Microsoft U.S. CMO: Account-Based Marketing Builds Intimacy With B2B Customers

Technology giant Microsoft is well along its digital transformation journey, according to U.S. CMO Valerie Beaulieu. Yet is that journey ever truly done?

On Microsoft’s 2020 radar is a focus on account-based engagement and marketing in order to build greater intimacy with their customers. “We want to continue to have that direct engagement with a subset of our customers that we know we can accelerate with tailored engagement,” Beaulieu said.

In an exclusive interview with CMO by Adobe, Beaulieu discussed Microsoft's three core pillars of transformation, how the company is tackling personalization at scale, her approach to recruiting new talent, and her marketing team's big bets for the new year.

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  • Can you tell me how you define digital transformation on your side of the business?

    At Microsoft we are committed to empowering every individual and every organization on the planet to achieve more, and our own digital transformation is all about serving that mission and delivering success for our customers. When it comes to marketing digital transformation, which is what I've driven since I joined the U.S. [business], I would say there are three core pillars I'm always talking about.

    Probably the first element at the core of any digital transformation is “purpose.” Satya Nadella, the CEO of Microsoft, has really shifted the culture to put the “why?” at the center of everything we do, infusing meaning into every customer interaction we drive through marketing and as a company in general.

    This purpose is the common thread that allows us to drive a consistent customer experience in a way where we activate the customer journey as a consistent system, and that's what really defines digital transformation and modern marketing. Unlocking the power of deep insights we have on our customers drives a unique opportunity to develop customized and continuous customer journeys, and understand where they are in their journeys to make sure we engage at the right time with the conversation they expect. And we're making sure we nurture them to the next level. 

  • When did you first start to talk about marketing transformation? What was happening within Microsoft that you felt you needed to transform?

    This has been a continuous journey, but with Satya Nadella joining in 2014, it really kicked off. I'm sure you've heard about his book Hit Refresh. It [describes the] complete transformation at Microsoft, and there were really three pillars to anchor our own marketing transformation–on the back of Satya kicking off that transformation for Microsoft.

    The three pillars were culture, capability, and technology. This was an answer to the three big trends we were seeing in the market and were responding to from a marketing point of view. The first one is B2B customers, [whose] expectations are shaped by their experience as a consumer. The second big trend we were seeing that is consistent across the board for all CMOs is the pressure we are under from our leadership team. Sometimes our boards are looking at us to not only drive the current growth, but also to make sure we optimize lifetime value and future growth. So being on the lookout for the new trends is a major impetus.

    The third [trend] is making sure we get our team on board to drive that transformation. It’s not always easy for marketing teams to adjust to modern marketing.

  • You mentioned how Satya frames transformation around culture, capability, and technology. Can you go through how these apply to your own kind of marketing transformation?

    Absolutely. The reason why I put culture at the center of our marketing transformation is that we know what’s most at stake with customers today is trust, and to drive trust you need to be absolutely consistent with who you are as a company. So this purpose-driven, deep culture percolates through all of our teams. Our culture has been fueled by research, focus groups, and interviews inside and outside the company. It has and is anchored on growth mindset, customer-centricity, and a deep commitment to diversity and inclusion.

    "D&I," as we call it, is at the center of how we do everything from product development down to marketing. The strength of our culture is to empower every marketing person to deliver that consistent customer experience that will continue to develop a relationship with customers based on trust.

    The second thing I talk about is capability. If you want to be customer-obsessed, it forces us to really think about: Who are you going to recruit, and do you need to cast a wider net? In the past I would be recruiting marketers with tech industry experience. Today I'm recruiting marketers with healthcare experience, manufacturing experience—people who are coming from the industries we need to develop an intimacy with.

    We need to hire marketers who have had experience and speak the same language as the customers, who know where they would be so that we don't interrupt their flow but engage with them at the right time in the right place. It's a very important piece. The other piece is making sure we are also recruiting people with a data and analytics background. I'm often joking that you need to be both left-brained and right-brained now in marketing. It's not about only creativity—it's about art and science, and that's a big division within marketing. And so it's very hard to find one person who's both very left-brained and very right-brained, but at least in your team you need to have the balance between creative folks with data scientists, Whichever role you’re recruiting, everybody needs to be data-savvy enough to make sense of all the data points and to drive these customer journeys.

    The third pillar is the technology. We are making a big bet on technology. Adobe and Marketo are at the core of what we're doing, helping us understand our customer journey from beginning to end. But also we are combining state-of-the-art technology, such as Adobe’s, with our own Azure data lakes, big data platform, and machine learning on top to make sure we process all this data and truly understand where customers are in their journey, and recommend where to drive them next.

  • Marketers have been talking about personalization for years now, and most can say they've done something with it in a small pocket within their organizations. But from what folks are telling me, it's not really happening at scale across their organizations. Could you speak to where you are from that perspective as a company? Are you able to personalize experiences at scale?

    We are trying very hard. We are benefitting from some centralization that has happened in the past three to four years, where we decided to centralize our global demand center. That allowed us to build an infrastructure that will enable us to follow the customer journey at scale. We now have a way to really understand the journeys all around the world and all the solutions we have in a way that is much more at scale than if it were each country doing this.

    And the beauty of that is with all these data points and understanding where the journeys are yielding the best results, whether in terms of velocity or lifetime value, we're able to target the customer in a way that is much more effective to really personalize the journey and get them to the best place possible from a transformation and conversation point of view. On top of these insights, the ability to infuse machine learning to propose the best next step to the customer is our own attempt to personalize at scale. We do have high-level customer journeys based on top-level scenarios, but today we're almost–and I'm emphasizing the word "almost"–able to have personalized journeys for each customer who is engaged thanks to this combination of data insight and the machine learning we're putting on top to propose the most logical next step based on their experience.

  • You mentioned technology as one of your bets. Do you have any others for 2020?

    One of the big bets relates to industry engagement and making sure we're super aligned to the expectations of our customers. That's very in line with our culture of making sure we are customer-obsessed and speaking the language of our customers. It’s asking: What are the business outcomes they are seeking, and how can we help them achieve these outcomes? We are doubling down our investments on account-based engagement and account-based marketing. This is corollary to the fact that we want to build that intimacy with our customers, and so we want to continue to have that direct engagement with a subset of our customers that we know we can accelerate with tailored engagement.

  • What are some of the big changes you've seen in the past decade or so to the CMO role, and how do you expect the position will continue to evolve?

    The CMO role is changing at the same rate as our customers' expectations are changing. So all the trends I was describing earlier are pushing the CMO to also evolve in their understanding of the customer and in the way they are supporting growth for the company. The expectation is on the CMO to not only drive the current lifetime value, but also to identify the signals for future growth and potential disruption. There is a much bigger expectation that the CMO will be on the lookout for these trends that will be a key contributor to grow the business currently and in the future.

    This is a big change where the CMO is no longer siloed into just marketing topics. There's much more at stake in the overall transformation of the company. This translates into the breadth of expertise we are—as CMOs—expected to manage and develop for our respective companies. And these capabilities are not fixed. We are judged on our ability to constantly learn and grow. That's probably the biggest transformation of all: The CMO really needs to be the transformative animal for themselves and for the company.

  • What words do you live by, and what advice do you have for readers?

    Be bold, be brave, and have fun. 

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