[Deep Dive] Why Your Account-Based Strategies May Not Be Focused On the Right Customers

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Key Takeaways

  • A growing number of companies are adopting account-based programs that treat customers differently based on their perceived value to the company.
  • Most companies determine the value of accounts based on current revenue and future growth potential, but most don't track account profitability or use it to judge the value of individual accounts.
  • The lack of accurate account profitability information creates a dangerous blind spot. Without it, account-based programs can result in winning more business from unprofitable customers.

The Rise of "Account-Based Everything"

The widespread adoption of account-based marketing is as one of the landmark developments in B2B marketing of the past two decades. The use of ABM has been growing rapidly since it was introduced by ITSMA in 2003. While the early adopters of ABM were primarily large B2B technology and business services firms, it's now used by a wide variety of B2B companies.

About seven years ago, several marketing industry analysts, consultants, and technology vendors began to argue that companies should adopt an account-based approach in other customer-facing business functions, including sales, sales development, and customer success/customer service.

This broader application of account-centered techniques soon came to be called "account-based everything." ABE (or sometimes ABX) is usually defined as "the coordination of personalized marketing, sales development, sales, and customer success efforts to drive engagement with, and conversion of, a targeted set of accounts." (Gartner)

The most rigorous and thorough discussion of this broader use of account-centric strategies and tactics can be found in Account-Based Growth: Unlocking Sustainable Value Through Extraordinary Customer Focus by Bev Burgess and Tim Shercliff. In this book, the authors provide a detailed explanation of how B2B companies can use account-based strategies and programs to drive profitable revenue growth.

The premise underlying all account-based methodologies is that all customers are not created equal. In most B2B companies, a small percentage of customers account for a disproportionate share of the company's total revenue and profit.

The essence of the strategy described in Account-Based Growth is to identify those "vital few" customers, and then design and implement coordinated marketing, sales, customer success/customer service, and executive engagement programs that are specifically tailored for those high-value customers.

Burgess and Shercliff include an in-depth discussion of how to identify and prioritize high-value customers, how to develop effective account business plans, how to leverage data and technology to gain deep customer insights, and how to bring about the leadership and cultural changes that are necessary to succeed with an account-based growth strategy.

Perhaps most importantly, Burgess and Shercliff emphasize that many companies will need to "radically" reallocate marketing, sales, and customer success resources to effectively support an account-based growth strategy. When you adopt the kind of strategy described in Account-Based Growth, you are essentially placing a large bet on the growth potential of a relatively small group of customers and prospects.

In the balance of this article, I'll adopt the Burgess/Shercliff terminology and use the term "account-based growth strategy" to refer to a go-to-market approach that involves identifying high-value customers and prospects and using coordinated marketing, sales, and customer success/customer service programs to manage relationships with those high-value customers and prospects.

Customer Profitability Is "Missing in Action"

Companies that implement an account-based growth strategy segment their customers into multiple "tiers" based on the perceived importance and value of each customer. Then, they use different marketing, sales, customer success/customer service, and executive engagement techniques for customers in each tier.

In general, companies will invest more time, energy, and financial resources to develop and execute high-touch and highly customized engagement programs for customers in the "top" tier, compared to those in "lower" tiers. This approach means, of course, that company leaders must determine, early in the implementation process, which customers to place in each tier.

As part of the research for Account-Based Growth, Burgess and Shercliff surveyed 65 B2B companies. Ninety-two percent of the survey respondents reported having some kind of "top account" program.

When Burgess and Shercliff asked survey participants what criteria they use to select accounts for their top account program, 87% of the respondents said the future growth potential of the account, and 76% said the current revenue from the account. These were the two most frequently used criteria by a wide margin.

Customer profitability wasn't among the top five selection criteria identified by the survey respondents. In fact, only 45% of the respondents said their company tracks gross profit at the account level, and only 20% reported tracking net profit by account.

This absence of customer profitability information results in an account selection/prioritization process with a major blind spot. As Burgess and Shercliff put it: "Without this information, decisions about how much to invest in these top accounts and where to allocate resources are being made in the dark."

To make matters worse, many companies that do track some form of profit at the account level still aren't getting an accurate picture of customer profitability.

When company leaders adopt an account-based growth strategy, they will be investing substantially more in some customers than others. It's simply not possible to make such investment decisions on a sound basis when they don't have an accurate view of customer profitability. They can easily find themselves in the unenviable position of successfully winning business from customers that aren't profitable.

Why Customer Profitability Matters

If all your customers were equally valuable to your business, there would be no reason to implement an account-based growth strategy, and measuring the profitability of individual customers wouldn't be very important. But the reality is, some customers are far more financially valuable to your business than others. There are three main reasons for this "value disparity."

