A conversation with Marcus Sheridan about “They Ask, You Answer,” the content marketing approach that saved his business and catapulted him to search engine royalty
On April 19-21, 2018, ARCSI will host the 2018 ISSA Leadership Summit in Tucson, AZ. The event will feature three high-level business leaders, including international speaker Marcus Sheridan. Marcus’ ground-breaking book They Ask, You Answer was named the #1 Marketing Book to Read in 2017 by Mashable. Cleaning Business Today spoke Marcus earlier this week about his innovative approach to content marketing, which saved his company from bankruptcy and is fueling the marketing strategy of many companies worldwide.
MS: For me, this is the beauty of not littering my mind with marketing speak in college. I owned the swimming pool company River Pools and Spas and was getting ready to file for bankruptcy. Then I turned to the Internet, trying to get my arms around concepts like inbound and content. What I heard was if I just obsessed over my customers’ questions and you’re willing to address them on your website through text and video you just might save your business. So immediately I just garnered this philosophy of “They Ask, You Answer.” I said we’re going to be the best teachers in the world when it comes to fiberglass pools. And as you know, that’s exactly what we became.
CBT: One of the first things you talk about in They Ask, You Answer is a massive buying shift having to do with marketing and sales. In a nutshell, what is that shift?
MS: The reality is that this is the greatest shift that’s happened to business last 100 years. The degree to which the buyer, the consumer, has vetted the business, the product, the service before they actually talked to the business the salesperson and walked through the retail doors is profoundly higher than it was just fifteen or twenty years ago. Fifteen or twenty years ago, buyers were 30% through the buying process when they talked to a salesperson. Today it’s above 70%. And the question is: where is it going to be over the next five, ten, or fifteen years? What does that mean for businesses? It begs a few questions. Number one. Which department of your organization has a greater impact on the actual sale? Is it the sales department or is it the market department? At this point it has to be viewed that the marketing department has a great influence. But when the companies get in financial trouble, the first department was laid off is marketing. When they’re trying to grow the business, the first department that gets hired is sales. So, many are still doing it that way it’s always been done because they don’t realize that today’s buyer has changed. The shift has already occurred.
CBT: How does They Ask You Answer affect sales teams? Can you explain a little bit about assignment selling?
MS: If you ask any salesperson what percentage of the questions you get on the sales appointment are the same questions every time, they’ll say it’s about 80% to 90%. So why do we continue to answer those 80 to 90% on every single sales call? Wouldn’t make more sense for prospects to already know the answers? And not only should they know our answer, but they heard us, they had watched us. And because of that, they respected and trusted us. That’s the idea. So we want to integrate honest transparent content—based on those core buyer questions—into the sales process as quickly as possible, be intentional about it, and by so doing we will greatly shorten the amount of time that we spend with the prospects. We will shorten sales cycle and will increase closing rates. But you have to teach your sales team how to do this. And it has to be the right content. It can’t it can’t be fluffy junk that it’s just, you know, rainbows and flowers. It’s got to be the things clients want to know as soon as you meet, whether it’s a hard question or not. That’s the stuff you need to answer.
CBT: You talk about this principle of disarmament. How are you disarming the client with that knowledge?
MS: Most companies when they are producing content, be it text or video, come across as biased because they don’t explain things from both sides of the coin, and this is a big flaw. If you’re going to say why something is great, you also need to explain who it’s not a good fit for. Or when is it not the best situation to use it. If I am talking about fiberglass pools and somebody says to me, “Marcus, tell me why I should get a fiberglass pool.” I can’t just reply, “Well here’s the obvious reasons.” If I’m going to write that article or produce that video, I’m going to say, “You know, this is one of the questions that we get all the time. You’re probably wondering it, and the fact of the matter is that fiberglass pools aren’t for everybody. They’re not always the best solution. And in this video or article I’m going to explain the pros and cons of both types of pools. And hopefully by the end you’ll decide which is the best choice for you.” Ultimately, what buyers want is to self-select. It’s related to a fascinating trend that’s happening, the trend of “for me”. Online searches with the phrase “for me” have increased 120% the last 2 years. Now, instead of people just searching for “best types of swimming pools,” they’re searching “best types of swimming pools for me.” Every business needs to think about this. Are you giving your buyers the ability to self-select? If not, you need to consider it. Check yourself and say, “Okay, I need to make it more about them.”
