COVID-19 and the Future of American Business for 2020 and Beyond
The year 2020 will forever be marked by an unforeseen lesson in vision. We didn’t see it coming, but we all must now recognize where the lesson is leading us. And we, the business and organizational leaders, are obligated to confidently embrace this time for improvement. We must be creative, innovative, and progressive in offering improved employee and customer experiences, more successful business strategies, far more efficient operations, and stronger local, national, and global economies.
Some businesses are healthy and thriving, while countless others will never reopen. Some workers are lamenting their return to the office, while others enthusiastically prepare for a new normal. We, the business leadership community, need to acknowledge the facts of what was, what is, and the future we need to create. Leaders are challenged to set new standards that focus on people at every level, that serves every investor, employee, and customer, and delivers excellence at every product and service interaction.
The American experience has always been fraught with the tension between bold individualism and entrepreneurship and the establishing of a national community to ensure a common good. The interplay between government, business, education, and non-profits is a hallmark of our American economy.
Today, the CEOs of America, small business leaders in every state and entrepreneurs in every community have a new responsibility. 2020 marks the year in which we, the business leadership community, must provide a new vision for the American economy and confidently carve our own path in this new adventure that none of us could have foreseen.
The starting point is innovation of service to employees and customers. How do we serve a marketplace full of new demands with increased technological engagement and exacting expectations of convenience and safety? Our lives and our businesses are being largely remade by this global pandemic which has impacted our businesses, families, employees, customers, and other stakeholders. We can cooperate, compete, and improve. To that end we have diligently gathered a wealth of wisdom and insights from our contemporaries—CEOs and leaders from around the country— who are sharing their understanding of this sea change that is the intersection of commerce, customers, convenience, and caution. Additionally, we have scoured numerous articles, essays, and briefs being drafted in response to this ever-changing time. We have prepared this paper which we hope will guide us all toward quicker success in the coming months, years, and decades.
This paper is crafted for the great leaders we need during this critical time. Leaders need insights, understanding, and strategies for the future. We are in a time of great challenge and transition. The current global pandemic is forcing companies, organizations, and leaders in all areas to move in new directions toward new goals. Some businesses will collapse. Some will thrive. There is no question that all businesses will be different.
It is our desire to provide leaders with ideas and realities in six fundamental areas that will determine future success. We outline some of the most significant challenges CEOs are facing today, including relating to the health of their workers and customers, ensuring the continuity of business operations and distribution channels, adopting new technologies and processes, and adapting business strategies to a new and evolving marketplace.
This paper also shares insights and ideas on how to successfully emerge from this crisis. We present various strategies and solutions to aid you in navigating the changes from unprecedented work stoppages, lack of consumer confidence and spending, new legal requirements and limitations, and ever-changing work from home (WFH) expectations.
The most successful businesses are those that are able to pivot quickly, adapt to new technologies, and lead their people through necessary transitions. Some organizations will not be able to adjust to these new realities brought about by this pandemic, and sadly, they will risk closing. Organizations willing to move quickly, think strategically, and find new opportunities will capitalize on a new talent pool, new resources, and fewer barriers to entry.
The four of us hope these insights help!
Sales funnels, CRMs, cold-calling, industry conferences, trade shows, air travel, and site visits are all here to stay. They are just going to play a different role going forward. Business leaders and consumers have retracted their behavior and spending, and many are just trying to survive. Customers know how to get the information they need and business leaders trust their instincts and skills to solve their own problems. People, now more than ever, can become pseudo-experts overnight and the belief of not wanting “to be sold” has never been higher. Rather they want help discovering something they would have found on their own, just more quickly. This means the role of sales and marketing has never been more important to be able to break through to the customer.
The growth in computer technology, online resources, social media, mobile devices, and AI has created more ways to interact with customers. Even more significant is the way customers inform and influence each other. Protecting your image has never been greater and at the same time never been harder.
Challenge: Assessing Customer Strength
Customers evolved during COVID-19. Leaders need to determine how they changed. Do they still need your solution and the value you provide or has their world changed and they need something different?
Opportunity: Every customer who has gone through this COVID-19 season has either positioned themselves to take advantage of this new norm or retreated into their old ways and regressed. Few will stay the same. This change is revealing new challenges to your customers; these new challenges for them are new opportunities for you.
