Account-based Mindset

Empathy’s Role in Account Based Marketing

Riley Smith
Content Contributor
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Take real world action to build meaningful relationships, and the value will build organically.

Keith Pranghofer is the Director of Marketing for ISV Partnerships at Microsoft. Before that, he was Director of Account Based Marketing for Strategic Accounts. Above all, Keith is a customer success pioneer and account-based marketer who is passionate about rallying nimble and diverse teams to create experiences that put the customer at the center.

We sat down with him to discuss empathy-based relationship building, its role in account based marketing, and how we learn the greatest lessons from those we love most.


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Please tell us more about your current role with Microsoft.

I currently work with large ISV partners, that’s Independent Software Vendors, on multi-year partnerships. We focus on driving long-term transformation, leveraging the cloud.

It’s a lot of fun. We have to determine how we’re going to go to market together, which is more fun and complicated than thinking about how you do it as a single organization. How do you go to market with another billion dollar company? That’s what I do today.

But I’ve spent the last fifteen years in account based marketing, in both large and small scales, but mostly around strategic one-to-one or one-to-few.

How did you get into account based marketing?

For me it started at Microsoft in our consulting services business. I led field marketing for that group.

If you think about where ABM originated from, that’s it. I was in the consulting world, and I needed to know our customers deeper to be able to build a broader portfolio of business.

So that’s how I became connected with it, through the Information Technology Services Marketing Association, or ITSMA, about twelve years ago. Then I moved into products and now into partnerships.

What are you most passionate about?

Building things with my hands. My last project was a treehouse for my kids.

I’m passionate about making things out of materials that feel live and tangible.

Especially when you get to continue to create, to see a project evolve. The treehouse started out as a square box, and then we moved the sandbox underneath it. After that expansion, the kids wanted a slide, so we added a deck and a slide.

So it evolved! That was a lot of fun, to think creatively, to ask, “Alright, how do I add this in this space? How are the kids using it now, and how could I do it better next time?”

I’m sure there will be more to add later, but they enjoy it, and I enjoy seeing it being used.

What does “relevance” mean to you?

I use the analogy of the movie Inception. I love that movie.

In the film, Leonardo Dicaprio is a professional thief that goes out and steals corporate secrets. The word they use is “dream sharing,” but he gets into the subconscious of his targets.

I’m not out there to steal corporate secrets, but I’m out there to win mind-share. So relevance isn’t just, did I get the message right? Or the content, or the specific event.

Relevance is not only understanding what my customer wants right now, but what do they dream of accomplishing, or what do they dream of accomplishing for their end customers? And how do I become part of that dream or help shape it?

To me, that’s true relevance, because then I have mind-share and I have preference. With those two things, you can do a lot of good for yourself and your customer.

That’s the way I talk about it with the people on my team, and how I try to think about it.

How can we as marketers achieve that level of relevance?

You have several tools in your shed, as it were, whether its technology or agencies feeding you insights, or what you’re capturing with your website, but for me, the greatest help is access. Getting in and actually spending time with your clients or your customers, and getting to know their end customers.

That is one of the things we spend a lot of time on, and I’ve spent a lot of time personally looking at it. How do I get to know and become embedded with that customer? How do I get to have conversations with them? How do I get to build with them?

Then I talk with their end customers, go to their events, their stores, and experience it for myself.

Those are the things that really allow you to bring relevance and gain that mind-share. I think it’s what differentiates really good marketers from the great ones.

When you spend time with these customers and immerse yourself in their culture, what are you looking for?

Listening is a big part of it, but I’ll tell you a story from one of my employees. He did a great job with this.

He actually went to a bank that we were working with. He spent time going into the physical bank location as an end customer, not online, not going to the ATM, but actually went up to the teller.

He took the step of seeing what the physical experience is like. What are the human interactions that our customer’s employees are giving to their end customers? It was more about that lived experience than going back and forth with a set of questions.

