For most sales leaders, the challenge with account-based selling isn’t targeting. It isn’t even relationship-building.
The hard part of account-based selling is consistency.
- How do you create a repeatable, scalable, and dependable ABS process?
- How do you keep the quality of approach high across a growing team of reps?
- How do you deliver a white-glove experience for every client without creating an overwhelming workload for your team?
- How do you keep sales velocity high when managing complex deals with multiple stakeholders?
In this article, we’re drilling down into the nitty-gritty of account-based sales — the what, when, and how of creating a consistent and effective ABS playbook.
What is account-based sales (ABS)?
Account-based sales (ABS) is a sales methodology where you target a select group of prospective customers with personalized sales and marketing efforts. Instead of going after lead volume, you identify and research a smaller group of specific accounts to generate large deals.
ABS is best suited for companies with high-value deals, a relatively low sales volume, and a long sales cycle.
Unlike a traditional inbound sales approach where marketing generates leads and then hands them over to sales, with ABS, your Sales, Marketing, and Customer Success teams work together to create tailored messaging, content, and solutions for cherry-picked target accounts.
Typically, an account-based sales team will focus on activities like:
- Creating a detailed ideal customer profile (ICP) and using it to create a list of target accounts.
- Conducting intensive research into each account — including their organizational structure, pain points, business strategy, and current market conditions.
- Building an account plan that brings together sales, marketing, and customer support strategies.
- Co-creating targeted marketing campaigns for each specific account, with customized content for the various buyer personas within each account.
- Forging relationships with key decision-makers in each account.
- Practicing ongoing account management to keep those relationships strong.
- Measuring and optimizing the ABS playbook to improve results over time.
Account-based sales (ABS) vs. account-based marketing (ABM)
The terms “account-based sales” and “account-based marketing” are occasionally used interchangeably, and it’s easy to see why. In the ABS methodology, there’s a significant overlap between Sales and Marketing — both functions work together on each account throughout the sales cycle.
The difference between ABS and ABM is the kinds of activities that are involved.
Account-based sales means working on sales activities (building relationships or conducting demos), and account-based marketing means working on marketing activities (creating customized content for each account, for example).
When is the account-based selling model the right approach?
Account-based selling is an excellent way to move upmarket, especially if your business meets the following criteria:
1. You have a relatively high annual contract value (ACV).
ABS is a high-touch sales process, and each deal will take up a lot of your team’s time. So, it only makes sense if your average deal size is worth the effort you’ll have to put in. A quick rule of thumb — ABS makes sense if your ACV is over $50,000.
2. You have a well-defined ICP.
The ICP is the entire basis of the account-based model — so this approach won’t make sense if you’re still figuring out product-market fit or choosing between two different ICPs.
3. You’re comfortable with a low deal volume.
Account-based selling implies a relatively low deal volume. You’re focusing all your energy on a few deals at a time rather than taking a one-to-many approach.
The compensation should be that you’re only working on deals with a high chance of closing because you do your research upfront to ensure you’re talking to the right people.
4. You have complex deals with long sales cycles.
ABS is ideal for companies with long sales cycles and complex purchasing processes. The account-based approach means that you can create a white-glove buying experience for each prospect, keeping the relationship growing during the sales cycle and ensuring more deals get over the finish line.
How to identify high-value accounts
The effectiveness of your account-based selling strategy depends entirely on how good you are at targeting the right accounts. There’s a two-step process for consistently identifying high-value accounts.
Step 1: Define your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP)
Start by clarifying which companies are most likely to spend significant money on your products. That means creating a very thorough ICP by:
Gathering input from team members across multiple departments. ABS is very much a team sport. You’ll need to collect insights from the entire organization about which customer profiles are most likely to convert and most likely to be high-value.
These insights can be data-driven or more qualitative (for instance, your salespeople may have insights on where your current messaging lands best or which sales conversations go most easily).
