Well, who’d have picked that? Growth was certain. In January 2020, the International Monitory Fund (IMF) expected global demand to rise from the 2.9% we saw in 2019 to 3.3% in 2021 and 3.4% in 2022. Globalisation was still accepted to be obviously good in most advanced economies. Certainly, the US was heading into a period of uncharacteristic insularity, and the UK was busy extracting itself from Europe. But those shifts were already ‘priced in’, and there was a strong chance that the US would strike a trade deal with China in early 2020.

Fast forward ten months, and we’ll have dropped more than 4% for the full year in 2020 (IMF estimate at the time of writing). 2021 is expected to grow 5.4% off that depleted base. On net, we’re expected to be a long way behind the total output that was expected for 2021 less than a year ago. The trade deal is well and truly off the table, and every advanced economy is working out how to bring its total supply chain back home. Globalisation, partly by necessity and partly by preference, is no longer a priority. Or at least is less so.

As we hunt for the fast-forward button so we can get 2020 behind us, what’s in store for the next couple of years? And what should we, as SME’s, be doing about our sales and marketing plans now to factor these changes in?

Growth plus uncertainty

First, we need to acknowledge the likely change with greater clarity. Certainly, we might expect 2021 and 2022 to pick up on 2020, but will we enjoy all of the recovery + that the IMF is predicting? And will it be even?

With no pretence of clever economic forecasting skills or proprietary insights, there are some probably obvious changes we might expect:

  • Decent growth, but some risks including anti-globalism, an uncertain path for the COVID-19 pandemic, the timing of wide-spread vaccine availability, multiple diplomatic risks, and economic fallout of unemployment and under-employment yet to fully play out
  • Uneven growth, perhaps favouring strong brands and balance sheets
  • Nervousness across the board
  • Radically changed attitudes towards the supply chains for critical goods
  • Willingness to do things very differently
Accelerated change

This last point perhaps deserves an explanation. Again, nothing proprietary here. Of all the COVID/iso memes floating around in 2020, one of the better ones declared that scientists had found that a dog year was not the equivalent to seven human years. The only thing that was seven years was 2020. Changes in work practices that might otherwise have taken years were realised in weeks out of necessity.

Suddenly, we have all worked out that we can work from home. And our staff can, and they don’t need to be closely supervised. Courts that had always insisted on the physical presence of combatants in front of a judge suddenly joined the rest of us on Zoom. In whole cities, the only cars on the road had an Uber sticker. Vans delivered everyone’s groceries, not just the 20-somethings’.

In our own business, workshops for building B2B sales and marketing plans had been designed to harness the cathartic nature of a multi-day workshop. The 2020 version was 100% Zoom, often split into smaller sessions, and global (sans travel). Training likewise shifted from classroom-based to 100% online.

These changes, and many, many more, were always likely to have played out, but over a much longer period. The genie is out of the bottle and the cork’s nowhere to be seen.

A few clear winners

There are clear shifts to our work practices emerging from this. And for some, there are opportunities to help drive these changes. Zoom and Slack will continue to have fun. Vendors of cloud-based software solutions will have an inside run versus their on-premise competitors and their hard-to-dislodge legacy systems. Fin-tech companies are licking their chops.

These windfall opportunities may not exist for all, but the way we plan our sales and marketing will. To make a case for the shape this changed planning will likely take, let me lay out three perhaps-incompatible arguments:

  • Stability and consistency are key in B2B sales and marketing
  • Tactical agility will be key
  • Strategic agility more so
Rhythm and consistency remain key

There are many compelling arguments for tactical stability:

  • Planning well takes time. Flip-flopping on tactics means that we don’t get the chance to amortise this planning cost over a decent period resulting in either a high relative planning ‘overhead’, or rushed planning.
  • The B2B buying cycle is longer than in consumer land. It doesn’t make sense to plan campaigns that last for less time than an average B2B buying cycle.
  • Huge gains are available for marketers when they optimise existing campaigns based on measured performance. If we cut the campaigns short, we lose this optimisation opportunity.
  • B2B buyers, like their B2C counterparts, need to hear message many times and over many channels before they believe them. Flip-flopping on campaigns means confused buyers. I argued for the need for ‘rhythm’ in Double down, go halves, pivot, or panic? Marketing during a crisis.
  • As I argued last month in Building a B2B marketing plan for COVID normal, if we do change strategy, we need to solve the same problem so that both our reputation and our expertise can grow.
Get ready for small changes

With everything changing around us so quickly, the argument for tactical agility is clear. Pivot or perish. Enough said.

Tectonic plates are moving

Larger, more-strategic shifts will also be needed when markets close, trade barriers increase or are opened, governments release new stimulus packages, contracts terminate, or laws change.

A plan for 2021-2

So far, we have an argument for tactical stability, tactical agility, and strategic agility – adapting to more-cathartic shifts. What’s the implication for the way we build B2B sales and marketing plans? There are five:

  • Optimise for customer agility – not just your own. Your customers and prospects are facing the same uncertainty that you are. We need to ruthlessly seek out aspects of our strategies or tactics that require confidence that might be absent for the next couple of years. Large annual commitments might be replaced with monthly commitments, and large up-front programs replaced by multiple smaller programs, for example.
  • Build plans quickly and revisit quarterly. An annual plan refresh might have been OK in the past, but the possibility of tectonic shifts suggest we need a complete reset every quarter. Directionally, if we spend five days of effort building our annual plan over a couple of weeks, we might want to invest one full day every quarter reviewing and adjusting that same plan.
  • Get used to the seeming incongruity of a 3-year plan that might only last a quarter. We still need to plan strategies that last for years and to build campaigns expecting them to sustain for the duration. But we also need to be willing to accept that if something changes, so must we. But if nothing material changes, then we don’t. It may sit uncomfortably – having long-term plans and a frequent review – but we just have to get used to that discomfort.
  • Build your B2B sales and marketing plan together. The need for sales and marketing alignment is greater than ever. If we didn’t have the leaders of Sales and Marketing in the room before, then we were hoping that they’d get their alignment through osmosis. That takes time. We don’t have that luxury now (if we ever did). So, get them in the room together for the plan build, and for the quarterly review.
  • Agree success measures that are both lag and lead indicators. Consider measuring both on the ultimate lag indicator (number of sales at agreed value), as well as key lead indicators like lag (time buyers take to move between stages) and leakage (failure rate between stages). And do all of that by campaign and by lead source, so we know what to dial up and what to turn off.