It’s important that leaders reach out to current customers immediately. Do not take long-standing customers for granted because in times of stress, loyal vendor/supplier relationships will take a back seat to price and value pressures. As a leader, you have an opportunity to reach out to existing customers and discuss their new needs, and how your company can provide new value.
Solution: The easier path to revenue almost always includes current customers. Examine each of your customers and identify their strengths and weaknesses. Call them and inquire about their plans to emerge successfully and work together to identify where your business relationship can grow. The more you know your customers (and your competition), the better you will be able to grow your business. Additionally, this customer research will also assist you in casting vision and strategies for the coming months and years.
Is your client a larger organization with multiple divisions? Use web research to find out the job title and the corresponding prospect’s name within another division that could benefit from your solution. Ask your existing customer to make an introduction.
Challenge: Understanding New Competition, Technology, and changing Marketplace
Just as you are pivoting your business to maximize opportunities within your markets, you need to realize that your existing competition is doing the same, and that other companies that might have never been in your industry are leveraging their assets to potentially venture into your world.
Opportunity: People like to discover new things. Your people are naturally curious and are the best resource to help you learn. One CEO mentioned that some of the best observations and insights come from their customer support team who learn from callers what is occurring in the industry.
Leaders must ensure that neither you nor anyone in your organization becomes complacent. Your complacency is another firm’s opportunity. It’s imperative that you involve yourself in association conferences (virtual today, in-person tomorrow) industry reading, and follow industry experts on social media. Encourage your management team and all employees to some degree to do the same.
Create a culture where competitive discovery is encouraged and rewarded. Regularly discuss the competition’s activities, marketing, pricing, etc. in staff meetings. Remember, very intelligent people may have been let go from their organizations and they now have discovered that they can take their great ideas and create their own companies and reap their own rewards. So it’s not only your past competitors that need to be monitored rather, you need to keep a close eye out for new innovations and new companies as well.
Solution: Ensure that each employee understands that they are a valuable part of the decision making process. Their role is to help by listening to customers, observing competitors, and sharing their important discoveries with peers and leadership as often as possible.
Implement an educational awareness program whereby employees are encouraged to read industry publications, attend industry programs, and talk to current customers to discover something, anything, that is new and pertinent. Take this approach with everything you need to learn—industry news, customer behavior, competitor activity, marketing trends, technology breakthroughs, government legislation, etc. Do not leave competitive research to chance.
Challenge: Reinventing Outdated Sales and Marketing Strategies and Processes
Sales and marketing strategies are not immune to the changes that have occurred in all areas of business. What once worked may not any longer. Other than for brand-building purposes, mass marketing is becoming much less effective. Today, buyers expect highly relevant and highly personalized messaging both in marketing and sales. Bottom line: your buyers are too busy for irrelevance.
Opportunity: COVID-19 certainly pushed more companies and people to sales automation where buyers use machine-learning and artificial intelligence to determine solutions. There is no question that "sales and marketing robots" will continue to improve and there will be a time when buyers will be able to "converse" with an AI-powered online sales robot which will guide the buyer to exactly the needed solutions.
However, anyone who has shopped for any complex product or solution – from a computer on Amazon to business insurance products – understands the frustration of trying to find a solution online with no human involvement. What a human could recommend in minutes too often takes hours of searching seemingly endless product options, and reviews that are too often difficult to determine if they are legitimate and valid.
All of that is a long way of saying that marketing and sales is as important as ever in the COVID-19 and post-COVID-19 age. People have always bought from people, and that desire for personal interaction and trust and confidence will never go away. You are in business because you provide something useful, meaningful, or even trivial (pet rocks come to mind) that people need or want. You opened your doors because you are confident that you can solve a problem. People will always have needs, and as business leaders, it is your pleasure to solve those needs. Yet the role of both marketing and sales professionals has changed.
The role of trade shows, on-site sales calls, and other high touch sales activities have been stopped and how they return will vary by industry and geography. This is forcing both sales and marketing to shift significant resources to other methods to sustain sales.
In most cases, irrelevant and impersonal marketing and selling is over. While there will, of course, continue to be mass marketing and brand-building, when it comes to more direct marketing—direct mail, email, social media advertising, etc.—there is less of a willingness to accept irrelevance.