Analyzing your customer information. Dive into your customer data and look closely at your current high-value accounts. Start to look for patterns in firmographic information, such as:
- Financial performance
- Historical growth
- Predicted growth
- Organizational structure
- Product(s) and use case(s)
For example, let’s say you’re selling a marketing automation platform. You might find that your biggest deals have been with growing companies with more than 500 employees, of whom over 25% work in marketing, and who want to use your software to automate marketing campaigns to support product launches.
Analyzing technographic data. To create a solid ICP, especially if you’re selling software, it can be helpful to define your ideal prospects’ tech stack. For instance, do they already use a competing marketing automation software that you’re replacing, or is your solution the first they’ve tried? Does your product work better if they’ve already implemented Salesforce, for instance?
To understand the tech set-up of your ICP, try:
- Purchasing technographic data sets
- Surveying your existing customers
- Looking for case studies featuring potential ICPs on competitor websites
- Looking through review sites
- Screening the job ads of potential ICPs to see which platforms they require
For example, at Dock — because we have integrations with Salesforce and HubSpot, we know we’re more likely to close deals with companies that use those specific CRMs.
Analyzing behavioral data. Finally, your ICP should contain information about any behaviors or trigger events that make them likely to invest in your software. To take our marketing automation platform example again, your ICP may be a company with an upcoming product launch.
To research this process, survey your existing customers about what triggered their purchase process. You can also look at competitor case studies.
Step 2: Define personas for the whole buying committee
By this point, you should have a very clear initial list of characteristics of your ICP to help you select the accounts to target. You’ll also need to create buyer personas — the profiles of the individuals within your target accounts that you need to connect with to make the sale.
Look at your most recent successful deals. Who did you talk to before you managed to close?
Again, you’re pulling out patterns here:
- What level of decision-making authority did each person have?
- What job titles were involved?
- What budget control did they have?
- What pain points did they have at an individual and team level that you helped solve?
- How were they involved in the purchase process?
- What was their level of influence?
You’ll want to create a buyer persona for the entire buying committee, including your:
- Economic buyer: the person with the final yes or no on the deal
- Technical buyer: the person responsible for how your product fits into the tech stack
- Buyer champion: the person most excited about your product, who’ll help drive the sale internally
Step 3: Create a target account list
Now you know what companies you’re targeting and which individuals are most important within those accounts, you’re ready to start pulling together a list of prospects to go after.
As a rule of thumb, you should be looking for two tiers of prospects for account-based sales development — as a rule of thumb, a long list should have roughly 200 or so accounts, and your shortlist should have around 20-50 key accounts.
Both will get personalized content and multichannel marketing campaigns, but the top tier is where you’ll focus the majority of your deep research and one-to-one outreach.
7 tips for optimizing your account-based sales approach
So far, we’ve looked at the broad strokes of ABS strategy — but outperforming the competition will take a more tactical approach. Here are some of the best practice tips that can drive higher conversion rates for ABS teams:
1. Strengthen sales and marketing alignment
The closer your sales and marketing teams work together, the more likely you are to convert target accounts. Highly aligned companies grow 19% faster and are 15% more profitable.
Alignment matters for all businesses, but in account-based selling, it’s particularly crucial — you have shared goals, so you also need to have shared information, shared ownership, and a shared strategy.
To achieve that level of alignment:
- Involve representatives of both teams in account planning, defining ICPs and buyer personas, and strategizing content needs.
- Structure meetings around accounts rather than functions.
- Include one-page internal briefs with every new marketing campaign so that your sales reps always have an overview of the reasoning behind brand messaging.
- Create a centralized repository for all sales content so that your teams can easily find the information they need when they need it.
Dock’s sales content management platform lets marketing teams create organized content boards and collections to make sales content extremely discoverable for their sales teams.
Sales can also share content directly with buyers from the platform in a few clicks — and track which buyers are interacting with each asset.
2. Empower your buyer champions
Account-based selling is built on relationships. And of those relationships, the one you build with your buyer champion is hugely important. The buyer champion can help you:
- Confirm your assumptions that you’re barking up the right tree — that there is a potentially large deal to be made in the target account.
