In this podcast, Jane Hiscock speaks with Bev Burgess of Inflexion Group. Bev has over 30 years of experience working in B2B marketing, both on the client side as well as consulting and training, and is best known for her work in account-based marketing (ABM). She is the author of A Practitioner’s Guide to Account-Based Marketing: Accelerating Growth in Strategic Accounts and has another book coming out at the end of October. Below is a slightly abridged transcript of the podcast.
Can you tell us a little about your experience?
“I’ve been in B2B marketing for over 30 years now and about 11 of those were on the client side; so, I’ve done a ‘real job’, and then the rest were consulting and training. I’ve been working in ABM since I coined the term back in 2003, and I guess people know me for ABM. But I’m really interested in executive engagement, and I’ve written on that. Most recently, I’ve been getting into this idea of how you drive account-based growth with your most important customers—beyond marketing, and beyond executive engagement. Last year, I set up a company called Inflexion Group and we focus on helping IT, telecoms, professional service firms, and big B2B firms think about their most important accounts and drive growth with those accounts.”
Can you tell us about account-based growth versus account-based marketing and how you might advise people to consider that in their program?
“It is the idea behind the business; I have two co-founders, Louise Jefferson and Tim Shercliff. Louise, like me, is a career marketer but Tim has come up through IBM as a sales, operations, and strategy leader. We wanted to look at how important some accounts are to businesses, and how to create a kind of extraordinary focus on those accounts that really drives long-term value for both companies. We realize that’s beyond marketing—it’s marketing, it’s sales and account management, it’s customer success, and it’s your executives, all working together to focus on those accounts. I always said, ABM wasn’t just about marketing because it has to be part of a business initiative. Some people think it’s a campaign or a marketing tactic. It isn’t—it’s part of a growth initiative, so we wanted to help people think about it in that way.”
Do you feel that a lot of the work you’ll need to do in building account-based growth will be around organization and culture?
“There’s a lot of internal alignment still to be done, and it’s been interesting looking at the way that different functions have developed and evolved. In sales, we’ve seen account management—putting senior people on your top customers. In marketing, we’ve seen ABM come out, and more investment in those top customers and top prospects. And more recently, customer success has emerged and is looking at how we ensure our customers get value, whatever tier of customer they’re in. The way that they approach that can be very high-touch down to very tech-touch; but these things have all been happening in silos, and executive engagement programs have been running alongside, as well.
There’s still work to do in aligning people inside an organization, around their most important accounts; in fact, around all of their customers, but deciding how to invest each of those teams’ time in different tiers of customers.”
In your book you have a series of blocks that give people a way to think about executive engagement programs that included advisory boards, customer centers, etc. Have you evolved your thinking about executive engagement or are those blocks a good place for people to start in thinking about what is in this kind of a program?
“I believe the thinking is still sound—that idea of deciding what you want to achieve, really understanding the accounts and the executives that matter to you, where you need to build a relationship, spending the time to know what they care about and matching what you want to talk about with what they care about, then building out your content and finding different ways to engage them, whether it’s one-to-one or one-to-a-few, or a small group of executives, all the way to big communities. Where the touchpoints are with other programs like account-based marketing, we can come and talk about, but there are touchpoints with account teams, ABM, and customer success teams now as well. Some things have evolved, partly due to the pandemic; we went all digital, and things are much more hybrid now. Some executives want to travel, some don’t; sometimes travel is difficult and painful. So, there’s a more hybrid approach to whatever you’re doing—whether you’re trying to understand executives or whether you’re trying to engage them through events—that’s important.
Some organizations have always done this well, like the World Economic Forum—they’ve always had Davos, a big event, with lots of glitz and so on. But they’ve also had teams working on issues and tasks online, around the world, throughout the year, so they’ve always done this hybrid approach pretty well.
The other thing that I probably didn’t go into enough in the book but has emerged since 2020 is people are much more aware and concerned about some of the big issues facing us. Executive engagement programs must deal with some of those issues now.”
We’ve noticed a shift in Advisory Board topics toward issue based as well. What are you seeing with ESG?
“Yes, we’re seeing that shift. In researching the new book on account-based growth that’s coming out in October, we interviewed 21 people, to either get a case study or a viewpoint on the way they approach their strategic suppliers and their strategic customers, so both sides of the fence. Almost everyone we spoke to is looking at ESG or world issues in some way in their relationship, and that’s what they want to be talking about with other executives. I wasn’t expecting it when we started researching for the book.”
CEOs are in a really interesting place right now where they are filling a void that people feel from other places in their life. Do you think that’s part of the issue-based focus?
“We interviewed the head of global procurement for a telecoms company, and he said, ‘Of our strategic suppliers, the way we select our suppliers is focused on a supplier’s attitude to ESG, CSR, those kinds of issues. And even if the supplier talks about it, if there’s no evidence that they actually follow through on their purpose or their role in these bigger issues, they don’t get the work.’ So, it’s not just a ‘nice to do.’ These conversations are really important now.”
Focusing on the marketer, what are the challenges they’re facing today, and do you feel like they’re the same as before, or do you feel like things have shifted?
“Much is the same. I’ve worked with quite a few global companies, and knowing how to structure an executive engagement program, for example, at a global, regional, or local level—who does what, which clients are involved, which executives do you bring into the program from your own side, which activities, where—seems to be a problem for a lot of people right now.
