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A little over a year ago, I sat with Marcus Sheridan to take stock of 2019 and look ahead to 2020. Little did either of us know the year we would have. 

In many ways, 2020 upended life as we knew it, but it also offered clarity and insight into the future of business in a post-pandemic world.

As Marcus is fond of saying, it’s like someone hit the fast forward button for our marketing and sales practices. Virtual sales have exploded, touchless buying experiences are more common than ever, and true human connection is at the heart of more and more advertising.

Now, with all of this hindsight, Marcus again weighs in on the state of marketing, the future that’s coming, and how we can best serve our customers in 2021 and beyond.

Taking stock of 2020

John: A year ago, Marcus, I interviewed you about how marketers should prepare for 2020. Little did we know the year we would have!

Besides the obvious, what surprised you most about 2020?

Marcus: When I look at 2020, I’m most surprised by the fact that most companies had to get hit over the head with a baseball bat in order to start doing things that they knew inherently they should be doing.  

Just to show how imperfect I am, I had been telling my sales team at River Pools that they should do their first appointments virtually. It just never took hold with them because we hadn't been forced to do that. Of course we quickly made the shift to selling over video within 30 days of COVID, but we should have started years ago.

Now that we’re off to the races, we’re definitely never, ever going back to the way we were selling before.

It’s frustrating to me because I consider myself somebody who sees around the turn in a lot of ways, but I didn’t push hard enough. It just shows you that once you start living in the solution as a company, you start finding ways that you could do things that you didn't realize you could. 

John: That's true.

Marcus: I also think there's been a great reset with sales in the last year in terms of efficiency. A whole bunch of companies have recognized that many of the trips they were making to see customers in person were a waste of money. Now, there is a percentage of business travel that is absolutely needed, but there's also another huge swath that is not. 

As a result of the pandemic, we're going to see travel budgets go way down for sales teams going forward. If they're 50% what they were pre-2020, that'd be high.

The amount and quality of personal interaction you can have over video lets you accomplish the same task — and accomplish it faster. 

🔎Related: 6 powerful trade show budget alternatives to drive growth in 2021 

The art of the pivot

John: Do you think you [at River Pools] were better prepared because you had already introduced the topic of virtual sales?

Marcus: Well, in some ways yes. But you know, it's amazing what happens when we get scared. And there were a lot of scared salespeople last year. 

I met with a financial planning company 60 days into the pandemic and they said “you know, we realize now we don't have to close deals on the golf course.” They were scared and were forced to adapt quickly, so they adapted to survive.

It’s like smoking. Often times people don’t quit until they hear from a doctor that their health is suffering — then they can move pretty quickly. 

John: So businesses were forced to pivot as they faced tough choices?

Marcus:  Again, 2020 was a jolt and then a reset for the inefficiencies of business. The fact of the matter is there is a ton of waste out there, just like with travel, as I said. 

Another are of waste is office space rental. I would expect that to be 50% less going forward than it was in the past as more and more people opt to work from home. 

Once someone experiences something in life and proves that it is effective, it’s hard to go back.

🔎Related: Sell physical products virtually by focusing on these three aspect of the buying process

John: There’s always added clarity when you’re forced to pivot.

Marcus: Yes. How quickly we can pivot and how quickly we can diversify if we're forced to do so! We had to get back to being creative. 

This certainly was the case with the travel industry, but with other industries as well. It's like, how do we get creative to make this business model still work? All these chefs started doing online cooking school, and they found they can make more money with way less overhead. All the need is a videographer and their home kitchen.

The pandemic confirmed two these truths about marketing

John: Did the pandemic affirm any of your long held beliefs about marketing?

Marcus: The pandemic hit the fast forward times on the things that I already felt were true and the things that were coming, and that was centered around two big ideas.

First, you need an in-house videographer because you need to be able to show what you sell. A lot of people quickly realized that they couldn't actually sell their product unless they had a really amazing visual experience online for that thing. 

Take a hot tub company, for example. It's a very tactile product. You can sell those without them coming into the showroom, but only if you show the product in a compelling way.

Second is the trend of a sales-free sales experience. I’ve mentioned that study from Gartner that found that 33% of all buyers would prefer an entirely “sales-free” sales experience

A lot of companies had to see if they could enable buyers to make a purchase without actually having to come in or talking to a person directly. And, let’s be honest — that’s the buying experience that many customers wanted anyway. 

Think about it this way, you walk into a store and someone comes up and says, “May I help you?” In most cases, people say no. But, once they’ve found the thing they want, now they’re ready to engage with an employee. Maybe they need to see if the company has another size or color in the back. When we’re ready, we reach out, but in many cases, we’d rather do it ourselves. 

I think this whole seller-free trend has really been expedited quite a bit. It’s online calculators, self-scheduling tools, self-selection tools and configurators.

We’re giving power to the customers, which is a good thing — and long overdue. 

🔎Related: Virtual sales can work in any industry

How to truly know your marketing is relevant

John: How can a business be sure that its marketing is still relevant in 2021? Are there certain metrics you should pay particular attention to?

Marcus: I would say this: if your sales cycle hasn't shortened significantly in the last five years, that's a clear sign that you're off track. 

Buyers want buyer-based marketing. They Ask, You Answer should shorten the sales cycle; it should shorten that period of time between when you know a prospect exists and the point where they give you money. 

If five years ago, your average sales cycle was six months, and today it's still six months, you absolutely have a marketing problem. You have a sales problem, too.

I bet you 99.9% of companies have no idea what their sales cycle length or length to close is today versus five years ago.

In conjunction with that, we should be modifying the way we understand closing rates.

A 50% closing rate 20 years ago isn't the same as a 50% closing rate today because of how much more ready to buy prospects are when they reach out to sales. 

20 years ago, if they're 30% through the buyer's journey and you close 50% of deals, you're a pretty good salesperson. 

Today, they're 80% through the buying journey by the time you speak with them. So, if your closing rate is 50%, it's not something to really brag about. 

So today, your closing rates should be steadily increasing and your sales cycle should be getting shorter. 

And so closing rates should consistently be going up today. The cycles should be shorter. 

🔎Related: 6 reasons your virtual sales training was a flop

John: How do you use marketing to solve for those numbers?

Marcus: I would use this general litmus test: Is every question a buyer wants to ask answered on your website? That’s the basis of They Ask, You Answer. 

But secondly, is every action they would like to take available on your website? 

Companies struggle with that, sometimes, because they don't actually know how their buyers think. But I can sum it up like this: real time answers in real time action

If I want to talk to a sales rep, I want to do that now in real time. If I want to buy a product, I want to do that now in real time. If I want to get a quote, I want to do that now in real time. If I want to learn this particular thing, I want to do that now in real time. 

The impatience of the buyer has never been higher. COVID has prompted them to be more and more aware of their options. Buyers see certain businesses doing things that make them say, Wow, I love that — why doesn’t every business offer that? 

🔎Related: My best sales reps have not hit their numbers all year — What do I do?

Best advice for 2021

John: What's your single biggest piece of advice for businesses in 2021?

Marcus: Single biggest piece of advice for businesses in 2021 from a marketing standpoint is this: Make it easier to buy from you right now. Sell to people the way they want to buy. 

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