- Get a sense of the size of the opportunity and inform you about who else you need to forge a relationship with.
- Sell your solution internally (crucial when today’s B2B buyers spend just 17% of the buying journey in discussion with vendors).
But, to paraphrase the immortal words of Jerry Maguire, you need to help them help you.
Gartner research shows you're three times more likely to close a deal when you enable your buyer champion with helpful information. That means:
- Providing them with relevant content, like a personalized demo and real-life implementation examples from their industry to help them make your case internally.
- Making your content easy to find by creating a digital sales room rather than sending them a ton of emails — more on that later.
- Training them on your product’s benefits, features, and relevant use cases.
- Role-playing common objections with them, so they’re ready to handle those concerns by themselves.
- Creating a slide deck for them to use during their internal buying meeting.
- Offering them sales tools, like an ROI calculator to show the value of your solution or a competitive scorecard to show how you stack up against the rest.
- Informing them about alternative pricing options to help them convince the economic buyer.
3. Multithread the relationship
Of course, the buyer champion isn’t the only relationship you need to foster.
Research by Gartner shows the average B2B buyer journey today involves between 11 and 20 stakeholders — and you need to ensure that you have strong ties with as many people as possible within the target accounts.
- Leaning heavily into account mapping during discovery to be able to recreate their organizational chart, taking note of the hierarchies and how the company makes decisions.
- Identifying deal influencers, blockers and additional potential buyer champions so you can create specific messaging and content for each person.
- Reaching out to individuals across multiple channels — for instance, connecting over the phone, following up via email and sending them a message via social media — to make sure you’re connecting in their preferred location.
- Building many-to-many relationships — for example, by having your marketing lead reach out to their marketing lead, and your CTO reach out to theirs. People in similar roles have a common language, so the relationships will likely be more meaningful. This approach also avoids losing the deal if your main buyer champion leaves the buyer organization during the sales cycle.
4. Create a white-glove buying experience at scale
The point of ABS is to create a personalized purchase experience. The process needs to feel curated and unique.
However, to make the ABS approach efficient, you must create a repeatable process that you can standardize across all your sales development reps.
Digital sales rooms (DSRs) are the ideal solution. A DSR is an online workspace where you can share content with your accounts, communicate with the stakeholders involved in the purchase, track progress toward key deal milestones, and collaborate on a mutual action plan.
They’re also the primary communication channel for the buyer and seller to comment on documents, track progress toward key milestones and collaborate on joint action plans.
DSRs are a handy tool for ABS teams:
- They make it very easy to create a customized buying experience that is also standardized and scalable. With Dock’s digital sales rooms, for example, you can create a standard sales room template and then personalize the content with the buyer’s logo, an intro section specific to their challenges, customized reports and ROI calculators, use-case-specific case studies, and so on.
- You can avoid overwhelming your accounts with too much information too soon. Instead, you can add hand-picked content as the relationship progresses.
- You can bring the entire buying committee into the same workspace instead of sending multiple individual emails, ensuring the deal keeps moving forward.
💡Tip: You can start from Dock’s free digital sales room template and customize it to your team’s sales process.
5. Use a mutual action plan
Your DSR is also a great place to host a mutual action plan for each account. A mutual action plan (MAP) is a roadmap for managing the purchasing process shared between a sales account team and a buyer team.
It’s an effective way to keep your deals moving forward by helping to clarify who needs to do what, key dates, and the expected results of a successful deal. This way helps to avoid any unexpected roadblocks to closing deals and makes the process easier for both parties.
Dock’s mutual action plan software is designed specifically for buyer-seller collaboration. Not only can your sales teams create tasks for your buyer, but your buyer can also add their own tasks, assignees, and due dates.
6. Involve your Customer Success or Implementation team
Involving a sales engineer or a customer success rep early will help get more account-based deals over the finish line. An implementation expert can do technical demos and give your potential customers a real sense of the post-sale experience.
