Over the last couple of years, I’ve seen the proliferation of marketing and customer acquisition “methodologies” multiply, fragment and confuse. One of the reasons for this was the success that HubSpot had with their focus on Inbound Marketing and the methodology they created to define it.
Since that time, it’s become part of the standard SaaS/tech playbook to create a new methodology to frame the product a company is attempting to sell. I’ve even seen some very successful executives and advisors proclaim that if you want to launch a new SaaS product you must create a unique methodology to frame it.
What’s more, with the promise of each “unique” methodology, the focus moves to what you call things instead of on the objectives and results that should be driving the entire process anyway.
Here are just a few of the loudest:
- Inbound Marketing
- Account-Based Marketing
- Outbound Marketing
- Conversational Marketing
- Legacy Marketing
What makes this so confusing and frustrating is that the proponents of each method describe them with near zealotry. I’ve lost count of the number of people who have said to me, “We don’t want to do Inbound Marketing, we need to do Account-Based Marketing,” or vice versa. (You can substitute in for Conversational or any other option for either of those.)
Someone needs to hit the reset button. We need to stop talking about these approaches as though they are mutually exclusive. I, for one, am a fan of all of them, and while I would rarely use all of these methods within one company, I would also virtually never use only one. As an old manager of mine used to say, “Everything works and nothing works.”
The D.E.A.L.S. Framework
For the last year, we’ve been wrestling with the challenge of creating a single framework to guide the structure, strategy, tactics, and execution of any customer acquisition and success program aimed at producing high-probability, repeatable, scalable, high-margin, high-ROI, fast growth.
Today, we’re excited to share that framework with you.
First, let me explain what the acronym stands for:
Discovery - At this stage, you’re focused on identifying high-quality, right-fit leads/accounts that fit your ideal client/customer profile (ICP).
Engage - This is where an account-focused approach kicks in, regardless of the underlying tactics you may be using. At this stage, you’re looking to connect with the right accounts and the right people within the accounts.
Activate - This is the most leverageable (and overlooked) stage. In this stage, the engagement that you’ve generated becomes meaningful, you expand the number of people within an account who are engaged, and you aim to directly influence the definition of the problems and/or opportunities your prospects identify.
Launch - Engagement turns into defined opportunities and the active sales process commences.
Success - You win the business, and now the work of customer success begins.
Now, let’s move to dig into each stage with more detail.
Download a .pdf version of The DEALS Framework
The Discovery Stage
The objective for this stage is quite simple - clearly identify the companies and people that are the ones you want to do business with. Predictable success here requires that you spend adequate time defining (and consistently refining) your ideal customer/client profile and target personas. To keep things as simple as possible, there are three basic approaches you can use:
- Inbound approaches are most effective when your target accounts are small or very hard to define and identify. The goal of inbound is to enable those who fit your profile to quickly find you and to easily take an action that enables you to identify who they are and to track the various actions they take.
- Outbound approaches are most effective when you have strongly defined target account definitions and can accurately identify both the companies that fit your ICP and the personas you want to communicate with. The primary difference between effective outbound and inbound should simply be whether you identify the potential customer or the potential customer identifies you. Both should focus on attracting and engaging before “selling” by helping and creating value.
- The third approach is a hybrid, mixing inbound and outbound. This approach is likely the best approach for most companies.
The time and resources focused on the Discovery stage should be determined by the gap between the number of qualified target accounts you've identified and the number you need to meet your growth objectives. A common mistake I see with companies (especially those that have focused on inbound marketing for a sustained period of time) is that they still focus primarily on lead generation (which is really just another word for discovery) despite the fact that their databases, CRM, and marketing automation tools are bloated with identified leads who aren’t doing much. Applying The DEALS Framework to your customer acquisition and retention effort creates a unifying roadmap that can align all facets of your organization with each other and with your customers. With this framework, you can much more easily ask and answer the question, “What job is this tactic being ‘hired’ to do?” With this type of alignment, you can resolve the problem that many organizations face integrating data, metrics, and analytics to empower (rather than confuse) their execution. To be clear, when it comes to determining what key metrics you should use to guide your framework, simply copying what others are using is a bad choice. The metrics you focus on will yield an invisible force influencing the behavior and actions in your organization, so choose them carefully. To help get you started, we're going to share some of the common metrics we consider when implementing The DEALS Framework for ourselves and our clients.
