A Sales Kick-Off meeting (SKO) is a huge investment for any company gathering more than 100 sellers in one place to gear up for a new year. In our experience participating in myriads of SKOs, we have seen an unfortunate disconnect between what companies think they’re delivering versus what their sales teams are actually taking away. While companies leave their SKOs believing their sellers are energized and educated, attendees often view the experience as a three-day string of mundane sessions, offering little or no tangible takeaways to use in their sales activities going forward.
What are the elements that make a great Sales Kick-Off meeting and what are the pitfalls to avoid?
Must-Have Elements for a Successful SKO
In my view, an effective SKO includes 5 key elements:
- A motivational theme linked to current goals and objectives
- An inspirational opening by a senior leader
- An agenda focused on learning and community
- Supporting technology that drives efficiency and engagement
- The discipline to know when enough is enough
A motivational theme linked to current goals and objectives
The theme for your SKO should be motivational -- something that people (from senior-most executives to sales reps) can rally around leading up to, during, and following the event. An effective theme will be one that attendees will remember months, even years after the experience.
Key things to consider when creating a theme:
- Keep it relevant and focused on what the company or sales team is facing in the market today
- Solicit input from employees for theme ideas to get people excited and invested in the process before arrival
- Avoid a “flavor of the day” approach with management fads or sales books and methodologies
- Consider creative or brainstorming techniques like “word storms” or mood boards to get the ideas flowing
- Resist the urge to create a clever tag line that looks good on t-shirts and goody bags but doesn’t have business relevance
- Identify linkages between your theme and the skills, products/services, and team goals you'll be discussing at the SKO
- Make sure every presenter on your agenda is aware of the theme and the motivation behind it and reinforces it during his/her session
An inspirational opening by a senior leader
The “kick-off for your Sales Kick-Off” is critical to set the tone, energy and strategic focus for your meeting. Carefully select a senior leader and have him/her open with a State of the Union presentation that is motivational, yet accessible. In other words, the executive should connect the dots between strategy and direction and what it means to sellers.
Key things to consider for your SKO opening presentation:
- Include state of the market, your company’s position, where you’ve been, and imperatives for the upcoming year
- Reinforce the theme of your SKO multiple times in the presentation
- Celebrate wins and successes from the previous year, including call-outs to key contributors
- Bridge team goals and initiatives for the new year to company goals
- Acknowledge the elephant in the room – if there is a concern that is top of mind for sellers, address it head-on, then move on with the agenda
- Include a challenge to the team to understand and execute on initiatives
An agenda focused on learning and community
The best SKO meetings offer an agenda that both teaches and engages the audience. Sales people love to engage by nature -- let your agenda and presenters inspire participants to share ideas and learn from each other.
Key things to consider for your SKO agenda:
- Focus your agenda on more engagement and less talking “at” participants
- Incorporate a balance of strategy/planning, process and tools, skill-building, and industry/product education
- Carefully select representatives from Product, Marketing and other key organizations who are engaging and comfortable speaking in front of crowds
- Partner with learning and development experts to sharpen messages and approaches and to get participants to engage
- Offer plenty of ways for people to collaborate during the meeting through topic-specific breakouts or round table exercises
- Build in opportunities to allow sellers to share "tales from the field"
- Invite a client to speak at your SKO and reinforce your themes – this is guaranteed to wake up salespeople
- Consider break-out session for managers only to discuss how to coach and lead to meet the coming year's priorities
- Since salespeople seldom get to the “home office,” consider bringing the “home office” to the meeting by setting up an IT help desk for face-to-face support, or bringing key sales support staff to allow salespeople to put names and faces to people they’ve only heard over the phone
- Build in plenty of breaks (and don’t be afraid to make them long) to allow sellers to re-charge and catch up on business
Supporting technology that drives efficiency and engagement
While it will require IT resources and advanced planning, take advantage of the technology available today to add interactivity, social elements, feedback, and efficiency to your Sales Kick-Off.
Ideas for leveraging technology at your SKO:
- Go paperless and allow attendees to access workshop materials from their notebooks or laptops
- Use mobile apps for agendas, maps, room numbers, logistics, and event sign-up
- Offer audience polls to quickly gather reactions and opinions, then display results to allow attendees to “read the room”
- Accelerate feedback cycles from small group sessions by networking devices together – this allows organizers to quickly gather responses, identify key themes and ideas and present them back to the room for further discussion
- Create an SKO DropBox or other web-based folder to upload all presentation material for attendees to reference later
- Make things fun, by allowing people to post comments, upload photos and continue conversations even after the meeting is done
The discipline to know when enough is enough
The adult brain and body can only take so much. Three full-day meetings with evening social events can push many beyond their useful limits. More is not always better when it comes to SKO content, sessions, and events. It is ok (and desirable) to plan a bit less and build in more free time into the agenda. People will appreciate it, especially sales reps with customers to call back.
Ways to put limits on your agenda and expectations:
- Keep sessions to a manageable length and offer additional content for those attendees who want to take a deeper dive after the session (see technology tips above)
- Take Q&A off line by collecting questions during the session (see technology tips above) and having presenters address most of them after the meeting via email or text message
- Don’t be afraid to end agendas at 4:00, followed by a simple evening event or free time
- Close the evening events at a sensible hour. Happy hours, a welcome reception, or send-off banquet are all good, but end them at 10:00 pm, have your executives and senior leaders turn in for the night, and whatever the rest decide to do afterwards was their own fault.
Pitfalls to Avoid
Now that we’ve provided the “Do’s” for Sales Kick-Off Meetings, below are some “Don’ts” and anecdotes based on a host of meetings I’ve seen that were less effective, though often entertaining:
- Don't bore attendees with long general sessions full of Executive “talking heads”. People are not all that interested in restructurings, new departments, and every new corporate initiative. These sessions are only made worse when Executives decide to wheel out stools and a couch on stage to make the session look like a talk show.
- Don’t bring in a keynote speaker with no relevance at all. While it may be awesome that you attracted a 1988 Olympic Gold Medal ski jumper or a trekker who scaled a treacherous mountain with a butter knife, people do not see the point. Stick to your theme, engage a speaker’s bureau and select wisely… Or do not select at all.
- Don’t include off-site activities that require buses, passes, lines and late returns. Yes, it would be cool to rent a whole theater and hire Kool and the Gang. But shuttling people around is exhausting and only makes for higher cost and a late night. Save the time and expense and offer events that give people a chance to talk to one another, catch-up, and avoid screaming over thumping music.
- Don’t pick Las Vegas (or other "party" locations). While it sounds awesome, it is almost always a mistake. Your people will be utterly useless in workshops, show up late, party all night, win or lose money, get in relationship trouble… and your meeting will invariably blow the budget. Let them go to Vegas on their own dime and steer clear of Sin City.
- Don’t splurge on extravagant productions. Yes, indoor fireworks and tigers riding mini-scooters are really cool. It’s what we do at the circus, not the 2017 SKO focused on market growth and product innovation. You don’t need a stage big enough for KISS with a laser show in between speakers. Keep it simple instead.
I hope the Do’s and Don’ts above provide some added perspective as you plan and execute your SKO. At the end of the day, success for your SKO means that attendees were highly engaged and they went home with new knowledge and motivation for a great year. Here’s to a successful SKO for your organization and prosperous New Year.