This expert helps with conversion rates on multiple fronts:
- Collaborating with CS early means presenting a unified message to the prospect. The risk otherwise is that sales and marketing describe the product one way. Then, the sales engineer focuses on entirely different features or use cases, reducing the impact of your pitch.
- You give the prospect a clear idea of the quality of technical support they can expect and get them to start visualizing actually using your products and gaining value from them.
- You climb over any potential technical hurdles early on in discussions and don’t waste time on a deal that can’t close because of technical limitations.
- You reduce any potential uncertainty about your solution's technical viability and ensure that you’ve multithreaded your relationship across both economic and technical stakeholders.
7. Get ridiculously good at measuring buyer intent
85% of sellers say that determining buyer intent is critical to their success, and it’s especially true for account-based sales. If you aren’t good at measuring buying signals, you’re at real risk of tying up headcount and resources in deals that will never close.
To increase your chances of getting buyer intent right, try:
- Using a standardized sales discovery process like MEDDIC or the Sandler Selling System to confirm that you’re talking to a true ICP in the first place.
- Monitoring CRM data to track engagements and touchpoints.
- Using Dock to track buyer engagement with your sales content.
If you share all your ABM collateral in a digital sales room in Dock, you can monitor:
- When and how often your buyers engage with your content.
- Which buyer contacts view your space.
- Which content resonates the most.
- How many steps are completed in your mutual action plan.
- The amount of time your buyers spend viewing content and what they download.
Dock’s People Analytics also let you see exactly which buyers are interacting with your sales room, including how many times they’ve viewed your workspace or taken an action like watching a video or opening a proposal.
KPIs to measure your account-based selling success
As with any sales initiative, you’ll need to keep a close eye on the metrics to keep track of deals, identify strategic issues, and optimize your ABS approach.
Some of the key performance indicators your ABS team should watch closely include:
- Average Contract Value (ACV): The average value of each contract you win (based on annual revenue per account).
- Sales Velocity: The amount of time each deal takes from first approach to close.
- Customer Lifetime Value (CLTV): The estimated total value of each account.
- Customer Acquisition Cost (CAC): How much it costs you to close an account.
- Account Engagement Score: A summary of the ways in which your team is engaging with each account.
- Open Opportunities (total and per sales rep): How many opportunities each team member is working at any given time.
- Closed Opportunities (total and per sales rep): How many deals your team has closed in a given time period (both won and lost).
- Win rate: How many deals you successfully close (out of the total number of opportunities).
Account-based sales tools
We’re going to assume that you already have a sales tech stack in place — but it might not be the best fit for the account-based sales process.
You’re going to need tools that will let you manage complex accounts, dive deep into customer research, and make it easy for your sales team to build solid relationships with multiple key stakeholders across different channels.
Here’s a handpicked selection:
If you’re currently using a homemade CRM built on Notion or Airbase, it might be time to level up to an enterprise-ready solution, like:
Sales enablement software
Traditional sales enablement software used to focus exclusively on content management and sales training.
However, with the changes to the B2B buying process in recent years, you might want to start using a buyer enablement platform like Dock that makes life easier for both your Sales team and your buyers.
A few options in this category:
Sales intelligence software
If you want to pursue an effective ABS strategy, you will need to know a lot about your accounts. Sales intelligence software helps you collect data throughout the sales process — data about your ICP, data from sales calls, data on your rep performance, and data about the deals in your pipeline.
A few top picks in this category:
Prospecting and outbound software
For information gathering and initial outreach, prospecting and outbound software can save your team time. A few notables in this category:
For a complete walkthrough of sales technology, check out our Sales Enablement Software Guide.
Support your account-based sales team with Dock
If you want to improve your ABS game, Dock can help.
With Dock, your team can:
- Create a personalized landing pages for your target accounts.
- Manage your sales content more easily so that your reps and buyers can easily find the information they need when they need it.
- Build a customized digital sales room for each account, to house curated content and track deal progress.
- Monitor buyer engagement with sales content to better forecast deals.
- Create a white-glove buying experience for each target account, at scale.