Here are common Discovery Metrics:
- # of identified right-fit accounts
- # of identified target personas
- Demand Generation Model Metrics
- Lead Velocity
- Website traffic (and more specifically the trend)
- Blog traffic
- Qualified Account Yield (what percentage of leads generated are discovering right-fit accounts)
- Reverse SEO Keyword Rankings
- Keywords can tell you what your market is “hearing” so you can determine if that’s what you want to be communicating. We look at the keywords we rank for and ask ourselves if these are what we want our target accounts (ICP) to search for. If so, is the volume of the search sufficient to generate discovery.
- Top pages
- Social Media
- Candidly, we don’t really care about how many likes, clicks, shares, retweets, etc. we get. What we do care about is who is doing it. Just because someone likes, clicks, or shares a post doesn’t mean they’re engaged. However, it can enable us to discover accounts we may not have been familiar with. In addition, when we look at the entire audience engaging, we can look at the qualified account yield to determine if the right people are hearing what we’re sharing.
- Who is visiting
- We look at a couple of different company visit reports. We look at these, less because we think an anonymous visitor should be seized, but instead to determine if the right types of people (and companies) are discovering us.
The Engage Stage
Engagement is the next objective. In the research we conducted in 2018 on the real buyer’s journey, we uncovered the importance of buying organizations’ early-stage, pre-awareness activities that build the base for future decisions (and purchases).
Realize that, with the exception of something caused by a sudden, unexpected crisis, any buying decision made today is the result of a complex array of inputs, influences, and actions that occurred some time ago (and even crisis-based purchases are highly influenced by the thoughts and beliefs formed long before the purchase was considered).
While most people would agree that the new customers who inquire today and make a big purchase in two weeks are exciting, it’s rarely as lucrative as it feels. The more frequently target accounts and personas engage with both your people and content, the more familiar they feel with you; familiarity breeds trust.
The first waypoint in the engage stage (and what we internally refer to as the acquisition journey) is to generate a first positive (or at least non-negative) action. We recommend you keep the bar fairly low when it comes to defining this, but we do recommend that it be a confirmable action. Here are some common first actions we use:
- Responding to an email (with something other than “never contact me again”)
- Visiting a webpage
- Clicking an email
- Talking to a sales rep
- Incoming call
The first decision that a prospect has to make regarding you and your company is “Do I want to give any attention to you?” For this reason, it’s also far more effective to keep your initial engagement strategy simple, with a focus on generating a first action. We regularly see companies shoot for too much of a milestone in the beginning. This is the primary reason that “cold calling” has such a bad name. It’s not the calling that’s necessarily so bad. It’s that the very first action they’re shooting for is a commitment to meet and disclose valuable information.
Generating engagement (and as we’ll discuss shortly activation) is well worth the investment if you aim to successfully sell higher-margin solutions with any degree of predictability.
Once you get a first action, the next waypoint is matching the engagement to your key personas. When qualifying leads, we’ve always taught to qualify the company, not the contact. Engagement from the wrong persona at a right-fit account is better than engagement from the perfect persona at a wrong-fit account.
At this point, your objective should be finding ways to be helpful to your ideal personas, whether that’s through 1:1 conversation or through the content you are creating. Again, at this point, you want to keep the hurdle relatively low. This is not about driving intent or a sales opportunity. As long as the reason for engagement has a reasonable connection to what you do, your goal is engagement.
Momentum is a powerful asset to any marketer or seller. You can think of engagement as a form of momentum. Generating sales conversations is a fairly simple formula. It looks a lot like this:
- First, a prospect has to become aware of you and your solution. After all, if they don’t know you exist, it’s highly unlikely they’ll be buying from you.
- Then they have to pay attention to you - the more attention they’re paying, the more influence you’ll have.
- Then they have to connect what you do to the problems and opportunities they’re focused on.
Focus on achieving the first two points and you’ll find connecting the dots and initiating sales conversations become far more effortless.
The final waypoint in the Engagement stage is for a targeted persona to take a meaningful action. This is where you begin to raise the hurdle on the type of actions that are being taken.