He explained his process to me, and it really brought that to life for me. You have to go in and breathe the experience of going into the bank or wherever. Now, you can’t go do that everywhere, but to me, it’s more about not coming in with a set agenda.

A lot of times, we come in like, “These are the questions I need to ask everyone.” But actually living that experience as a customer is going to give you insight that will help you engage the client you’re going after.

That’s going to help you build a rapport that you wouldn’t be able to do by asking questions, like what’s your customer churn rate, or what’s your ideal customer profile? Or, you know, what’s your greatest business challenge? What keeps you up at night?

Everyone asks those questions. But if you actually come and say, “Hey, this is how I felt coming into your bank,” whether it’s good or bad, it’s going to unlock new conversations. Then you can listen and explore something new.

That’s one of the tactics that we encourage our team to do. If it’s a customer or client that you can experience directly, go do that. See how that brand shows up in the market.

What are some barriers that keep marketers from demonstrating genuine empathy?

I think one of the big things is also a barrier to access in general: our own comfort level with asking to have that access.

Specifically, in account based marketing we often rely on the sales team to be our messenger or bring the voices of the customer back to us. I think we often hold ourselves back from saying, “Hey, I want access. I want to be part of the conversation.”

So part of it is that as marketers, we need to go out on a limb a bit. We need to push to be part of that conversation, to lead the conversation.

I think one of the biggest barriers is marketers need to come out of the office and engage in the same way as a salesperson would with their customers.

The second thing would probably be the barrier of how we’re all so rushed for time nowadays. We want to get to the insights. We don’t want to bother people. Everyone’s so busy!

That environment becomes a barrier to empathy.

The other barrier is the sheer amount of information. We have to figure out what is meaningful and what is not. How do you pull a real insight from all this data that’s being fed to you?

Whether it’s through a technology stack or direct from a customer or salesperson, how do you sift through everything and find the time to actually pull out the nuggets so that you can respond with true empathy for a person’s real feelings?

When I think about empathy, I think about an analogy I heard.. You’re walking down a path, and you see someone with a rock on them, and you say, “Oh, that must be really painful. I have empathy for you.”

Then what? Do you walk away? Or do you take it to that next step and say, “Let me help move that rock off you.” That’s actually showing compassion.

Combining empathy and action. How do you do that? I think many of us don’t take the step toward the action that we could take.

So how do you turn your empathy into action? That barrier comes down to time and access.

What role does timing play in relevance?

No journey is ever the same, and it’s never straight, even though we want to put it into a linear sales cycle or whatnot.

Timing is key, but I think the important thing to point out is you’re never too late. If you go straight to thinking, “We missed that window,” you’re never going to get it back.

It might be two years down the road before you have a chance to win back that client, or whatever the opportunity was, but you can’t give up, or you’ll never have another chance. Timing is important, but never let yourself feel like you’re too late to the game to participate.

To expand on that to a marketing strategy, I would say, dive in and go! Dive in, go, make it happen, versus hold back, because people are endlessly evaluating these days.

Another thing that’s often missed is the connection between sales and marketing and customer. We spend so much time on the internal connection, and we need to do that, but you will never be able to demonstrate empathy toward the customer if you’re spending all your time on the internal alignment.

You need to ask, “How do we bring the customer into the fold?”

What about when getting access to the customer is difficult? What’s your strategy for gaining access?

I think when you can’t get access, the first thing you should look at is how your internal teams are operating. Your sales team or business development folks, where are they struggling? Come back to those and think about how to help them with some of those challenges.

The real block may not be about immediately getting access to the customer. You might need to solve some other challenges internally first. Bring ideas to the table for their issues, whether they’re trying to get a meeting with a certain buyer, or they’re struggling to land a message, or they’re not sure how to get through a proposal or some executive meeting.

Bring solutions and enable them to be better, and then later that person will be your champion and help you gain access to the customers. Think about it as a stepping stone.

If the block is external, then I find a successful strategy is the one we already talked about. Getting real world experience of their brand, the experiences that they give their customer, and bringing that back to them.

