are bombarded with digital communications at the moment.  Chunking up content into smaller, more digestible pieces therefore becomes critical, as well as having a point of view which feels genuinely account-specific.

What three pieces of advice / tips would you give to any ABM practitioner at the moment to ensure their programs are on point?


1) People need to look at their account segmentation and prioritisation with the additional lens of Covid-19 and the probable recession that will follow.  Which are your most important accounts and how will current events impact this particular customer?  You have to re-do your insight. 

2) Look at all of the messaging that you have and make sure it’s not tone deaf.  And I think that is *the* most important thing.  If something tone-deaf lands, it’s just embarrassing, and will damage your reputation.

3) Support your internal team across the business who are interacting with a particular account.  They might be feeling a bit wobbly at the moment for a variety of reasons: new technology to get to grips with, holding often personal conversations in a professional manner, managing social media as it increases in importance, managing service difficulties with reduced teams.  Support your people so that they can support your customers. 


1) There can be a risk of paralysis in getting stuck so far into a mindset of ‘not wanting to be seen as ambulance-chasing’ so as to miss a chance to engage with accounts in a way that credibly makes sense for all involved.  Think about segmenting your accounts for the next few weeks: Which ones are taking stock and need reassuring about your long-standing partnership, rather than exploring new avenues? And at the other end of the spectrum, which ones are thinking about how best to compete as the economy shifts to ‘recovery’ mode, so want a partner with new ideas?

2) Within the sphere of specific exec comms programs, now is a time that a well-crafted, sensitively-managed gesture can have a great impact. We’re all managing a tricky emotional balance of uncertainty, hopefulness, fatigue, resolve, and restlessness; having somebody get in touch with an idea or a solution which is genuine, thoughtful and uniquely-based on your personal context can really cut through.

3) Plan for the short-term: little-and-often program executions and sales enablement support will build momentum as various sectors and organizations go through different versions of ‘reopening’, while still providing plenty of scope for changing direction.

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