Defining what a meaningful action is for your company is highly contextual. It must be highly connected to your strategy and advantages. To help give you a start, here are some examples we’ve used in the past for some of our clients:
- A SaaS company we worked with defined a meaningful action as when a targeted persona had visited their website at least 4 times, read (or visited) 2 different blog posts (those views could be a part of the 4 web visits) and had visited their pricing page.
- A consulting company we worked with considered it a meaningful action when one of their defined personas visited their approach page and filled out a form for one of the industry-specific white papers or self-assessments.
- At Imagine, we’ve cataloged a selection of deep resource web pages (you can see an example of one of those here) and certain videos (this would also include some of the live webinars we host) that match up to various personas. When a defined persona crosses a time threshold with one of these assets, we consider it a meaningful action.
With the Engage stage of The DEALS Framework laid out, complicated go-to-market strategies become much more simple:
- First, you work to generate an action (nearly any action) from someone at a right-fit company.
- Then you work to get action and engagement from your ideal personas
- As your ideal personas engage, the goal of your demand generation, marketing, and sales teams is to move personas towards those actions that you consider (and ultimately confirm with data) to be meaningful.
- Top pages
- Top pages by target personas
- Target account engagement
- Blog subscribers
- Email engagement
- Social conversations
- About Us/Team page engagement
- Action page engagement
- Time on action pages
- Call rates and engagement
The Activate Stage
Lead (or account) activation is a crucial, often misunderstood and overlooked component of a high-probability/high-reward customer acquisition and retention strategy. Companies who care about growth have obsessed about lead generation for more than a decade.
The result is databases & CRMs that are bigger than ever before. Unfortunately, that’s not translating into a measurably greater velocity of customer wins or in average lifetimes. Make no mistake, people are hustling more, working harder and companies are spending more, but they’re not gaining any actual leverage.
What they’re getting is what we, at Imagine, call Bulging Funnel Disorder. They’re generating leads, but they’re not generating the meaningful action to influence, advance or accelerate the results they desire.
The major cause of Bulging Funnel Disorder is the attempt by companies to skip from the Discovery or Engage stages directly to the Launch stage, skipping activation altogether.
Building Funnel Disorder creates “clogged pipes,” multiplying acquisition and retention costs (driven in large part by increased investments in lead generation efforts & headcount). This leads to a vicious cycle effect. Higher costs and headcount reinforces the obsession for more leads that get clogged up.
Revenue still increases but the cause is related far more to the combination of significantly greater volume and brute force. Costs rise and growth engines weaken. We should note that these approaches enable companies to meet their corporate and financial objectives when supported by a very strong economy. The price for this is paid heavily when that support begins to weaken.
Some of the most successful growth companies in their industries are “meeting their numbers,” but by using bloated sales teams who are working harder and spending far more than they should for their results. This is a new variation of Wannamaker’s Law: as companies are spending more than ever, despite more metrics and analytics that anyone can comprehend, they have less clarity on what investments are actually generating strong outcomes.
A strong activation program can increase the capacity of sales and marketing organizations by 33% or more, providing greater lift and fueling stronger economic models.
The meaningful actions that come at the end of the Engage stage also serve as the beginning of the Activate stage. As your target accounts and personas begin to take meaningful actions with your company, your goal should move towards expanding that engagement to fully penetrate your targeted personas.
At this waypoint, you’re building out connection and engagement with the various buying roles that will likely exist in a purchasing or decision cycle on the part of your prospect. There should no longer be any question that businesses of virtually all sizes are moving to some form of consensus-based decision-making.
Depending upon whose study you use and what size and type of company you are selling to, you can expect somewhere between 4 and 21 people to have direct influence on the decisions and actions your target accounts make. Too often these people become aware of you too late in the process and the result is that you are commoditized and devalued (plus it leads to greater ambiguity into the status of your efforts).
The best way to do this is by implementing Lead Activation Plays. These plays are designed to stimulate meaningful conversations. There are four objectives to a Lead Activation Play:
- Answer the question that every prospect must answer before you have a chance to make a sale: Why should I/we talk to you?