The Pervasive Pareto Principle

The 80:20 rule (also known as the Pareto Principle) states that 80% of effects come from 20% of causes. One business application of the rule states that, in most companies, 80% of total revenue comes from 20% of the company's customers.

In Account-Based Growth, Burgess and Shercliff argued that the 80:20 rule is nearly ubiquitous, and my experience supports their argument. During my career, I've analyzed sales data from dozens of B2B companies operating in a wide range of industries. In the vast majority of these companies, I found that the largest 20% of customers accounted for about 80% of total company revenue.

The 80:20 rule has important implications because it is fractal, or at least "fractal-like." By this, I mean that the 80:20 distribution pattern repeats itself as the breadth of data analyzed narrows, like a set of Russian Matryoshka nesting dolls.

To illustrate, the rule states that 80% of a company's revenue comes from 20% of the company's customers, but it further states that 64% of total company revenue (80% of the 80%) comes from only 4% of customers (20% of the 20%).

The implications of this aspect of the rule are profound. Suppose that your company has $100 million of annual revenue and 1,000 customers. The 80:20 rule indicates that only 40 of your customers are likely producing about $64 million of your annual revenue.

When it comes to company profitability, the 80:20 rule doesn't go far enough because the distribution of profit is even more skewed than the distribution of revenue. Companies that have an accurate picture of customer profitability frequently find that all of their annual profit comes from a small percentage of their customers. (More about this later.)

The bottom line: In most companies, a small number of customers have an outsized impact on company financial performance.

Customer Profitability Varies Greatly

The second reason for the value disparity is that customer profitability varies greatly. When company leaders measure customer profitability accurately, they frequently find that their company earns a great deal of profit on its most profitable customers and sustains significant losses on its most unprofitable customers.

The following diagram depicts the kind of customer profitability distribution that exists in many B2B companies. In this diagram, the horizontal axis depicts the percentage of total customers, with customers arranged (left to right) by profitability. The vertical axis represents customer profitability. The horizontal line across the middle of the diagram is the profit breakeven point (in other words, $0 profit). The red curved line in the diagram depicts the typical distribution of individual customer profitability.

What this diagram illustrates is that, in many B2B companies, a relatively small percentage of customers produce attractive profit levels, and a small percentage generate significant losses.

The most sobering point is that customer profitability is not always strongly correlated with customer sales volume. In other words, when company leaders measure customer profitability accurately, they often find that they have large customers at both ends of the profitability spectrum. This explains why basing an account-based growth strategy solely on account revenue is a risky proposition.

Customer Profitability Impacts Company Profitability

The third reason for the value disparity is that customer profitability has a major impact on overall company profitability.

The following diagram illustrates how the dynamics of customer profitability affect overall company profit. Once again, the horizontal axis in the diagram shows the percentage of total customers, and again, customers are arranged (left to right) from the most profitable to the least profitable. The vertical axis depicts the percentage of total company profit. The red horizontal line across the diagram is the actual annual profit earned by the company.

When companies start to measure customer profitability accurately, many find that their most profitable 20% to 40% of customers actually produce between 150% and 300% of total reported company profit. Customers in the middle of the profitability spectrum more or less break even, and the least profitable 20% to 40% of customers actually consume between 50% and 200% of profit, leaving the company with its actual reported profit.

So, all of the profit falling above the red horizontal line in the diagram is unrealized profit - profit the company earned and then gave away. For obvious reasons, this diagram is often called "The Whale Curve of Customer Profitability," and it dramatically illustrates why customer profitability is so critical to your company's financial performance.

A Final Word

As I noted earlier, companies that are using (or plan to use) an account-based growth strategy segment their customers into multiple tiers based on each customer's perceived value. Then they develop and use more high-touch and highly customized engagement programs for customers in higher tiers compared to those in lower tiers. One fairly typical approach is to use three tiers, with Tier 1 customers being those with the highest perceived value.

One primary goal of measuring the profitability of individual customers is to provide business leaders with information that will help them make better decisions about where to place each customer in the value hierarchy.

In Account-Based Growth, Burgess and Shercliff recommended that companies prioritize their accounts based on two factors:

  1. The "attractiveness" of each account; and
  2. The competitive strength of their company in/with each account.
The research by Burgess and Shercliff clearly showed that an overwhelming majority of companies use current revenue and growth potential to determine the attractiveness of each of their accounts.
This article demonstrates that business leaders should also consider customer profitability when evaluating account attractiveness.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

David Dodd
David Dodd is a B2B business and marketing strategist, author, and marketing content developer. He works with companies to develop and implement marketing strategies and programs that use compelling content to convert prospects into buyers.

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