If you hang in a professional sales, consulting or sales leadership role long enough you will spend a few weeks of your life at the ANNUAL SALES MEETING. You know, the ones with clever themes that are going to make you feel like changing the world: “Aim Higher,” “Deliver,” “Innovate and Motivate,” “All Together,” “Amp it Up.” I could go on forever about the time and money companies spend to differentiate their yearly sales rendezvous - I have the t-shirts, water bottles, bag tags and pens to prove it - but at the end of the day, these meetings share a common purpose that usually boils down to a combination of the following:
- Recognition and Rewards
- Product/Service Training
- Sales Training
- Corporate Communications
Over the last 25 years I have attended hundreds of annual sales meetings as a participant, leader, trainer or speaker. With attendees’ ages now ranging from early 20’s to late 50’s, there is no question that our approach must change as we think about how to maximize our investment in these meetings. One critical piece required to secure a strong return on investment is understanding how Millennials interact, socialize and bond in this type of professional environment.
A recent sales meeting I attended drove this lesson home. I was in NYC (Jersey City, to be exact) where we held roughly 100 attendees captive for three days. The attendees ranged from age 25 to 60 and represented a variety of roles and levels that all worked together within one sales organization. The company was in IT Outsourcing and employed a really smart and diverse group of people that served large well-known clients. We deployed a “Way of Sales” program and supporting skill-based training that was designed to drive their strategy for the remainder of the calendar year.
The company’s Leadership Team consisted of mostly Gen Xer’s, people age 39 to 50. We have all been to enough sales meetings in our lives to know that 8:30 am comes fast when you party until 3:00 am… or later. In fact, at age 48 I would be in a coma if I stayed out until 3:00 am and had to show up at 8:30 am. The Leadership Team also recognized that this combo no longer works well for folks their age, so naturally they started a pool to bet on who would arrive late, or worse be a no-show, on the final day.
I got in on the fun since dinner the night before got a tad wild. The loud tables, rounds of shots and bar games left us wondering if an open bar leading up to the final day was a bad idea. I indisputably observed that the “adults” were all sitting together, allowing the “kids” to have their fun. While the open bar was a hoot I had to work the next day so I made a quick escape and headed back to the hotel to call my wife and say good night by 9:00 pm. I know - old man!
The next morning when I arrived to the classroom I found a participant sleeping in the same chair that he used the day before. Yes, the same chair in the class. He decided it was just easier to sleep there than returning to the hotel at 4:30 am. Of course, he was in his early 30’s and was ready to roll so he did not get called out for being late. However, to my surprise, not only did every one of the Millennials who were included in the anticipated pool of “no-shows” actually show up, but they showed up EARLY! This was despite a late night trip into Manhattan, which resulted in their return to the hotel at about 4:30 am. Ouch.
Although this group of attendees was a little roughed up, they delivered, participated and by mid-morning were 100% in the game. They can do this! Our “older” mindset has to let it go. I realized they still have the ability to survive the “work hard, play hard” mentality and spending too much energy telling them what not to do while at the company meeting is a lost cause. Put another way - they will not want to stay at your company if you do not let them be the people they want to be.
Over time I have realized there are a few things we must accept when we have large sales meetings with attendees age 20 to 36:
- They will travel in a pack. They are going to find ways to sit or mingle together. Providing opportunities to interact with more experienced colleagues is a good idea but do not expect them to engage with more experienced colleagues as if they were the wise fountains of knowledge.
- They need activities. Your training better include activities, not just slides and lecture, or they will do what they do best – look at another screen and tune you out.
- They can still party like it’s 1999. They will burn the clock and all of the efforts you put in to telling them that it is not right to party at a company event. Move on and explain the consequences of missing a meeting. They control their destiny.
- We should mix up the groups. Encourage more experienced sales reps to work with the younger team members. The best way for experienced reps to re-learn something is for them to teach it to someone else. The less experienced reps will be genuinely interested in learning what works from someone who knows the ropes.
Last, and probably most importantly, we should learn to laugh at it all. I will never forget the Senior Leadership Team member who stormed into the hotel at 8:00 am pounding on the doors of his direct reports. He gave them advance warning that he would come knocking and they better be ready to go. These are not the sales meetings of the 90’s anymore - well actually they are, we are just older now.