- Move from passive engagement/awareness to active curiosity/investigation
- Create ownership of the problems you solve and/or the opportunities you enable your customers to capture within your prospect’s organization (one of the major reasons that salespeople are surprised to lose a sale or to get squeezed is that they own the problem far more than their prospect does)
- Reduce the hold of the status quo by increasing the perceived pain of not changing
For your Lead Activation Plays to be successful, they must be:
- Low (and preferably no) risk for the prospect
- Low effort for the prospect (the effort can increase over time)
- Low pressure (this means that the prospect must be able to see an easy exit if they no longer wish to engage)
- High value/High impact
- Teachable, focused on their problem/opportunity and not your solution
- Aligned with where your prospect is in their journey
And remember, these plays must be successful with multiple personas to give you the leverage you desire. Your goal is to expand and activate.
The ultimate goal of the Activate stage is twofold:
- You want to influence how targeted accounts/personas think about, view and prioritize the problems and/or opportunities they have
- You want your prospects to distinctly define the problems and/or opportunities they pursue
The second may sound obvious, but consider research from Challenger, Inc.: 38% of purchase attempts initiated by organizations end in no decision. One of the primary causes of this wasted time and resources for both sellers and buyers is that the problem/opportunity that stimulated the purchase attempt wasn’t defined well enough, so as the conflict and disruption associated with purchasing increases, the reason for the purchase doesn’t sustain. It becomes easier to do nothing than to move forward.
- Return visits (number, frequency, and consistency)
- Target account behavior
- Target account contact expansion
- Active personas per account
- Email engagement
- Solutions page performance
- Key page activity
- Time per identified target
- Call rates & engagement
- Lead management pipeline velocity
The Launch Stage
When a problem/opportunity reaches a critical mass for your prospects, it kicks off a buying cycle, and thus your active sales process. (Realize that this entire framework represents the sales process.) We’ve written extensively on the key components of a strong sales process and we encourage you to review The Comprehensive Guide to Designing a High-Impact Sales Process.
For purposes of guiding this framework, there are three key waypoints:
- Investigate: This is the beginning of what is commonly called the consideration phase of any decision. Key issues are defined and decision criteria are formed at this stage. At this stage, the buyer often hasn’t decided to necessarily do anything about the problem/opportunity being considered. The focus is here determining if solving the problem/opportunity is worth the effort. (Will the juice be worth the squeeze?)
- Commit: This is the point where the customer organization commits to doing something about the problem. The specifics of what they do and who they ultimately buy from may not be (and often isn’t) fully formed. There’s a significant advantage to selling organizations to being actively present and participating in the investigative phase, but by no means does that guarantee anything.
- Solve/Decide: This is when the decision is made, including who (if anyone) the customer will use to help them.
Selling organizations often suffer from two flaws in how buyers go through this process. A strong sales process should be designed to mitigate them.
- Buyers rarely, on their own, go through such a distinct progression towards making a decision. Instead, they conflate multiple issues, like mixing whether they should do something with who they should do it with. This leads to major disruption and confusion in the decision process. It increases the likelihood that the process ends with no decision as well as the time and costs for a selling organization to manage the process.
- Buyers often go into this phase with a focus on process. This leads to the conflict that emerges between various parties within the buying organization and is what makes consensus buying so frustrating for sellers. It’s important to clearly define desired outcomes so they can be used to manage and overcome such internal conflict. It also reduces the likelihood and intensity of “sticker shock” when the seller (finally) answers the question “How much will your solution really cost?”
We refer to the sales process stage as the Launch stage because the sales process should be viewed as the beginning of your customer success strategy and process. When your Launch stage ends with the prospect saying “Yes,’ it’s time to transition to the Success stage.
- Sales Conversation Qualified Account Velocity
- Sales Velocity
- Pipeline Momentum
- Time per opportunity
- Fit rate
- Close rate
- Win rate
Download a .pdf Version of The DEALS Framework
The Success Stage
Customer Success and Retention is a complex system all to itself, and it needs to be tightly designed and oriented to the unique components of your business, value proposition, and customer base.
Customer Success triggers an additional framework -- what we call The Customer Success 4D Framework:
Deliver: The first step of a strong customer success program requires that you clearly define what your customers’ expectations are and deliver them.
Delight: Customers are happy. They feel good (or at least smart) regarding the decision to buy from you and they share that experience with others leading to word-of-mouth and customer advocacy.
Deepen: A strong success process deepens and cements the relationships you have with customers. This may be driven by greater utilization of your existing product/services, broadening the products/services that are being used, and/or expanding who within the customer’s organization uses your products/services (often referred to as the “expand phase” of a revenue acquisition strategy).
