It’s that time of year for many sales leaders -- time to gear up for the annual sales kickoff meeting. Is this a dreaded or anticipated task at your organization?
Knowing the opportunity costs of pulling your reps out of the field and the expectation of value that comes with that, we’ve rounded up perspectives on what makes a great SKO from twelve sales leaders, sellers, and executives from marketing, product, learning and development, and outside consultants.
We asked each about an essential ingredient or a highly effective agenda item they have seen work well based on their experience. Thank you to our colleagues who contributed their insights!
Doug Cullen, SVP, Global Head of DataSite, Merrill Corporation
“Focus on collaboration and networking top to bottom.”
Doug generally thinks that organizations try to accomplish too much in Sales meetings with corporate, product, or training objectives and as such, miss out on opportunities for intra-team collaboration.
“To me, the best events are those that foster sales team collaboration and networking from top to bottom,” Doug says. He notes the importance of this with global organizations with multiple business units. “I see major impact when Joe from Chicago actually meets Jaime from London. When they put a face to a name, they are more likely to pick up the phone and collaborate on a deal, or fundamentally feel better about each other. Much is made of networking outside the organization, but sometimes the networking inside the org -- particularly for large companies like ours -- can be more valuable. It may be a bit contrarian, but I love just seeing the team interact and get to know each other on all levels.”
Justin Honaman, Managing Director, Products / Digital Technology Advisory, Accenture
“Start with energy, maximize interactions, and maintain vision.”
Regarding energy, Justin says, “It’s all about energy. Start with energy, the meeting gets started on the right foot. Start with 54 slides and a low-energy leader, and you set the wrong tone.”
On maximizing interaction, Justin notes that “sales people are ‘people persons’ who value interactions over ‘watch-and-learn’. Get them talking, get them into break-outs, set the room in round tables vs. rows, give them discussion topics. If you want to win with sales people, you must think, act, operate and lead like sales people!”
On establishing vision, Justin adds “If there is no clear vision, your people have no idea what they are trying to help achieve. Vision must be portable, repeated, and integrated into the sales culture. Use the sales kickoff to set a vision that is aspirational - then repeat it, link it, and reward based on it.”
Noah Wasmer, General Manager, Major Enterprise Software Company
“For teams focused on large, complex deals, sales meetings can be used to drive clarity around value selling.”
Having led multiple teams in enterprise software addressing a variety of customer pains, Noah appreciates sales meetings that challenge sellers to think beyond the transaction. Specifically, he talks about “tangible proof points and messaging on value to the customer -- how your solution can reduce costs, drive productivity, increase security, etc.”
Says Noah, “Product, marketing, and sales leaders can and should coordinate on value selling best practices and bring together competitive data, product differentiation, and how to effectively close deals by assessing the players involved.” He adds, “A practical focus on execution in a fast-paced market is also a great topic for sales meetings.”
Tom Martin, Sales Consultant, former President, North America for Miller Heiman, Inc., current Advisory Board Member for Symmetrics Group
“Connect your sales kickoff to your sales strategy and don’t pack in too much content.”
On connecting SKOs to sales strategy, Tom notes, “Too many SKO agendas are filled with multiple product launch trainings or sales ops snippets that don’t connect to the new sales strategy. Most organizations do annual planning and come up with their 2 or 3 ‘big rocks’… So, if ‘Drive New Logo’s’ is a top strategy, then SKO agenda shouldn’t be more heavily weighted to ‘Land & Expand’ concepts.” Tom adds that SKOs should be treated as a “means to the end, not the end itself.” So, you should kick off product training at your SKO to support a central strategy, but it needs to be reinforced and sustained throughout the year.
On presenting a manageable amount of content, Tom says “Recognize that 10 pounds of content can’t fit into a 2 pound SKO. Focus on the few critical items that should be part of the agenda, and don’t give in to the siren call of ‘It’s the only time we have the whole team together, so we must talk XYZ.’”
Mike Morris, Global Development Manager, Boston Scientific
“Take the routine out of your sales meetings. Dare to try something different.”
Mike has run a sales meeting twice a year for the last few years for roughly 100 sales leaders at Boston Scientific. After observing that the agendas were starting to look the same from meeting to meeting with slight variations, Mike sought to “shake things up” by opening a recent meeting differently. “Rather than the standard opening by senior sales leadership, we had an outside vendor kick off with an interactive session on collaboration, courage, and communication. It was very well received and created a tone and positive energy for the remainder of the sessions that was different from any previous meeting.”
The meeting received the highest ratings of any Mike had managed. He adds, “It has set a high bar for us to continue to try new things. Success or failure, you have to be willing to try new things to take the routine out of these meetings.”
