Retrofitting ABM To An 'Old School' Sales Team

by Matt, on 3 Aug 2021

Many of the companies we work with in the energy and industrials sectors have been around a while. Some predate the computer age, let alone the internet or the information age.

Their approach to marketing and sales can be decidedly “old school”.

Advertising in print media and showing up religiously on the annual trade show circuit with 8.5” x 11” handouts and technical papers has been the fountain of leads from which they have drunk for decades.

Then digital happened.

Some of them have adapted rapidly to the new world of B2B buying and selling, creating digital properties, building and nurturing online audiences, and adapting their marketing, sales, and support processes to their new surroundings.

Others, not so much.

The imminent demise of boots-on-the-ground sales is simply dismissed.

“We’ve always sold our products this way, and everyone we compete with sells their products the same way. Why would we change?”

These are tough objections to overcome when you’re tasked with helping the business change and grow.

Nevertheless, we have had success in bringing digital approaches into the marketing mix at some of these companies.

In this post, I’m going to focus on one particularly thorny approach: account-based marketing.

The Challenge

Account-based marketing (ABM) is predicated on identifying a subset of target companies that fit your business’ definition of an “ideal customer”.

Your ideal customer profile (ICP) will consist of a few – typically 5-8 – defining characteristics, such as size, location, need for your solution, approach to technology, willingness to spend money, and so forth.

Using those characteristics as ranking criteria, you’ll develop a shortlist of companies that have the potential to be game-changing customers if they sign larger, enterprise-scale deals.

The next step is to get yourself in front of their corporate-level decision makers.

This is where ABM kicks in, with marketing, sales, and executive team members collaborating to identify and engage the right people.

In days of yore – in other words, a decade or more ago – this would have involved directories, cold calls, and visits to corporate offices.

Today, that approach is akin to a kitchen appliance salesman turning up on your front porch. You’d lock the deadbolt and watch warily from an upstairs window until he moves along, then go back to researching your new air fryer on Amazon.

Cold calling and swinging by a corporate office unannounced are low probability tactics.

And, even if you catch the person in a moment of weakness (answering the phone without checking the caller ID), they are unlikely to be ready for a sales conversation.

Today’s buyers don’t want to interact with a salesperson.

Definitely not while they are researching and exploring their options, and sometimes not even when they’re making their purchase.

However, they are open to receiving relevant and helpful advice as they learn about their challenge, evaluate possible solutions, and decide whether and what to purchase.

This requires meeting them in the places they go to find information.

And those places are mostly online.


Better marketers already know this. They’ve shifted from peddling sales propaganda to publishing content that’s relevant at each stage of the buyer’s journey.

Whichever supplier the buyer encounters favorably during the early stages of their buying journey is much more likely to win the business than those showing up later with features and benefits.

But what about the sales team?

How do they get to know the buyer, build a relationship with them, and “make them a deal”?

If all that research and evaluation is happening online, who’s wearing their shoes out around the exhibit hall at that expensive conference?

Nobody. At least, no modern buyer.

To find, engage, and build relationships with the new generation of B2B buyer, you’ve got to meet them online.

And that’s a challenge for old-school teams with deep in-person sales experience and an equally deep mistrust for LinkedIn.

Five Keys to the Retrofit


A first and obvious requirement if you’re going to successfully introduce ABM to this kind of team is to set realistic expectations.

This isn’t going to be quick, it isn’t going to be easy, and it’s going to require a lot of patient handholding.

Be careful not to assume people know “the basics” about social media platforms or online interactions.

You’ll find many online articles talking about ABM best practices, including how many target accounts and individuals a team should be able to handle and how long the engagement process should take.

Ignore them.

Some team members will be starting with stronger technology skills than others. Some will be less inhibited by their fear of the unknown. Some will dive headfirst into multiple online conversations. Others will take it slow with one or two, until they see how it goes.

Even the most bullish of salespeople can be surprisingly timid when faced with taking their craft into the virtual world.


My second piece of advice is one that’s given to astronauts and budding entrepreneurs alike: explain everything in a way your 80-year-old grandmother would understand.

This can seem patronizing, especially when you’re dealing with prickly, tenured employees who are used to receiving white glove treatment.

In practice, provided they are willing to admit what they don’t know, they will greatly appreciate the step-by-step instruction.

Take time to prepare written instructions with an abundance of screenshots – or, even better, videos – so your team members can revisit them when practicing on their own (without having to call you each time they forget something).


It’s important to keep ABM and regular sales efforts separate.

I recently worked with a company that planned to track their ABM targets in the same pipeline as other sales opportunities.

This doesn’t make sense because an ABM prospect will go through a very different set of stages from a sales opportunity and may be a success even if no revenue-generating sale takes place.

The table below shows some possible stages for each:

Sales Opportunity

ABM Prospect

Marketing Qualified Lead

Individual Identified

Sales Qualified Lead

Contact Established Online

Opportunity Defined

Product Information Exchanged

Proposal Submitted

Buying Committee Identified


Executive Meeting Scheduled

Closed Won

Enterprise Opportunity Identified

Closed Lost

No Enterprise Opportunity


A solution is to create a separate pipeline for ABM prospects.