The 3 Games (Strategies) You Can Play
One of the things that makes The DEALS Framework so powerful is that it is strategy/methodology agnostic and (hopefully) ends the meaningless debates that exist when people are arguing about “the right methodology.”
There are basically 3 approaches (you may call them strategies, we call them games) that you can apply to winning and keeping high-value customers. These approaches exist along what we call the Personalization Continuum. The right game for you is highly dependent on what you’re selling, how you’re selling, what your customers are buying, and how they’re buying it. (Note: what you’re selling and what your customers are buying are often not the same thing).
Programmatic (1-2 on The Personalization Continuum)
This is the simplest and most common approach. The programmatic game utilizes very little personalization in terms of tactics, messaging and process. It works best for smaller average sale values, if for no other reason than the other two games are too expensive for small ASV offers, low-risk/low-consideration purchases. While B2B companies are (or should be) by definition account-focused, the programmatic game looks very similar to broad-based B2C approaches. If you’re playing this game, in some cases, you may not need to build an ICP because a persona-based approach can work.
Contextualized (3-5 on The Personalization Continuum)
This is where account-focused approaches separate from leads-based approaches. With a contextualized approach you’re customizing your tactics, message, and process. This game is best played when a one-size-fits-all model isn’t sufficient to break through the noise barrier to generate the type of engagement and activation that’s needed to influence your target accounts. It tends to work best in moderate to large ASV models, where the familiarity with your company and/or offering isn’t dominant, when multiple personas will directly influence the decision, and when there are distinct consideration periods with your target accounts. This game is more complicated and requires more effort (and therefore expense) than the programmatic model. The payoff comes from greater predictability and higher margins. The Contextualized or Individualized Games are also the ones to play if you’re having a problem breaking into targeted accounts.
Individualized (6-7 on The Personalization Continuum)
This is the most complicated and difficult game to play. With this approach, you create custom tactics, messaging and even processes to break into, manage, and win specific accounts. This game is best played when selling to very large companies and large ASVs. (For example, if you want to sell a high-end product/service to Procter & Gamble, a contextualized message about what’s happening in the industry isn’t enough. You need to design a message specifically for them.) Playing and winning this game requires deep knowledge about your customers’ worlds, what’s unique about their environment, the challenges, and opportunities. One note, if you don’t have this type of knowledge, you’ll want to start with Contextualized and build to Individualized.
How Many Games Can You Play?
Most businesses should be playing two games. There’s nothing wrong with playing all three, but it does increase the complexity of the systems you’ll need to build and manage. We should also note there’s nothing wrong with only playing one game.
The distinction to note is that while your business can play multiple games, you must only play one game with each prospect. The most common combination we see is companies that should be playing a Contextualized game with their core target accounts and a Programmatic one for their smaller accounts.
The mistake most companies in this position make is that they attempt to play one game by finding the lowest common denominator or the minimal approach that will suffice to compete for their target accounts.
This leads to marketing tactics that aren’t particularly effective for either account type and salespeople spend too much time (or attention) on their smaller accounts and not enough time on their larger or core accounts. The chronic sales strategy issue facing most salespeople today is that they are nearly always either “overselling” or “underselling,” and thus get far less accomplished for the effort they put forth.
This happens because it often appears that one game is a simpler approach. We would certainly agree that it is simpler, but it is far less effective (often devastatingly so).
The D.E.A.L.S. Framework Summary
The DEALS Framework provides a holistic view that can align all aspects of what your company does to find, win and retain high-value customers, and to unify the various methodologies, strategies, and tactics you may be implementing.
While we would firmly agree with a contrary opinion that you can win business and grow fast (hypergrowth even) without following this framework, we’d challenge the wisdom of such an approach. Certainly, not all opportunities will present themselves in such a manner that you can move through the entire framework, but the framework still provides two strong benefits:
- Strong insights into how to best approach and manage such opportunities
- A greatly increased probability of winning (as well as the margins you’ll enjoy when you do win) and the return you and your team’s time, money, and energy
The framework, by design, is flexible and should be fitted to your business and your strategy.
In addition, this framework advances your ability to design and implement a structure and system to support and enable your growth efforts. Companies today are paying a 15-50% friction tax. With this framework, you can quickly reduce important areas where friction is dragging momentum and performance and eliminate that tax.