Trip Eberhart, Group Director, Customer Solutions at The Coca-Cola Company
“Bring an element of surprise to your meeting.”
Similar to Mike Morris’ comments about breaking from the norm, Trip notes that adding an element of surprise can capture attention amongst attendees: “If you bring in a guest speaker, reveal a new product, or announce a business move, these can work to drive immediate engagement in the meeting, so that you can accomplish the additional objectives you set out for the remainder of the meeting.”
Alexandra Gobbi, Chief Marketing Officer, SecureWorks
“Support a single theme or mantra for the year, invite clients to participate, and use mixed formats and interactivity rather than presentations.”
Alex offers the marketing leader view on sales kickoff meetings. She is a believer in defining a single theme or mantra that both sales and marketing teams can embrace and support for the year, and weaving that theme throughout the event.
As far as client perspective, she is a fan of client panels (with plenty of time for Q&A) to offer a range of perspectives on their experience with your solution and impact on their business. A market analyst can also offer outside perspective to your sellers (where applicable) to speak broadly about trends impacting your customers. Panels and other sessions should foster interactivity with and amongst attendees and use mixed formats rather than a string of PowerPoints.
David Fulham, Sr. Director, Global Business Operations, Viavi Solutions
"Sometimes, kickoffs need to be high on inspiration and lite on information."
David makes the important point that, depending on the phase or cycle a company is experiencing, your kickoff's focus needs to adjust accordingly. He notes, "Sometimes the impact on energizing the team and/or re-defining the sales culture, is more important than the typical agenda of training sessions and compensation." In a previous role, David's company had gone through a lot of changes in management, and were launching a cloud technology offering. Instead of focusing the kick off on intensive training, company leadership made a conscious decision to gear the global kick off toward getting the team energized and inspired about the future of the company.
Alanna Mahone, Vice President, Human Resources, Mansfield Oil Company
“Challenge how people think about their business and customers. . . within reason.”
Alanna appreciates how sales meetings and team meetings in general allow people to look at dynamics and trends in their business more broadly. “I like it when these meetings challenge my thinking on a particular subject. For example, highlighting how customers behave differently in the digital age. One trend that has been eye opening for me in the last several years is the expectation that B-to-B companies provide the same level interaction and customer experience that consumers have come to expect in the B-to-C space. That might work for companies in the software business, but for the rest of us, that is an expensive proposition.”
Bryan Lowry, Inbound Growth Specialist at HubSpot
“Invite a customer to share why they bought from you. Celebrate and encourage excellence with President’s Club and incentives.”
Offering the sales rep’s perspective, Bryan Lowry of HubSpot values customer participation in sales kickoffs the most. “It’s great to hear first-hand the value our solution brings to them and why they chose us. As sellers, we can then relay these learnings into our sales process and buyer conversations.” Bryan also finds President’s Club and other incentives at sales meetings a “huge motivator”.
We agree with Bryan about customer participation, especially if the customer can talk about how they view value, differentiation, and your sales process. And, if they are willing to openly share how they viewed your competitors and constructive feedback on how you can improve, that’s even better.
Chris Stein, Sales Enablement Leader, Equifax
"Sweat the details -- Ensure your presenters are prepped and screen content for relevance and impact."
Chris emphasizes the importance of tailoring content to the audience. "Ensure your presenters are well prepared and know the audience," says Chris. "This seems very basic, but if you don’t have someone on the planning team who acts as a 'screener' to ensure the content will resonate, you run the risk of having presenters who miss the mark, which makes attendees feel like their time is wasted." For Q&A with mainstage presenters, organizers can consider lining up “plants” with prepared questions to avoid awkward silence. Chris also suggests limiting the "inform/update" content and find other venues for relaying information.
Warren Shiver, Founder and Managing Partner at Symmetrics Group
“Book a debrief session with participating leaders at the close of your kickoff session to discuss how you all will reinforce themes and takeaways.”
Our own Warren Shiver provides a final comment on the importance of recapping with key participating leaders immediately following the meeting to discuss the “so what”. Rather than a giving each other a pat on the back and a 'check in the check box', leaders need to discuss key objectives and takeaways for the sales team and put a specific action plan together for each leader to reinforce what was learned and expected amongst the sales team throughout the year.
“This meeting can also serve as a valuable post-mortem to identify successes and opportunities to do things differently next year,” says Warren. “Capture these insights while the experience is still fresh in everyone’s minds.”
Interested in other SKO tips? See our blog 5 Must Haves to Nail Your Sales Kickoff Meeting.