CBT: You recommend that a business tries to answer questions in specific categories. You call them the Big 5: Pricing and Costs, Problems, Versus and Comparisons, Reviews, and Best in Class. What makes answering these kinds of questions so important?
MS: This is pretty much the way everybody shops at this point. When you’re thinking about buying something, what are the major things that you want to know? You want to know how much something costs. How is it going to blow up in my face? How does it compare to the other products or services I’m looking at? You want to know what people are saying about it. And you want to know what the “best it” is.
CBT: A lot of companies shy away from talking about price, especially if their product or service is not the least expensive.
MS: Businesses don’t take the time to truly educate the marketplace on why pricing is the way that it is. What happens is because they don’t talk about it, well then naturally the buyer ends up going with the cheapest. And when the buyer is it going to the cheapest–and they’re doing it because of ignorance–like oh gee, workman’s comp actually matters? Because of their ignorance, they choose the cheapest route.
Companies don’t want to talk about price because they fear it will commoditize the product. But their approach ends up having the exact opposite effect of what they intended. Ignorance induces this sense a commodity. When you educate well and really teach the marketplace, now all the sudden people are saying, “I’m not going to go cheapest route because it could blow up my face, and here’s how could blow up in my face, and I’m just not willing to risk it.” This is how businesses need to communicate: they need own what they are, they need to own what they’re not, and they need to be happy to say it.
CBT: Talk a little bit about implementation.
MS: If you want this [They Ask, You Answer] to work within your organization, there are things that you have to do. Number one, give the entire team the “what, how, and why.” They need to see the vision. If they don’t see the vision, you’re going to push back. So you have to take the time to do that, to really teach them. Resistance by your team almost always is a direct result of ignorance. Ignorance is a direct result of the fact that nobody bothered to teach them these things. Once you have by-in, you have to put people in place to own the thing. You can’t just expect digital to happen. You can’t expect social to happen. You can’t just expect articles to be written by themselves if somebody doesn’t own it. If you say, “Well, it would be nice if we did these things,” it doesn’t work. You can’t have an “It would be nice” attitude. Approach it like payroll. It’s what we do, it’s who we are, it’s something that happens automatically every 2 weeks or whatever period. That’s the approach you need. Preferably, you have a content manager. Maybe this person is wearing other hats. I know some companies only have a couple of people on staff, but somebody’s got to be the owner. And as you become a big company you should additionally consider hiring a videographer, because so much of the future relies on video. It’s the way people learn. The way they’re vetting businesses now is a video-based conversation.
You have to get buy-in, you’ve got to get the owner, you have to make it required participation by everybody on the team. And you’ve got to measure it. If you don’t measure digital—you’re producing articles, videos, or just doing the social stuff you put on your website—but if you don’t measure it, you’re going to question whether it’s worthwhile. You don’t want to have that conversation. Instead, not only was it worth it, you’ll know “We generated this much more traffic, this many more leads, this many more sales.” That’s what we’re talking about here.
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Austin Walker is Creative Director for Cleaning Business Today, Cleaning Business Builders, and Castle Keepers House Cleaning. He is a producer, videographer, web designer, and novelist with over 30 years of experience in television, corporate video, and online publishing, Austin worked for four years at CNN and for sixteen years at an ABC affiliate.
Cleaning Business Today is a publication of Tom Stewart and Derek Christian, who also partner in Castle Keepers, one of the fastest growing professional house cleaning services in the US.