You have to feel confident and be comfortable saying, “This is something I can share,” and not in a way that’s going to be taken as demeaning or telling them they’re doing something wrong.

If you want to overcome that external barrier, you have to bring them something meaningful. No one wants to hear the same old pitch. Bring them something meaningful that you’ve experienced or seen.

I pretty much guarantee that will get somebody listening. It might be someone that you weren’t thinking of targeting, someone else in the organization, but that will open up other opportunities and other conversations.

Can you tell us more about internal barriers to account based marketing?

There’s been such a big pivot towards scale and reach and MarTech and all the stuff that comes with it. The team I was leading prior to my current role, we worked with only thirty-six customers total, and we invested a lot in those relationships.

This seems kind of crazy when you think about the size of Microsoft. We have thousands of employees. But I remember telling someone, “If I get one of those clients that we work with for two or three years to go out in the market and tell our story, that testimony from a Fortune 100 brand is going to be more powerful than years of webinars or webcasts or any content marketing we do.”

When our customer says, “I want you to come to my customer conference and talk about how we are transforming an industry together,” and there are hundreds of vendors and partners there to hear about it, that story is going to be so much more powerful out in the market than all of the content and all of the experiences you can create on your own.

But thinking about barriers, that scale mindset can be a hard one to overcome. People are focused on how many new contacts and how many have converted. Some of the benefits of relationship building can’t be measured, but to me, the impact and opportunities from account based marketing are truly exponential, if you have the privilege to make it happen over the long term.

Regarding this mindset, what would you tell yourself fifteen years ago?

Two things. One, don’t overthink it. If there’s something that needs to be said, say it right. Say it with kindness, say it with empathy and compassion, but don’t overthink it.

The second thing is the concept of the story you tell yourself. This is philosophy or research from Brene Brown.

Often we go through life and have experiences, and we think something went wrong, or we didn’t show up with our best. We tell this story to ourselves like, “I could have done it better this way,” or “I really upset that person.” When in reality, none of that happened.

You just told yourself that story, and you spent so much time and energy breaking yourself down, and it wasn’t necessary. I’ve started to ask people, if I feel like I struggled or failed at something, I ask them, “This is what I’ve been telling myself. How do you feel about it?”

99% of the time, what I’ve been feeling is not what happened. It happened to me only three weeks ago. I said something on a partner call, and I thought, “Oh, that wasn’t the right thing to say. I’ve derailed this meeting.”

I followed up with our development manager and he said, “That was awesome! That was a great call. We’re moving things forward.”

I’d been sitting there for thirty minutes creating all this stress and anxiety for myself that wasn’t needed! All that energy was gone.

So those are my two big things. Don’t overthink. Don’t let your own mind get in the way by creating stories that aren’t true.

Are there any other tools or resources that you would recommend to learn more about relevance and empathy?

I think I’ve gotten the most education from building my network and having conversations with peers in my industry or who do the same functions.

Spending time doing that is still learning from others. I’ve gotten a lot out of those conversations.

The second thing I love is to read things that might not seem at first glance to apply to marketing and business. Even reading with my kids. Whether it's fairy tales or short little books, important learning is built into those books.

When I try to teach them to my kids, I realize there’s something I can take out of that. It’s a great example of relevance and empathy, too. These books have to take what can be really complex topics and turn it into something a child can understand.

I’m always taking something out of that time. We have limited amounts of time, you can’t create more of it, so I prioritize spending it with my kids. I’m learning a lot from them and the stories I choose to read to them.

We learn a lot about ourselves, too, from our kids. My son will do something, and I’ll be like, “Did he just do that? Where did he learn that?” and then I think, “Oh, yeah, I did that the other day.”

So spending time with my kids and with my peers is where I learn the most. Everything else is kind of frosting on the cake. But if you spend time with those two important groups of people, family and peers, if you really prioritize that time, you’ll learn a lot. I know I have.

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We’re diving even deeper into Empathy on our podcast, REACH, where we explore the mindsets of high achievers and then seek to apply the lessons to life, business, and marketing.

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