The same is true in sales. While there will most likely always be cold-calling, mass email messaging, and automated social media connection and communication campaigns, buyers are less patient with irrelevance when it comes to sales messaging.
Leaders who understand this dynamic are the ones who will thrive moving forward. Marketing and sales must both be more relevant with messaging tailored to the unique needs of each buyer segment, and when possible, each unique buyer. Relevant value is the phrase that should be in the minds of every leader when thinking about marketing and sales strategies.
Solution: Adapt new ways of identifying preferred prospects. Gather information and focus on prospects where you know something pertinent about their business and you know your message and offerings will help them succeed.
It may be old school, but now is a great time to conduct a SWOT Analysis (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, and Threats) and determine how your solutions solve the unique challenges of each defined target. Where, in the past, leaders may have conducted a SWOT that "bundled" clients into one segment, now is the time to assess your SWOT based on each defined target audience—each “best customer” profile— to help determine where your unique value and offerings are aligned with each target’s needs.
Look for ways to make your marketing personal, relevant, and more educational. Content marketing is the new king whereby companies use video and written content that describes in greater detail the benefits a buyer has with a specific solution or company. Why? Because content marketing is searchable and more and more, buyers will seek out a solution versus waiting to have one pushed upon them.
Content marketing is more than making sure your website is optimized, more than creating blog posts, more than posting on social media, and more than engaging public relations firms to pitch stories to traditional and new media. Content marketing can now even include purchasing space in traditional and online publications – much like one can with an ad – however, now what is purchased is the opportunity to provide an educational piece of content, that weaves in a company’s key solution messages as part of the overall story.
Leaders must keep the sales funnel flowing but prospecting will no longer be a numbers game. It is more effective to make 100 relevant and personalized sales calls (or emails or social media connections) to the right audiences based on activity related to the prospect’s world—versus 1,000 phone calls with an irrelevant message that will be quickly dismissed by most. It’s imperative that leaders apply decision-making resources to pre-qualify leads based on defined and measurable criteria, and that sales teams then target those opportunities with relevant messages.
Stop talking about you. Make your customers the hero in their own story where they are solving problems. This will ensure that every sales call is relevant and meaningful. Invest in sales technology that helps you determine when a buyer might be interested in hearing your message. The key phrase going forward as it relates to sales should be: "find the right prospect, at the right time, with the right message." Who do you want to contact? Why do they want to hear from you today? How are you going to ensure your message is relevant to what they care about?
Don’t rely on your CRM system to be your sales person. CEOs are realizing, especially in the midst of success and complacency, that their companies are great at customer management but they are lacking in their relationships. Identify meaningful relationships and care for them as people, not revenue opportunities.
Challenge: Reinventing Personal Selling in a Social Distancing and WFH environment
For many companies, prospecting, relationships building, and selling occurred in one-on-one meetings, one to many presentations, at conferences, during trade shows, and at large and small events. Those days are gone for the short-term, and most likely are changed forever long-term.
Opportunity: Even when travel gets closer to pre-COVID-19 levels, business travel will most likely never be the same. For many organizations, gone are the days of getting on a plane for a one client meeting and returning home the next morning. It might be a while before very large trade shows and conferences return, and it’s likely that when they do, companies will not invest the same amount resources in in-person networking as they did before.
Why? During COVID-19, virtually the entire business world quickly embraced video conferencing as the new norm. While there is nothing in business quite like a handshake, even the most aged and wise among us are now part of the “Zoom, Google, BlueJeans, Skype, WebEx, and GoToMeeting” party. More and more people are “online for business” than ever before and where once technology was a barrier to an effective meeting, now everything from one-on-one product demos to trade shows and industry events are being conducted virtually. With virtual meetings, key customer personnel can participate regardless of location. It’s easy to white-board ideas online, and engage all participants. Plus, you can record your online meetings (with participant agreement) and share the recordings, or even have the information easily transcribed, shared, and even input into a CRM system.
Leaders that embrace this new sales and marketing reality will be ones who will win.
Solution: Shift your marketing and sales budget from trade shows, travel, collateral, and site visits to on-line activity that will drive more visibility and engagement. Companies that are already focusing on and measuring SEO, social media activity, analytics, and pay-per click advertising, and geofencing will all succeed more quickly. This social convention is not going away and this is a great time for anyone, especially the first-timers, to jump into the fray.