The other enduring problem is this idea of how do you get your own executives—which, after all, are who the external executives want to engage with—involved and committed? We did some research earlier this year and found that, of 65 large B2B companies across different sectors, three-quarters of them have executive sponsors on their most important accounts, but only two-thirds of them say those executives are in touch quarterly. Getting the ongoing commitment from your executives to engage with the client executives is still a challenge.
Externally, perhaps one of the things that’s changed is executive engagement is more popular; it’s slowly becoming something that I’m seeing more and more companies think about, and they’ve all decided, yes, we need to sell higher up in our customer accounts and have more senior relationships. But the flip side of that is the demand on executive time. They have to choose between attending one advisory board over another. Those are some of the challenges I see at the moment.”
Talk about co-creation and the challenges that some clients experience in getting their executives to have that peer engagement quarterly. What are your thoughts about the role co-creation plays and any advice on how to get that kickstarted with the client?
“Co-creation is crucial now. Knowing what matters to the executives you’re trying to engage is still the first thing—do your homework, know what they care about, know what they’re willing to spend time talking about, and who they want to talk to. Getting peers in the room that recognize each other as peers is important, and that can help you get things kickstarted; if you start with a friendly executive who has some influence or comes from a company that people admire, it’s easier to get the next executives. So, start with the friendly, influential ones.
I worked with a client in the telecoms sector where we got the initial group together to help decide what the purpose and content themes of the program would be. They also helped us shape some benchmarking research for a wider community of executives, the second tier down of customer accounts. There were less than 20 in the top tier, and over a hundred in the second tier, and we got that top tier to say, ‘these are the issues that we really care about; this is what we should be researching; this is what we want to understand what other companies are doing in this space’. We built a whole research piece around that, and then we were able to go out and provide all the top customers with benchmarking information and advice on how to do things differently. But all of that was scoped with that inner circle, or what you would refer to as an advisory board of executives. It’s a great way of doing things.”
Do you feel that marketers talk to customers directly enough?
“No, I don’t; I think there’s a real nervousness about that. Where some companies have made great strides is where marketing has helped to build new content and to facilitate the development of thought leadership. That’s where they’re a bit more confident in speaking with customers directly, either as part of the research process or briefing of findings. That’s one place where it can sometimes work well and be easier to get into the conversation directly.”
We are in a moment right now of hyperinflation and a potential recession; we’ve got geopolitical pressures that are putting a lot of pressure on the economic system. How do you anticipate that may elevate or shift the work that you’re doing and the work from marketers and sellers in B2B businesses?
“I believe we’ve learned a lot, actually. When times are tough, people get close to their most important customers. I was considering this and thinking, ‘does that mean that people would do less executive engagement, or less account-based marketing.’ And I think the answer is no, because often those programs are focused on the most important customers, and the most senior people in the most important customers. That need to keep those customers close, defend them and make sure they come through difficult times well—it makes no sense to cut those programs. I think we’ll see at least a maintenance of investment in keeping those customers close and listening to them—listening to what they need and pivoting whatever it is we’re offering to what they need at the time, depending on what’s happening in the world.”
Any advice to someone who is just getting started on their journey in account-based growth, account-based marketing or executive engagement program?
“From a soft skills point of view, don’t try to do it on your own. These programs are all about networking across the organization with people that have that kind of passion for the voice of the customer and for engaging with customers and having real conversations with them. So, find those champions. They may be the chief of staff to the CEO, or the head of customer success—whoever they are, get patched into those champions, because the worst thing you can do is think of it as a marketing thing and plan it all yourself.
I think the steps laid out in the book are still right. You’ve got to decide who you want in the room, who you want to engage with, and then you’ve got to really do your research to find what I call ‘the sweet spot.’ What do they care about? What can you talk about, and what do you want to talk about that your competitors can’t? That’s the differentiation that will help them decide ‘this is who I want to spend my time with.’
Then there’s basic stuff, and I know Farland Group does this brilliantly well—make sure there’s a briefing paper of what you want to discuss with these executives and leave them with some questions to consider. When they come in and engage with you at an advisory board, they know what they’re going to talk about, they’ve thought about it, they’re prepped; help them to shape the agenda as much as possible. Make sure that, if it’s an advisory board meeting or it’s a bigger program-shaping thing, you have questions ready that they can then shape and build on.
Lastly—and this is a lesson that I’ve learned over my career—is follow up fast because executives get stuff done. They respond faster on email than anyone else. They expect you to have done the actions, and you have to follow up fast, otherwise you lose their confidence. It’s very tactical there as well.”
Can you tell us about the book that is coming out in October?
“I’d love to. It’s coming out at the beginning of October in the UK and the rest of the world, and at the end of October in the U.S. It’s really setting out this idea that you have to focus on your most important accounts for long-term growth. There’s a whole section on how you align internally to do that, and then there’s a section on how you engage externally, across account management, marketing, customer success, and executives. Then at the back, there’s a readiness checklist. So, it’s a very practical book of, ‘where are we, where are our strengths and weaknesses, and what do we need to fix in the short term.’ I’m hoping it will help people think about this and think about their most important customers.”