Most customer relationship management (CRM) systems will accommodate multiple opportunity pipelines, with user-defined stages.

If you’re using a basic CRM that doesn’t offer this functionality, consider upgrading to a more sophisticated package (or tier). You might choose to manage ABM prospects separately – in a shared spreadsheet, for example – until you’re ready to implement the CRM upgrade.

Note that conventional sales opportunities are often generated during ABM outreach. While meetings are being held with the buying committee to negotiate an enterprise level deal, opportunities to sell trial units often arise. These should be dropped into the conventional sales pipeline for negotiation and closure.


This is an old saw during any change management process. Make sure you celebrate small successes along the way to your bigger goal.

In the early going, receiving a positive reply to a direct message or having a connection request accepted on LinkedIn can be a major victory.

Sharing and celebrating that news will encourage others to trust the ABM process and persist with their efforts.

Many ABM programs fail to deliver as promised because the team quickly gets demotivated and abandons the unfamiliar in favor of old habits.

Hold regular team meetings to discuss how the process is going, what successes have been logged, and any best practices the team has gleaned.

Each company’s message is a little different. Just like conventional in-person sales conversations, your team will discover phrases that resonate with your customer base, which can then be shared and reused.


If you’ve tried but failed to break into a particular company, move on down the list – even if the target you’re parking was potentially one of the biggest prizes.

There’s no guarantee of reaching the right person or that they will listen to you, let alone buy your product. Keep knocking on new (virtual) doors.

This can be disheartening, but not everyone is active or responsive online. Some of your potential buyers will simply be near-impossible to reach.

Keep their name in mind and look for them at the next trade show or golf tournament instead.


Turning the ABM Corner

As you patiently reinforce the ABM message and gently nudge the team into attempting online outreach, you will eventually reach a turning point.

Some – though potentially not all – of the participants will “get it”.

This will look different for each person, depending on where they started and how readily they’ve embraced social media interaction.

For many, it’s a realization that the process of getting to know someone electronically isn’t all that different from those side-bar conversations in the conference theatre or buffet line.

Establishing mutual work and leisure interests is usually the starting point.

When the first message a stranger receives from you tells them you’re intrigued by their responsibility for corporate investments and that you noticed they earned their MBA from the same university your daughter is attending, they’re much more likely to engage than if they receive a straight-up “can I interest you in my solution to your problem.”

With the ice broken, it only takes a couple of messages to establish a minimum level of trust and create the opportunity to ask business-related questions.

Some dyed-in-the-wool salespeople don’t (or won’t) invest the time to let this rapport build. They jump too quickly to selling instead of engaging.

Somehow, the old mantra of “always be closing” is too deeply engrained and they can’t help themselves but try to sell at every opportunity they get.

Today’s mantra is “always be helping”. Provide relevant, helpful advice and information every step of the way and the selling will take care of itself.

Does this mean ABM is doomed to fail at companies where one or more established members of the sales team fail to get with the program?

Not necessarily, but whomever holds overall accountability for marketing and sales will have to gauge the impact.

In a smaller organization, excluding a key salesperson from your ABM efforts might leave too few resources capable of carrying the program forwards.

If their disengagement turns into actively undermining or dismissing the ABM approach, this can demotivate others.

You will ultimately face a strategic decision, based on the relative importance of ABM (and online customer engagement more broadly) and conventional sales to your company’s future growth.

Things to TAKE AWAY

In the information age, the world of B2B buying and selling looks very different from the way conventional sales teams grew up. Some of them adapt rapidly to digital approaches, but some of them struggle. Their reluctance to change can make implementing online programs, such as account-based marketing, tricky.

The following five practices will help “old school” teams get comfortable with ABM:

  1. Set realistic expectations and don’t rush the process.
  2. Explain everything in a way your 80-year-old grandmother would understand and prepare written instructions with an abundance of screenshots or videos so your team members can revisit them.
  3. Keep ABM and regular sales processes separate, creating a second CRM pipeline for ABM opportunities.
  4. Celebrate small successes along the way to your bigger goals and be sure to capture internal best practices for others to replicate.
  5. If you fail to break into a company, move on to the next one – even if the company you’re parking was one of the biggest potential prizes. You can’t reach or win them all.

Pay attention to when each team member turns the corner and begins to embrace – and even enjoy – the ABM approach.

Importantly, watch out for individuals who don’t, can’t, or won’t get with the program. If they are negatively impacting others or seriously impeding your progress, changes might have to be made.

Business that are still depending on traditional marketing and sales are at risk of serious, potentially existential, disruption when competitors or new entrants adopt digital approaches.

As painful as the transition can be, patiently guiding the team to learn and adopt new ways of working is far better than becoming obsolete and going out of business.

Photo Credits
Photo by Ryoji Iwata on Unsplash
Photo by Patrick Fore on Unsplash


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Topics:Marketing Strategy