Now is the time to ensure you can achieve 100% of your sales objectives via inside sales techniques this includes the lead generation process. Trade shows and events should not be factored into the business plan for 2021. Pushing the organization to an inside sales approach without trade shows will allow for the development of a more cost-effective plan lowering your cost of customer acquisition.
With the same budget, leaders can now possibly hire additional talent versus spending inordinate amounts of money on travel. Plus, we are only at the beginning of what technology will bring to the sales process. In the near future, it’s plausible the virtual meetings will advance to being virtual 3D programs, where buyers and sellers wear headsets that make all participants feel they are in the same room together. While still many years off, those sorts of advancements that may have been scoffed at in the past are now real possibilities, because everyone has embraced a new normal of virtual meetings. Now that the emotional barriers have been broken, the cost barrier of technology will certainly be solved. The end result will be a lower cost of customer acquisition.
Leaders need to embrace this change, and stay abreast of best practices and adopt technology to ensure that marketing messages are personalized, relevant, and timely.
Challenge: Determining Pricing and Discount Strategies
COVID-19 caused many buyers to search for lowest prices, and/or ask existing suppliers for lower prices and better terms. While sellers assumed that when the crisis was over, pricing and terms would return to normal, a more likely scenario is that buyers expect the pricing and terms they received during the crisis to become the new normal.
Opportunity: Consumers, small businesses, and large companies are all price sensitive for different reasons. The recent turmoil in markets, job losses, and business models have customers searching to arrive at a new normal. This provides every company the opportunity to assess their pricing strategy to ensure both customer satisfaction and company profitability.
Solution: It is easy to believe volume shortfalls can be overcome by price reductions, but short-term volume gains rarely translate into long-term share gain. Assessing pricing is a critical task of leadership that needs to be conducted annually, monthly, weekly, and in some cases (such as in the travel and hospitality sectors) daily.
Yes, it is advisable to discount as needed to give yourself a new reason to talk to your customers. Additionally, discounts help mediate the perceived risk of the cost of your value proposition. But do consider variable discount options tied to purchase quantity, delivery restrictions, and inventory type. And whenever possible, be flexible with payment terms instead of pricing discounts.
Revisit the costs related to packaging, guaranteed deliveries, carrying inventory, redundant labor, and inflated departmental budgets.
Eliminate failing products and services if they are not prepared to be a loss leader that drives your long-term success.
At the core of your decisions must be an understanding of whether your value proposition aligns with how decision-makers view and value your products and services.
Challenge: Moving into New Markets
Many businesses have discovered that with slight pivots to their existing model, they can enter into new markets rather quickly.
Opportunity: This crisis is leading to more new ideas, new services, and new products, all of which need a place to go. Consider moving into a new vertical, industry, or geography.
Solution: Review your existing markets and determine if there are other markets that with slight tweaks to your model, you could enter rather quickly.
Before making any move, ensure you know why you’re making the move and the reason you believe you will be successful. Once a move is made it is imperative there are enough resources in place to fully develop the new opportunity, all the while not disrupting your base business.
Know that with any move into a new market there will be unforeseen challenges and costs. You may need to hire talent with expertise in that market. Because you may be starting with no credibility in the new market, your marketing costs may be substantial for the short-term. To get to the new market faster and more efficiently, you may consider purchasing, merging with, or partnering with a company that already has expertise in the new market.
Our current worldwide tragedy is a slog, but it will have another side. And the organizations that thrive will be the ones that don’t rely on top-down management to go forward. It is peer-to-peer leadership and innovation that produces resilience, and leadership that turns any moment into a moment where we can make things better.
Voted one of the Top 15 Business Growth Experts and Top 50 Sales Speakers, Meridith helps leaders develop strategies that turn uncertainty into competitive advantages.
Featured in thousands of publications including Forbes, USA Today, and CNN, Sam is a best-selling author, tech entrepreneur, and expert in sales intelligence and reputation management.
Recognized as one of the top 50 global sales and marketing experts multiple years in a row, Mark has taught in 30 countries on 5 continents and has written two best-selling books.
Mary Kelly, CSP, PHD
An economic leadership advisor, Mary helps leaders strategically plan and make difficult decisions. Author of 13 books, Mary has been cited in Forbes, Success, and 100s of other periodicals.